FARGO – North Dakota legislators have appropriated $75 million since 2009 in “Fargo flood control project funding,” but there’s little agreement on what that money was actually intended for.
As a generic catch-all codified in state law, the two-part appropriation has so far helped pay for Red River diversion studies and various local projects Fargo officials have pursued to shore up protection within the city.
But the ambiguity in the funding’s original purpose has raised questions among some local officials who worry using the state aid now could affect critical dollars needed later for the F-M diversion project.
State Water Commission figures show that 28 percent of the $75 million has been doled out.
Some lawmakers, state officials and local leaders have different perspectives on what the money is supposed to fund and whether it should have been spent yet.
Cass County commissioners, in particular, have voiced concerns in recent months, when asked to sign off on Fargo’s requests for reimbursement from the State Water Commission – thereby tapping into the legislative pool of money to help fund its own projects.
The most recent discussion arose three weeks ago when county leaders were asked to support Fargo’s request to the state for $4.3 million in reimbursed expenses.
Of that request, $1.9 million was for county expenses related to the diversion study, while the balance was for expenses on Fargo projects.
“It really looks like these (appropriations) are being included by the Legislature as counting toward the commitment they’ve made to funding the diversion,” Commissioner Ken Pawluk said at the time. “It’s not appropriate for us to say, ‘You have to spend these dollars on the diversion,’ but we’re going to be in a conundrum here pretty soon if we don’t get this topic in the light of day.”
State officials indicate at least one point of consensus in this debate: The $75 million allocated so far is meant to count toward the state’s share of the Red River diversion, regardless of whether the expenses are actually associated with the project.
Based on the estimated $1.78 billion price tag, the state of North Dakota would be on the hook for $441 million for its share.
Flood control funds
The Legislature appropriated $45 million in the State Water Commission’s budget for “Fargo flood control projects” during the 2009 session.
Lawmakers intentionally left the language vague because at the time, Fargo city leaders knew they wanted to pursue a permanent flood protection project, but there weren’t any specific plans.
“The Legislature was pro-active … but we never felt, in either 2009 or in 2011, that we had the expertise to specify what was the best solution going forward,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks.
By the 2011 session, local officials and the Army Corps had settled on the diversion plans they’re now pursuing.
With that in mind, state legislators approved another $30 million toward Fargo flood control, but they added a requirement that any disbursement of the $75 million had to be approved by the city of Fargo, Cass County and the Southeast Cass Water Resource Board.
Nowhere in the final law does it mention the Red River diversion project specifically, even specify which flood control projects the dollars were appropriated for.
Holmberg and other top lawmakers said they believe the $75 million in funding counts toward the state’s share of the diversion cost, which at the time of the legislation was estimated at $300 million.
“It’s my understanding we’re setting money aside so when and if Fargo ever decides what they’re going to do (with the diversion), we can fund it,” said House Appropriations Chairman Jeff Delzer, R-Underwood.
But officials at the State Water Commission, which disburses the money, said North Dakota’s Century Code doesn’t require the $75 million to be used for only diversion-related expenses.
“Although the city of Fargo is pursuing a diversion project, it is not the commission’s view that this is the only acceptable use of the funding,” said Dave Laschkewitsch, accounting manager for the State Water Commission.
As of last week, nearly $21.2 million, or 28 percent, of the $75 million had been disbursed, Laschkewitsch said.
Neither Fargo nor Cass County leaders dispute that the state aid is funding worthwhile projects.
“These are necessary with or without the diversion, and really complement the diversion plan,” said Cass County Administrator Keith Berndt, adding that the county’s concern lies with the limited availability of dollars for all of the flood priorities in the metro.
Berndt said the county believes the state dollars are being spent the way they should be under the law, and Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker agrees.
Walaker said the state funds were meant to fund a combination of local projects and the diversion, particularly because of the many uncertainties ahead for the metro-area project.
“If somebody was going to provide us with guarantees on where we’re going to go with this diversion, then we should be putting the money aside,” Walaker said Friday. “But if not, we need to provide protection for the city of Fargo, and that’s what we’re doing.”
However, last year when local and state leaders advocated for the Fargo flood control funding, testimony before the state Legislature focused only on the need to fund the diversion project.
Walaker himself asked the Legislature to continue its “generous” support in specific reference to the Red River diversion plan, and he made no mention in his testimony at that time of the need to fund the city’s own flood control projects.
Have a question about the proposed Red River diversion, or want to recommend a topic you’d like to see addressed in an upcoming column? Send an e-mail to Forum reporter Kristen Daum at email@example.com (Subject: Diversion Discussion) or write to Kristen Daum c/o The Forum, P.O. Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107. (Please include your name, town and a phone number to reach you for verification.)