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Published September 06 2009

Forum editorial: Two Cass projects are needed

When Cass County commissioners meet this week, they should approve financing for a courthouse expansion and county jail improvements. Failing to do so would be irresponsible because the projects are necessary and the timing is right to save taxpayers a lot of money.

A couple of commissioners are unnecessarily nervous about the total $33 million cost of the projects. They got jumpy when an opponent of the courthouse portion of the work threatened to petition to get the matter on the ballot. Alternative newspaper publisher John Strand of Fargo apparently is still nursing a hurt over losing a tussle several years ago regarding disposition of the old jail building and sheriff’s residence. The buildings were found to be structurally unsound – dangerous really – and were razed despite Strand’s attempt in court to preserve them. He’s been candid about his vendetta against the county, which is confirmed by the fact he only wants to stop the courthouse addition, not improvements at the jail.

Commissioners should not be influenced by Strand’s pique. His actions several years ago cost taxpayers more than $40,000. Delaying the new projects would cost the county hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The financing package for the projects is conservative and taxpayer-friendly. It applies funds the county has that won’t be part of the portion of the work paid for by a modest increase in the county mill levy. It envisions revenue generation for the county by leasing freed-up space in the courthouse to the North Dakota Highway Patrol. The slight increase in county taxes likely will decline over the life of the levy because the tax base is expanding. And even with the project mills, the county will remain comfortably under its mill levy limit. The timing could not be better for bidding building projects: Contractors are competitive, and materials costs are down.

The courthouse addition has been studied for a decade. There is no question the addition is needed for the courts and other vital county operations. The jail work will consolidate the sheriff’s department at the new jail site at 34th Street South, thus opening up space in the courthouse. Moreover, courthouse work includes a secured prisoner-to-courtroom facility that, the sheriff says, is absolutely necessary for courthouse security. It is curious that Strand would kill the courthouse segment of the proposal when both segments are functionally connected.

Commissioners know the work is needed. They were elected to apply public funds where needs are clear. They have an excellent financial plan for the courthouse and jail. Delay would be an abdication of their responsibility and ultimately an expensive mistake.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.