State Land Board awards $5 million grant

Members of the Board of University and School Lands, commonly called the Land Board, met and decided to award roughly $5 million Thursday to oil and energy impacted law enforcement agencies in the western third of the state. Since July 2013 the board has awarded about $15.3 million to impacted agencies.

Outside of the oil field, though, an additional $100,000 has been granted to other jursidictions with growing populations.

“These law enforcement funds concentrate on meeting immediate safety needs by putting peace officers on the road, appropriately trained, properly equipped and affordably housed,” said North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem in a prepared statement. “I am confident we will be able to show legislators that these critical funds have been wisely invested and are already showing results in investigating criminal activity and prosecuting criminals.”

A lot more money has been allocated to political subdivisions in this latest biennium, 2013 to 2015, than in the last due to some major changes in the law governing appropriations, according to at least one state legislator.

“It’s a change in law,” said Robert J. Skarphol, a republican state representative from Tioga, in an interview. “We pretty dramatically changed the law this last time . As I said, the distribution more than doubled.”

The changes are documented in House Bill No. 1358, a bill he co-sponsored with six other representatives and five state senators. In this law, a larger percentage of production tax funds are funneled to the political subdivisions, such as counties and cities, where they are needed most.

“There was obviously not enough money flowing back to the political subdivisions,” Skarphol said. “The roads are getting destroyed … cities need help to improve their infrastructure to accommodate people moving in.”

And people are certainly still moving in at rapid pace, as seen by an estimated increase of about 22,000 residents in the state by the end of 2013 compared to the end of 2012, according to U.S. Census data.

The Land Board awards money from a $240 million state grant program created through that bill, which is part of a smaller $2.6 billion investment in the state’s oil and gas region for the biennium. That’s more than double the $1.2 billion investment in the previous biennium.

The money going toward the Ward County Sheriff’s Department has already largely been allocated to needed areas. Ward County Sheriff Steve Kukowski had previously brought up the grant and a request for his department to meet the 10 percent buy in was approved by Ward County Commissioners last month.

“We acquired $538,146. Of that we have a 10 percent match,” Kukowski said in an interview. “We’ll have to come up with $53,814.60.”

Of that money, $500,000 is going to a multi-cast radio communication radio system, which will include a private frequency, to update the department’s troubled radios. $10,000 will go toward overtime money. More will go to a bar-code scanning system for evidence, and other money will be dispersed among other, smaller projects.

He said the department has spent $5,000 in the last week alone in extradition pick-ups, which included one in New York and another in Colorado.

Extradition is an expense, he said, that the department can’t really prepare for when they prepare their annual budgets at the beginning of the year. He has no idea what additional costs, like extraditions, will crop up in the remaining 11 months of the year.

Skarphol had a bit of a solution to this, although it isn’t found in the current legislation. It would include a more direct system of allocating resources to jurisdictions that need them rather than setting aside money only to be awarded through grant programs. Systems like this can be found outside of the state.

“Too much of it (money) is dependent on grant funding in my mind, because I don’t really see why these entities that need money need to be grant funded,” Skarphol said. “If you look at how other states allocate to political subdivisions it would seem that North Dakota is pretty conservative, pretty tight, in what they give back. I’m not saying that’s fully the case, but it would seem it’s pretty tight.”

“I would be willing to wager a pretty large amount of money that there will be proposals in the next legislative sessions to address this,” he added.

In Kukowski’s view, a little leeway in budgeting earlier on rather than scrambling for grants could help the problem.

“There’s definitely a need for this money because all of the things are changing so fast and we budget once a year and that’s at the beginning of the year,” he said. “It would be nice.”