Commission has plan for fire district tax dispute

Ward County Commissioners agreed with a plan created by Ward County State’s Attorney Rozanna Larson Tuesday as a solution to the taxation problems seen by some who were formerly a part of a rural county fire district before being annexed into a city.

Some residents, including Dean Lennertz, who is a member of the Minot Fire Department, have made the tax problem clear.

It seemed that when he and his immediate community were first annexed into the City of Minot a couple years ago, they were immediately put into the Minot Fire Department’s protection district, but that didn’t mean they were removed from the Minot Rural district. That became clear with this year’s tax forms, so Lennertz spoke to commissioners Tuesday to argue for his tax abatement application.

When he first explained that he was paying both for city services as well as for protection services from the Minot Rural Fire Department, the commissioners didn’t know what to do. State law, found in 18-10-12.1 of the North Dakota Century Code, provides that residents who have withdrawn from a rural fire district are still required to pay for any financial obligations to that district at the time of withdrawal. It would seem that immediately forgiving one tax abatement applicant may be problematic in coming to a long-term solution to the annexation problem.

“We need more information,” said commission vice-chairman Alan Walter at the meeting, a statement he repeated throughout the talks.

Commissioner John Fjeldahl agreed, and made a motion to form a committee to look into finding a solution no later than Feb. 17, the latest date for residents to pay off those debts. The motion was passed unanimously, putting off an immediate answer but also ensuring a decision could be made before possible lawsuits may be filed on the taxation.

The meeting was adjourned, but was reconvened minutes later because Larson had already developed a solution.

A large part of the problem was that the district maps “were all over the place,” as Larson put it, with county auditor and treasurer Devra Smestad having a map from 2007, Minot Rural having a map from 2013 and only the Minot Fire Department having the most current map, which was issued on the last day in January.

The Minot Fire Department will distribute the current map to both the auditor and the rural fire department.

“At that point she (Smestad) will need to determine who in those city

boundaries have been double taxed,” Larson said. “Minot Rural has agreed that they will not pursue the collection of those taxes that are identified on that 2014 map. And so people who have paid those taxes already will need to get a refund. If they haven’t yet, we’ll get that reduction off of their 2013-14 taxes.”

“From this point forward, anyone who petitions into, or anybody who is being annexed into a city that does provide fire protection must file a petition to withdraw from any other rural fire district that they’re currently being taxed in. If they don’t withdraw, they’re going to be subject to the Rural Fire District tax,” she recommended to the commissioners.

They were in agreement and commissioner Shelly Weppler used the recommendation as her motion.

The problem now seems how to let residents know of the changes and how to notify future annexed residents know they need to petition out of the rural district.

In a later phone interview, Minot Rural Fire Department Chief Rex Weltikol downplayed how these changes will affect his department or other rural departments seeing annexations out of their coverage area.

“It’s not really going to change it a bunch,” Weltikol said. “It’s not really going to affect too much about our life.”

The Minot Rural Fire Department provides protection coverage to eight townships surrounding the City of Minot.

Other business at the meeting:

– Ward County Sheriff Steve Kukowski announced a gift from Larson and Associates, Inc., an environmental consulting firm from Midland, Texas, in recognition of a former Ward County Sheriff’s Deputy who had passed away. The gift was $525 to be put toward benefitting families of fallen law enforcement officers of the Ward County Sheriff’s Department. The commissioners were receptive, with Fjeldahl telling Kukowski to send a letter of thanks and to let them know how the money will be used.

– Kukowski also gave a rundown of a grant given by the State Land Board given to his office during a broad spread of grants to oil impacted law enforcement agencies. He said the initial grant request of $632,117 was reduced to $538,146 because Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem agreed to purchase a requested fingerprint scanner for the county from his own budget because the county submits the most fingerprints. Instead, the money will be spent on one reserve deputy position to be funded for 15 months, overtime pay, a barcode reader system to track evidence, and $500,000 on a multi-task communication system. There will be some additional money left over because the lowest bid, from Ford Motor Company, for the latest round of new Sheriff’s vehicles came in under budget.