City may have shortfall in excess of $1 million

By Richard Volesky, Editor/Reporter

The Billings County Pioneer of Medora, North Dakota

BELFIELD - The Belfield City Council, during a 3 'A hour meeting on April 6, discussed a possible budget shortfall, plans for a new city hall, and police staffing, among other issues.

Regarding the budget, City Auditor Natalie Muruato updated the council on the city's finances for the first three months of 2015. She reviewed a report that included the 2015 budget, which was prepared toward the end of last summer, and figures for what the city has spent and received so far this year, plus her new projects through the end of 2015.

Muruato, who was hired last year, noted that a previous city auditor prepared the budget. Muruato said she has since become familiar with the various funds and operations and with what the city can expect. She also said she felt it was necessary to revise some of the previous auditor's estimates.

The largest of the changes relate to oil and gas production taxes that the city receives from the state. The original budget estimated those tax collections to be $1.15 million, but for the first three months of 2015, $69,682 was received. Muruato said the collections for the year might instead be about $278,729.

Another large change that may occur is in the oil and gas royalties that the city receives from three Whiting Oil & Gas wells near the city's lagoons. The budget estimates $336,000 in royalties-,-but collections for the year may now instead be around $100000, said Muruato.

Regarding expenditures, the differences are not as large, but all still affects the bottom line.

The cost of housing people that the police department arrests was budgeted at $40,000, but Muruato said that cost may be on track to be $94,100 for the year.

Costs related to office supplies, computer equipment and engineering fees are among the other expenses that are expected to be larger than what was originally approved in the budget. "We can cut here and there and do a few things, but $1 million is a lot of money to find," said Muruato.

She noted that there didn't appear to be any income coming in from tickets issued by the police department. The money is collected by District Court, and apparently some should be coming back to the city. That matter is to be researched.

No specific cuts or budget amendments were done at the meeting. Muruato said she'd create another report after three more months to see how the finances stand.

The budget discussion related to the city's general fund and the operations of the water and sewer systems and garbage collections A planned street improvement project for this summer, which includes $3.4 million in state funding, would also be funded through special assessments, and is essentially a separate matter. In other business:

Jon Wilczek, city engineer, reported that a goal was to have the street improvement project ready for bids by April 10. Once bid, the city would then have more information to provide residents regarding the amounts of special taxes for the work.

The council agreed to gather estimates from two or three contractors for renovating the former Chamber of Commerce building on Main Street into a new city hall. Work on the building is estimated at $50,000.

The council agreed upon a 10-percent pay increase for Muruato, considering her probation period as a new hire is over, and that the 10 percent was mentioned in an offer letter when she was hired.

Police Chief Nick Barn hard and officer Steve Byrne spoke at length for the need of having the police department staffed with four officers. There currently is one vacant position. Byrne said they were concerned about increases in drug trafficking, and that the officers were suffering health issues and sleep deprivation, and that the results could be burnout and poor judgment. "I'm not here to complain," said Byrne. "I knew what I was doing when I came into this job."

Barn hard said a concern was the downturn in the oil industry, that the result could be layoffs, with more people turning to drug dealing to earn money, and to burglaries.

The council decided to try to maintain the department at four officers, and to advertise the open position, with a preference being that the new hire would be able to handle the department's canine, Zeus.

Barn hard discussed the future of Zeus. Previously, the council decided to try to sell Zeus, and it was noted that the dog was becoming more aggressive. However, because the dog was purchased with a grant, Barn hard said it was later learned they couldn't sell him.

Barn hard and Byrne already have personal dogs, and having Zeus in either household would be difficult, according to the discussion. Byrne said he has grown accustomed to interviewing and doing investigations, and that he'd be unable to make Zeus a No. 1 priority.

Jeff Iverson, council member, said that if Zeus is considered dangerous, and if others don't want him, it may be that the option is to have the dog put down. Sandra Kuntz, city attorney, suggested that maybe retiring Zeus or giving him back to his Minnesota trainer were possibilities.

The council approved of an average 11 percent increase in residential property values as determined by Diane Brines, the county/city assessor. Brines said she was required to use property sales from the previous year and to keep values close to the actual sale prices. Iverson asked if sale prices decrease, then would the values for tax purposes decrease? Brines said that would be the case, that such happened after the oil bust of the early 1980s.

The council approved of transferring the liquor license of Super-pumper Holdings to Superpumper Licensing. The reason for the change is that when the state did it's licensing review, it discovered that one of the shareholders under the first name was a Canadian citizen, while liquor license holders have to be U.S. citizens. It was reported that Super-pumper failed a sting in which alcohol was sold to minors, but officer Byrne said that Superpumper has been doing a "good job" in that regard recently.

Doug Perkins of Civil Science, an engineering firm for American Landmark Group (ALG), which plans a new subdivision north of Interstate 94, asked about purchasing land from the city in that area. The land at issue includes trees that were planted as mitigation acres for a Heart River channel project that hasn't developed. Research is to be done regarding whether there are any restrictions on selling the land.

Perkins asked about the possibility of having the ALG subdivision receive a break of no taxes of any type for 10 years, with payments to start in increments up to 20 years. Attorney Kuntz said city voters would first have to approve of allowing the council the authority to provide a tax break, and such could only be for up to five years. She also said that a tax break wouldn't have to apply to all of the property, that it could apply to parts of it, such as a proposed grocery store. The council decided to have Kuntz further research the process of allowing the tax break designation.

© 2015 BCP

"I'm not here to complain. I knew what I was doing when I came into this job."

Steve Byrne

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