Measure offers cash for changing N.D. institutionsNorth Dakota’s long-simmering debate about the number of its state institutions is percolating again in the Legislature, where two House members have proposed incentives for overhauling how state facilities are used.
By: By Dale Wetzel, The Associated Press , The Jamestown Sun
BISMARCK — North Dakota’s long-simmering debate about the number of its state institutions is percolating again in the Legislature, where two House members have proposed incentives for overhauling how state facilities are used.
The legislation offers state grants equal to 10 years of each institution’s budget “to assist the institution and community in the transition to an alternative use,” says the bill, which is sponsored by Rep. Rick Berg, R-Fargo, and Lee Kaldor, D-Mayville.
Private companies and nonprofit organizations could take part in drawing up plans for new uses with assistance from the state Office of Management and Budget, the measure says. The agency is asking for $160,000 to help with developing plans.
The legislation is certain to draw attention at North Dakota’s smaller colleges — which have had to fend off suggestions for years that they be sold or closed — as well as the state Developmental Center at Grafton and North Dakota’s School for the Deaf in Devils Lake.
At a House Education Committee hearing last week, Berg mentioned the Developmental Center and the School for the Deaf as examples of state institutions with building space that could be converted to other uses. Both serve significantly fewer people than they once did.
The bill “is designed to encourage some creative thinking on how to utilize our current assets, so those assets will become economic engines in the future,” Berg said.
Mayville Mayor Donald Moen said he did not believe Mayville State University supporters would warm to the idea. “I think the citizens of Mayville, for the most part, would not be interested,” Moen said.
“We’ve got some very strong sentiment in favor of growing and building Mayville State, and I think there’s some progress being made in that direction,” Moen said. “I think we would probably stand our ground as a community and fight a change.”
Last year, Devils Lake’s City Commission approved a study and hired an architect to explore whether to convert part of the School for the Deaf into a community center, at an estimated cost of $7 million. Among the school’s attractions as a community center are its kitchen and Olympic-sized indoor swimming pool.
Mayor Fred Bott said the city does not have financing for the project, and he said he was curious whether the legislation would help to provide some.
“Not surprisingly, as often happens, we don’t have the revenue source yet to go much further than the plan,” Bott said. “We have the architect’s plans and that is it ... so I’ll have to admit, this bill is interesting.”
Grafton Mayor Todd Burianek said parts of the Developmental Center, which cares for mentally retarded North Dakotans who also have physical handicaps, already have been converted to other uses, including apartments and a Veterans Administration clinic.
“In general, whatever we can do to best utilize the space out there is fine with me, and I think the citizens would embrace that,” Burianek said. “However, we also recognize the ultimate need to provide those services to the current (Developmental Center) clients, and additional clients, as the case may be.”
The approval of the state’s voters would be needed to completely convert any institution to another use. North Dakota’s Constitution specifies that the state must have a School for the Deaf in Devils Lake, a college in Mayville and an institution for the mentally retarded in Grafton.
Legislative debates about whether the constitution should specify the locations and duties of colleges and other state institutions were common in the 1980s and 1990s. An amendment to remove the constitution’s references to eight colleges was finally put on the ballot in 1998, only to be defeated by voters.
Berg and Kaldor said they are aware of the issue’s political sensitivity. Berg, who says he is not running for re-election, joked at the bill’s House Education hearing last week that it was appropriate for him to introduce the bill when he has “no political future.”
Kaldor, at the bill’s House Education hearing, sounded a similar note.
“Rep. Berg talked about his political future,” Kaldor said. “He asked me to sign onto this bill so that I might end mine.”
The bill is HB1460.