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Published April 08 2013

Forum editorial: Speed up Cass home buyouts

When Cass County voters approved the 2011 special sales tax for flood control, the county commission decided to reserve 90 percent for the Fargo-Moorhead diversion project and 10 percent for other flood mitigation efforts. That 10 percent, which is about $1 million a year, was supposed to include buyouts of homes in flood zones. It hasn’t been enough – or the county hasn’t directed sufficient funds to buyouts.

The fallout from the county’s allocation of the sales tax has been, among other things, that only 79 homes have been acquired by the county; 53 are waiting to be bought out. The delay is frustrating for homeowners who want out of the flood zone, but also want to be treated fairly when it comes to a buyout payment.

The county uses the 10 percent for flood control work, such as lift stations, levees and culverts. There isn’t enough left for buyouts. The county counters that a pending grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency is near approval, and money might be available as soon as this month. That’s good news, but the delay while waiting for FEMA funding has been a disservice to homeowners.

During the same time frame, Fargo used a combination of funds, including sales tax revenues, to purchase 100 or more homes; Moorhead used mostly state dollars to purchase 217 properties. Many of the most vulnerable urban reaches of the Red River flood plain are clear of homes and in some areas permanent levees were built.

Cass County’s situation is not precisely the same as Fargo’s because many flood-prone county homes are scattered in suburban and rural subdivisions or stand alone in at-risk areas. Nevertheless, property owners are in a lose-lose situation because of the county’s delay. First, uncertainty about a fair buyout affects every aspect of life; second, uncertainty devalues their property, so even if they wanted to sell, they could not.

On the other hand, county buyouts can be a win-win-win proposition. First, if the houses are gone, the public cost of protecting them goes, too; second, once buildings are cleared, the land can be put to good use as locations for permanent levees, thus protecting other properties that are at risk in major floods; third, homeowners can move on with their lives and, in some cases, be ambassadors for the county’s flood projects.

The county’s decision to jackpot 90 percent of sales tax dollars for the diversion is understandable. The diversion will be very expensive. But buyouts and other mitigation are integral to the long-term success of the overall project. The faster the county can complete remaining home buyouts, the better for homeowners and the diversion.

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