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Lloyd Omdahl, Published August 11 2013

Omdah: Oil cities need ’15 census

During the last legislative session, the governor and the Legislature made great strides in responding to the multifaceted crises engulfing the township, city, school and county governments in the booming Bakken oil field.

The dimensions of the boom were outlined in the recent study by North Dakota State University researchers Dean Bangsund and Nancy Hodur as they projected county populations well into the future for the oil-impacted regions.

It appears from their estimates that McKenzie, Williams, Divide and Mountrail counties will double in population by 2020. Much of this growth will take place in key cities in each county.

Informal estimates indicate an increase in permanent residents since the 2010 U.S. Census of 65 percent in Tioga, 125 percent in Watford City, and 180 percent in Killdeer and Williston. These figures do not include the thousands of temporary workers flooding the area.

When we see this much growth in three short years since the official census, we can expect unbelievable growth by 2020 when the next U.S. Census is due.

That is the problem.

With these dramatic changes occurring in the small as well as the large cities throughout oil country, the 2010 U.S. Census figures become more and more useless for allocating resources.

The burgeoning cities in western North Dakota will be losing more and more money as the decade passes because distributions of certain state revenues are made on the basis of formulas that dictate the use of the decennial census.

Three major distributions go to cities across the state.

First, the state aid distribution program, representing a combination of personal property tax replacement and general revenue sharing, is distributed on the basis of census data.

Second, a share of the state cigarette tax is passed on to cities on the basis of population.

Third, the highway distribution fund, fed by motor vehicle registration fees and gas taxes, is allocated to counties on the basis of vehicle registrations. At the county level, cities receive shares on the basis of population.

Since millions of dollars are involved in these distributions, cities with mushrooming populations will lose more and more with each passing year until the next census takes place. The stakes are high.

Rather than wait for the federal census to arrive in 2020, it seems that the state ought to consider doing a mid-census count in the Oil Patch in 2015 to readjust the disbursements to a current population count.

In their population prognosis, Bangsund and Hodur anticipate that as time passes the temporary residents will become permanent and, thereby, qualify to be counted as permanent residents who could count toward reformulation of state funding.

By 2015, a fair number of temporaries will have become permanent. However, we will still see a large number of commuting workers who will not regard North Dakota as their permanent residence.

This means that criterion would have to be developed to distinguish between permanent and temporary residents in order to arrive at a fair count.

The governor and the Legislature demonstrated some boldness in responding to pressing problems in the Oil Patch. An interim census in 2015 would be another bold move to guarantee fairness in sharing in the ongoing state aid programs.


Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and a retired University of North Dakota political science teacher.