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Erik Burgess, Published March 11 2013

Lawsuit over Fargo-Moorhead toll bridge likely

MOORHEAD – A lawsuit over the future of the sole Fargo-Moorhead toll bridge is likely, following Moorhead City Council action on Monday night.

In a unanimous 7-0 vote, the council voted to deny the privately run Bridge Co. a five-year extension on the contract for the structure, which connects 12th Avenue North in Fargo to 15th Avenue North in Moorhead.

In the same motion, the council voted to have city officials negotiate a buyout price with the bridge owners and pursue legal action if a price cannot be agreed upon.

Councilman Mark Altenburg was absent.

“A lawsuit will likely be necessary,” City Attorney John Shockley said in a March 8 memo to the council, adding that he is uncertain how Fargo feels about pursuing legal action.

By denying the extension, Moorhead is attempting to end a 25-year contract with Bridge Co. that runs out June 1.

At that time, the cities could’ve granted a five-year extension to Bridge Co. and required them to make necessary repairs and pay off their delinquent taxes. Fargo granted the extension in 2010 after Bridge Co. President Clifford “Kip” Moore said annual flooding had damaged the bridge and the company needed more time to pay off its debt.

If both cities had agreed to extend the bridge’s contract, neither Fargo nor Moorhead would be on the hook for any remaining debt in 2018.

By denying the extension Monday night, Moorhead instead has chosen to assume any “authorized debt” left on the structure, but that number is still unknown and will likely lead to contention when negotiating a buyout, Shockley said.

For certain, the company owes thousands in delinquent taxes – around $8,000 in Cass County and $47,435 in Clay County, Shockley said.

But Moore estimated in 2011 that the cities would be responsible for more than $600,000 in debt and fees if they assumed ownership in 2013, which Moorhead officials disputed at the time.

In a letter dated March 7 addressed to both cities, Moore said that if an extension was not granted, the cities would also be required to cover unpaid management fees.

But Shockley said that he would contest that in court. According to a 2004 amendment to the original agreement, Bridge Co. was supposed to have paid off all of its authorized debt by June 1, 2005.

Since then, the company has apparently refinanced its debt without approval of either city, Shockley said.

“They have alleged a number that is significantly higher than anything that is close to the ballpark,” he said.

Shockley also said if the bridge became public property, a lien could not be placed on it to cover the back taxes.

Shockley said if the two cities and the Bridge Co. can’t come to an agreement on a buyout price, the cities would need to file suit before June 1, or else Bridge Co. would be able to grant itself a five-year extension per North Dakota law.

“I want this bridge to be a public bridge as soon as possible,” Councilman Mike Hulett said, echoing fellow council members who believe it will boost property values in the northern sector.

Redlinger said he will convene a meeting with Fargo officials and report back to the council as soon as possible. If the cities are unable to negotiate a buyout, Shockley said he would update the council before pursuing legal action.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518