In the beginning of October I read an article titled, “State audit finds Stark County over-taxed citizens”. This article states that an audit determined that there is currently roughly $40 million cash in Stark County funds. Supposedly there is a North Dakota state law that says the amount of these cash reserves should not exceed $10.3 million.
Before Stark County residents become angry about the excess money being held by Stark County, this may actually be a rare instance of honesty, competence, and responsibility in government.
I want to point out right away, that it is well known that government bureaucracies are notorious for attempting to spend their entire budget completely each year in order to have justification for an equal or larger budget the following year, whether they actually need an equal or greater amount of money or not. This has something to do with the fear of losing out on opportunity or losing power, by not having an equal or greater budget.
The fact that Stark County officials did not attempt to spend their entire budget completely, shows honesty, integrity, and responsibility with this money. Is it wrong that Stark County officials did not try to spend more of this money, or is it commendable that they built up a surplus?
All adults living in western North Dakota witnessed the oil boom that occurred from 2007-2015, that caused a temporary migration of a couple hundred thousand out-of-state workers to this area, and required new housing, schools, shopping centers, hospitals, roads, and utility infrastructure. The cost of this expansion and new infrastructure will continue to have to be paid for, even though the oil boom is over now, and many people have moved away.
Of course it was a wise decision and necessary for Stark County to build up a surplus of money during the oil boom, to be able to pay for expenses after the oil boom was over. Did the State of North Dakota law limiting county funds to $10.3 million, ever take into account the oil boom and bust that would occur in western North Dakota? The answer is no, but the Stark County Commissioners did the responsible and necessary thing, to accumulate a surplus.
Stark County Commissioner Jay Elkin has made the following statement a couple of times in response to the auditor calling the cash surplus an irregularity, “They’ve never had a problem in the past, and I even brought it up to the auditor last year, and they have always said ‘we’re not going to worry about that’ because it’s not a bad idea to have a reserve.”
Stark County residents may feel that they have been over-taxed. They should think about how long it took to build up this supposed surplus of money and why there was a surplus of money. Commissioner Elkin said that for the past five years, every year he has informed the North Dakota State’s Auditor’s Office about the cash surplus, but the state had never had an issue with the reserves in the past, saying that it was good to have this reserve.
It appears that there was an understanding that this revenue that was collected during the oil boom in western North Dakota that initially created a cash surplus, would be needed after the oil boom was over to pay for the aftermath, and there not be a shortfall of money.
If Stark County residents feel like they have been over-taxed because of the current budget surplus, would they be happier if Stark County officials had tried to get rid of this money by wasting it? Would they be happier if Stark County began having a shortfall of money for next ten years due to poor planning?
This is one of the few times when residents should feel proud and grateful for the careful budgeting and spending of taxpayer money, but instead they are being led to believe that the Stark County Commissioners did something wrong.
You can read more about the Stark County audit discussion in these two articles: https://www.thedickinsonpress.com/news/government-and-politics/6687556-State-audit-finds-Stark-County-over-taxed-citizens#:~:text=An%20audit%20of%20Stark%20County,million%20as%20of%20this%20report. https://www.thedickinsonpress.com/news/government-and-politics/6708725-County-budget-meeting-marred-by-personal-attacks