Cavalier County resident Bill Hardy addressed the Commission about their recent decision regarding the Forestry Stewardship Program during the Commission's regular meeting on Tuesday, February 4. Hardy stated that those he has talked to in his area that use the program want it to stay in place, but that they too are “disgusted with the Forestry Service along with the Commission”.
“I think we need to get legislation to pour some money into the county and still keep the $.50 on the trees,” Hardy said.
He explained that many were under the impression that the county received some form of funding from the Forestry Service for participation in the program. Hardy also noted that while the Commission focuses on the trees having value for hunting, there are other areas in the county that are utilized for hunting for waterfowl.
“Our trees should be worth no more than them. There is a lot of controversy. Looks like we are fighting every step, and a lot of us would like to see this get together with the Forest Service," Hardy shared. He also said that he does not believe the current situation is entirely the Forest Services' fault as the state legislators that created the program did not include an end date for the program. The legislators should be the ones to take this issue up.
“It is a good program,” Hardy said.
The Commission explained their position and reasoning for the decision that was made previously. Commissioners Nick Moser, Stanley Dick, and Greg Goodman explained that they were not against the trees and the idea of the program providing a tax benefit to those who own land with no real economic use other than for conservation and hunting. The three most vocal commissioners on this issue all shared the same misgivings on the program - that it is outdated and has been poorly managed by the Forestry Service over the years by not keeping the break in line with rising values. The lack of communication between the Service and county commissioners has also been a sore point for the current members of Cavalier County Commission. The biggest issue, however, is the program's unfunded state program status that hurts local government.
“We’ve been left out of the loop, and every time, over the last five years, that we have tried to get information, basically employment changes over there, we just never got the information we wanted,” Moser said. “If they would have just kept us in the loop and let us have control over the renewable process then we would have been able to deny or set the renewals instead of them just pushing them through and not passing that information on to us to approve.”
Moser clarified his opinion that the tax benefit should be given to those who reside in the local areas of Cavalier or Pembina County. The problem the Commission has with the program is that it is out-of-date for current land value assessments, and the county has no control. The commissioners believe that the program only has two options - re-do the entire program from scratch or leave it as is.
“For the next year, if we can get the state to step in and maybe change some laws and regulations on it and get it to a more proper rate, that would be something I would like to see. I would also like to review every contract that comes through and approve it based on residence status. I’m not opposed to the program; I just think it needs to be brought up-to-date,” Moser said.
For Goodman, the program is one that should be supported for the conservation and protection of trees. The dated program’s administration has fallen short of expectations, leaving local taxpayers with the brunt of the unfunded mandate.
“I support the program. I just don’t think it’s right to have a state program that is funded by local tax payer,” Goodman explained, “I support the tree side of things in terms of preservation of our natural forests, but I think it needs to be looked at from the stand point that if you are going to have a state program where the $1.50...tax break needs to be funded by the state.”
Supporting the trees extends beyond the Commission table to the residents that will be most affected by the program being discontinued. Discussion brought forward by Hardy showed that the program, despite its nearly 50 implementation, is still misunderstood even by those who are in favor of it.
“I think a lot of people didn’t know that the funding of that tax break is on the back of the local taxpayers. I think a lot of people just assumed it didn’t cost the county. Well it costs the county, it costs the school district, it costs the townships the way it’s set up right now,” Goodman said.
For Dick, the fact there is no compromised position for the county to take, leaves the only option of starting over. While Dick believes Moser’s idea of having the program be reshaped to have local control with the tax benefit applying to only area county residents, he does not believe it is feasible. Dick firmly believes that the program, while a good one, is solely an assessment problem - not a taxation problem.
“The problem is it’s a state program, and I’ve talked to state legislators - the only way to rectify it is to kill it and start over. I don’t see any other compromise,” Dick said. “I’m not against trees. I love the trees. I love that area. It’s an untapped resource. I think it’s something we could do a lot more for. But to me the only way we can do that is we have to have local control, and the way we can have local control is we have to get rid of a state program.”
The Commission believes that the program, as a concept, is a great one but that it is not fairly funded. The concept of the Forestry Services Program is to enhance the trees, enhance the hunting capability in the area, and enhance the tourism opportunities that the Pembina Gorge offers, making the area one that people want to see.
“To do that, it takes dollars which everybody, I think, kind of understands, but to do that, I think, we want local control, and this program is state controlled and that’s my beef. Nothing more, nothing less. And I don’t know how else to solve it,” Dick stated.
The Commission has plans to meet once again with representatives of the North Dakota Forestry Service to determine how best to solve the current problems the county has with the program. The commissioners see the solution coming through either legislation or with the Forestry Service increasing their budget to provide funding to the county for the program.
Dick had spoken with State Legislation Tax Committee Chair Craig Headland about the issue. Headland shared with Dick that this issue had been brought forward in past sessions but due to the fact it would be an increase in tax, nobody would support the update.
“He understands that this was put in 45 years ago, and everybody elses’ taxation went up approximately 400 or 500 percent. But if money is going to be put back into the Forestry Department maybe coming in and subsizing the other $1.50 or $2 or whatever we think is fair, but that has to come through Legislation through the Forestry Department,” Dick explained.
The Forestry Department needing to request this change to how the program is operated has been discussed at length by the Commission as the most plausible solution to the issue of the program continuing. Should no changes be implemented to rectify the concerns that the Commission has put forward to the Forestry Department, the Commission is firm in the decision to no longer renew Foresty Stewardship contracts.