Progress being made

Towns, such as Williston and Watford City, see any downturn in oil production as as opportunity to catch up to housing and infrastructure demands.

As oil drilling is forecast to see a downturn in the Bakken in 2015, the mayor of Watford City concedes people want to know what will happen in one of the fastest-growing towns in the oil patch.

Nothing and everything is his answer.

Brent Sanford said development and land sales are not slowing because the housing and infrastructure that's needed for permanent oil field employees has not been met.

"Basically, based on projections for a need of 7,000 permanent housing units, we're only at about 2,000. We're so far away. We can't let our foot off the pedal here," he said.

Sanford and Williston Mayor Howard Klug are singing from the same page of the oil boom book.

Klug, who was elected this spring after serving on the council, said his city is four years behind and needs to forge ahead.

He said the city has $75 million worth of shovel-ready projects, including building streets to create logical thoroughfares, water extensions and creating a fulltime fire department.

"We need to spend some big dollars out here because we're four years behind. Maybe a slowdown would let us catch up some," Klug said.

He said the city is counting on the so-called surge funding of $800 million proposed by state officials to quickly give oil communities money they need for critical projects.

Drilling downturn or not, the money is still crucial, he said.

"They (state officials and legislators) can't second guess us guys out here.

The facts are the facts," he said.

He said delays cost money, too.

Klug said Williston knew four years ago it needed a new sewage plant, but didn't have the necessary oil revenue or the means to borrow money.

"Now, the funding finally came through, but we'll pay $105 million by having to wait," he said.

Klug said the city auditor keeps close tabs on revenue and the city is watching its books to stay in tune with money coming in and going out, particularly variances in oil and sales tax revenues.

"If it gets to the point where we need to start canceling projects, we'll make a list. At this point, we're planning to go ahead," he said.

Sanford said Watford City has $65 million in projects, including a second water treatment plant, ready to bid in January, based upon anticipated surge funding.

He said local drilling should remain strong because the county's on top of the Bakken sweet spot, where the most prolific wells are drilled.

"Even with a downsizing in the entire region, our rig count could go up," Sanford said.

Still, the city will be watchful, because a lowered rig count will affect oil tax revenue overall, according to Sanford, who says his fear is the Legislature will weaken in its resolve to provide surge funding and share more oil taxes with the impacted towns and counties on the front lines.

"I'm hoping they look at the long-term play, not a temporary downtown," he said.

Dickinson's city administrator Shawn Kessel said his city will move forward with the necessities on its list, the infrastructure projects critical to support its fast growth.

He said projects are ranked by how vital they are and by how many people's lives they touch.

Oil officials expect that, with the drop in oil prices and fewer rigs, drilling will concentrate activity in the "big" four counties — Williams, McKenzie, Mountrail and Dunn — and retract from fringe production zones around Dickinson and elsewhere.

Kessel said most of the community's growth comes from people who already work in those areas, but choose Dickinson for its quality of living.

"The primary driver in our growth comes from people who commute. We're cautiously optimistic," he said.

Even so, the city will carefully watch oil tax-related income to be sure it can afford such budget items as the 15 new city employees it planned to bring on in 2015.

"We are making contingency plans," Kessel said.

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Reach reporter Lauren Donovan at 701-220-5511 or lauren@westriv.com.