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1st 'Operation Prairie Dog' infrastructure grants set to go to North Dakota cities

1st 'Operation Prairie Dog' infrastructure grants set to go to North Dakota cities

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Bismarck and Mandan are set to receive $2.5 million apiece next month in the first distribution of new state infrastructure funding.

The 2019 Legislature passed "Operation Prairie Dog," which created several state funds filled every two years with up to $250 million of oil tax revenue. The money is to be distributed essentially as grants throughout North Dakota for city, county, township and airport infrastructure projects.

The Municipal Infrastructure Fund in December will distribute nearly $29.9 million to 41 cities with populations of 1,000 people or more in non-oil-producing counties. Payments are population-based and range from $125,000 to $2.5 million per city. Payments to cities with fewer than 1,000 residents will depend on other funds in line being filled first.

The money, which has reporting requirements, can be used for "essential infrastructure projects," which include water treatment plants, sewer and water lines, and paved and unpaved road and bridge infrastructure.

"It was meant to take care of those things so they did not have to go to the taxpayer to get these improvements done, so that’s what it’s all about," said Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, who championed the proposal as early as mid-2018 and coined its name after the industrious, burrowing rodent.

Timing of the first distribution was uncertain due to impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on oil tax revenue, which the state collects monthly.

"We were pleasantly surprised to see that that had moved ahead faster than we had anticipated," State Treasurer Kelly Schmidt said. 

The next fund in "Operation Prairie Dog" is the County & Township Infrastructure Fund, capped at $29.9 million. It's unclear when it might fill for distribution. Rep. Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck, who sponsored the bill, said projections have the county fund filling by the end of the state's 2019-21 budget cycle, on June 30.

"That all depends on current (oil) production and on price," Nathe said.

Some state lawmakers are looking at potential tweaks and cleanup language to the "Operation Prairie Dog" formula to be proposed in the 2021 Legislature, but there is yet no specific legislation, he said. 

Bismarck Mayor Steve Bakken said the city likely will use its payment to help offset taxpayer contributions for infrastructure projects "where applicable."

"We've got a lot of projects in the queue right now and we need to take as much burden off of our local taxpayers as we can," he said.

He'd like to see the city wrap up its half-cent sales tax before its 10-year sunset. Bismarck voters in 2018 approved the half-cent sales tax for a list of roadway projects. One of the projects, the $10.5 million 43rd Avenue Northeast reconstruction project, was completed this month.

Mandan plans to use its payment for several road projects.

"It takes a lot of burden off of the taxpayers," Mayor Tim Helbling said. "What we're planning on doing with the majority of it is buying down each street project by 20%, otherwise we wouldn't be able to do it. We'd have to pass 100% of the special assessment costs along. ... It's a huge deal for us."

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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