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By Benny Polacca, Kelly Smith and Janell Cole, Published February 19 2009

Building bill gets mixed reactions

School and government officials expressed mixed reactions Wednesday to the North Dakota House’s passage of a bill that would require all public building construction projects to go to a public vote.

House Bill 1398 would require voters to approve public construction projects even if the political subdivision has a building authority that voters previously approved. It passed with a 61-33 vote.

The bill was aimed at the Fargo School District, which since 1991 has built or remodeled several school buildings, all by using a building authority that district voters approved in 1988.

The building authority allows the Fargo district to move ahead with construction projects that put the district in debt, without the need of having voters OK a bond issue.

Fargo School Board President Dan Fremling said Wednesday he disagrees with some parts of the bill, including the requirement of 60 percent of voter approval for a construction or improvement project to take place. He said he doesn’t know how big of an impact the bill would have on the School District if the Senate passes it.

West Fargo Mayor Rich Mattern said one portion of the bill that concerns him is whether a spending threshold on a building or renovation project will be identified. “It has to be made more clear.”

Mattern said a special election for issues such as a building project can cost up to $10,000. He said West Fargo residents would get a chance to vote on major public projects such as a new city hall, for example.

West Fargo school officials weren’t fazed by news of the House bill passage.

School Board President Tom Gentzkow said most of the district’s building projects already go through a public vote.

Superintendent Dana Diesel Wallace agreed a public vote is important for the West Fargo district.

“Every building project is a project of our patrons, and our patrons change,” Diesel Wallace said of the growing district.

Although, added Business Manager Joe Sykora, “it would be difficult to go out time and time again (to vote on every project).”

Diesel Wallace said she doesn’t support eliminating school districts’ use of building authorities because it restricts districts’ funding options.

“We thought that was not a good idea … (because it) gets rid of a district’s ability to use a building authority.”

Fargo School Board member John Strand, who is a vocal opponent of building authorities, said he “is a pro-education guy,” but he believes the public should have a say in public building projects.

Minot legislators opposed the bill, saying it would affect their district, where no one objects to using the building authority.

“This is a Fargo problem. Let’s leave it in Fargo,” said Rep. Kari Conrad, D-Minot.

“Don’t bother the rest of the state,” agreed Rep. Lisa Wolf, D-Minot.

They said Fargo voters need to repeal the building authority if they don’t like it.

But Rep. Jim Kasper,

R-Fargo, who sponsored the bill, said Fargo School District voters would have to gather petition signatures from 20 percent of the voters to put an issue on the ballot to try to get rid of the authority. Instead, the Legislature should take action, he said.

Cole works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. She can be reached at (701) 224-0830 or forumcap@btinet.net