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James MacPherson, Associated Press, Published September 10 2012

New ND oil patch jail paid for 20 years early, but its already full

WILLISTON, N.D. — It was supposed to take a quarter-century for Williston to retire the bond on a multimillion-dollar jail and law enforcement center designed to handle prisoner growth for decades.

But just five years after the Williams County Law Enforcement Center opened the lockup is paid in full but also has reached capacity. The reason: the explosion of oil activity in western North Dakota.

“My 50-year jail turned into five,” Williams County Sheriff Scott Busching said. “I'm in the same shape I was before we built this thing. I'm full again.”

Voters approved a half-cent sales tax in November 2006 to fund the $16 million center in the busiest city in the state's oil patch. Ground was broken in April 2007 and construction was completed in late 2008.

The 79,000-sq.-foot, 116-bed facility nearly quadrupled the capacity of the old facility built in 1952.

Busching said crime is up in the region due to the soaring population of oil workers. There also is a shortage of judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys to handle the increase, he said.

“The court system is so backed up that we're holding people longer, from 30 to 60 days to four to seven months,” Busching said.

The center also houses the sheriff's department, Williston Police Department, and regional offices of the North Dakota Highway Patrol and state Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

Busching and Williams County Commissioner Dan Kalil said the idea for a law enforcement center and expanded jail was a tough sell to residents. Both men said they went door-to-door pitching the plan but were met with doubts about whether such a facility was needed or if the county had the wherewithal to fund it.

“When I went on the road to sell this to the public, I gave them my word that this was a 50-year-building,” Busching said. “No one could have predicted that this would happen.”

Thanks to advanced horizontal drilling techniques in the rich Bakken and Three Forks formations in the western part of the state, North Dakota has risen from the nation's ninth-leading oil producing state to the nation's No. 2 producer in just six years.

Kalil said the bond for the law enforcement center will be retired next month but county commissioners likely will ask voters to keep the half-cent sales tax on the books to help pay for a possible expansion to the facility and other infrastructure needs.

“I think the public will support it,” Kalil said. “The state isn't going to send boxes of cash up here. And even if they did, it's not going to be here overnight.”

The oil boom has made Williams County the state's leading county for taxable sales and Williston its leading city.

During January, February and March, Williams County recorded more than $1 billion in taxable sales and purchases, up almost 90 percent from the same three months in 2011, state Tax Department records show.

Williston recorded $791 million in taxable sales and purchases during the first quarter of 2012, up 76 percent from the prior year. Fargo, North Dakota's biggest city with four times the population of Williston, recorded $541.8 million in taxable sales and purchases for the first three months of 2012, state Tax Department records show.

Williston ranked fifth during 2009, behind Fargo, Bismarck, Grand Forks and Minot.

“That kind of economic impact boggles the mind,” Kalil said. “People are smart enough to recognize that this isn't all coming from the grocery stores or Wal-Mart — it's coming from all the material that going out to the oil fields.”

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