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Katherine Lymn, Forum News Service, Published March 09 2014

N.D. secretary of state sees huge jump in contractor licensing

DICKINSON, N.D. – Mark Amann has had his contractor’s license for 25 years.

So when he didn’t get his renewal when he thought he would, and with a bid coming up, Amann put a call in to the Secretary of State’s Office.

The delay, he was told, was due to a backlog created by the huge amount of work North Dakota is seeing because of the oil boom. The backlog is especially long now as contractors lined up to apply for renewal by the statewide deadline of March 1.

“We’re dealing with numbers that we’ve never had before,” Secretary of State Al Jaeger said.

As of Wednesday, the office was handling renewals received Feb. 14 and brand-new applications received Feb. 18.

Active contractors in the state jumped from 7,366 in June 2009 to 12,873 as of February – a 75 percent increase.

The rise in licenses means a lot of money for the state. It costs between $50 and $300 to apply for various contract license classes, which are based on the value of a job.

The office has seen total revenue grow from about $7.5 million in 2009 to near-ly $12 million last year.

“Our office generates a lot more revenue than we receive in appropriations,” Jaeger said. “In a sense, we’re a profit center for the state.”

Pre-boom, the office could turn around an application within about two weeks. Amann said his company, Dickinson-based Onsite Improvements, would usually get its applications back after a week.

“Right now it’s not an overnight-type situation,” Jaeger said.

Amann said he got his license March 1, a little more than three weeks after submitting the application.

It wasn’t a huge delay, but an unexpected one. It had Amann calling Stark County Road Superintendent Al Heiser to let him know why his bid application might not have the license, as generally re-quired by a county.

Heiser brought up the backlog at the Stark County Commission meeting Tuesday when commissioners took up bid applications.

“It’s just something else that’s going on” because of the boom, he said later.

Not all contractors are affected. Some reached by phone said they had no issues renewing this year.

“I just did mine for this year, and it took about three days,” said Billie Winn, co-owner of Winn Construction in Dickinson.

Winn said sometimes delays might come from other factors, like the applicant not turning in all the records required for an application.

Jaeger described his office as “step one” for business in the state, and that means a lot of work coming through the door.

“Whether it’s in the Bakken or the Red River Valley,” he said, “business is booming all across the state.”

The staff at the Secretary of State’s Office has grown some, but not at the rate of license applications.

“The fact is is that, you know, we only have so many people,” Jaeger said. “They’re doing everything that they possibly can to get it taken care of.”

The North Dakota Legislature can authorize new positions at the office. It approved three last session. To fill the gap, Jaeger turns to temporary employees, but those aren’t always easy to find.

“We don’t have very many takers,” he said. “We don’t have very many people that are lining up for temporary help.”

While applications are surging, out-of-compliance workers aren’t – a silver lining for the secretary of state.

The office conducts compliance task forces, and the last one found fewer unlicensed workers than the one before that, Jaeger said.

“When they’re just running off the cuff,” Amann said, “it’s not good for customers, it’s not good for them.”