County considers tax relief for Rice Lake

Flooded Rice Lake homeowners could get property-tax relief under a proposal that the Ward County Commission is investigating.

Devils Lake-area counties have abated property taxes to a dollar to acknowledge flooded farmland. It’s a concept that Ward County should consider for Rice Lake homeowners, Maurice Foley of Minot told the commission Tuesday.

Foley, a member of the Ward County Water Resource Board and State Water Commission Advisory Board, appeared on his own behalf, along with members of the Rice Lake Recreational Service District. He asked the commission to consider a plan in which homeowners who pay their special assessments in full would be eligible for property-tax forgiveness.

Foley said homeowners might abandon properties that become inundated with water. As properties go to the county for back taxes, county residents would be stuck with the special assessments.

Jarid Lundeen, a member of the Rice Lake association, said 10 properties have been inundated. He said there continually is conversation about the potential that people will walk away from these properties.

“This would be a way to alleviate the county burden of taking those specials back,” he said of the tax relief plan. “It’s a great way to help people out. We support it. We need all the help we can get.”

Lundeen said the lake is about two feet higher than last year. Pumping of the lake is to start soon under a contract to use county-owned land to store the pumped water. The lake would need to rise another three feet to drain naturally. At that lake level, 110 of about 169 homes at the lake would be flooded.

“That’s really the direction that this lake is going right now,” Lundeen said.

The county has adjusted the assessed values of Rice Lake properties based on the amount of flood damage, tax director Pam Axtman said. Some have been reduced by 70 to 80 percent, she said.

County Auditor Devra Smestad said the county has not taken possession of any Rice Lake property for unpaid taxes since the flooding began in 2011. One property was on the verge, but the owner asked to make payments when a potential buyer materialized.

Commissioner John Fjeldahl said tax forgiveness would ensure that the homeowner retains responsibility for the property, including any cleanup.

“That’s why I am thinking it’s a good idea, although it’s going to shift the tax to the remainder of the district,” he said, noting that tax revenue would be lost to the township, fire and school districts, in addition to the county. But he added that these taxing entities would not get any revenue if taxes aren’t paid and the property becomes county-owned.

“It’s going to get shifted, one way or another, if people walk away from these properties,” he said.

The commission voted to have the state’s attorney research the legal aspect of the tax relief and how it is being applied in the Devils Lake area.