The Bismarck Tribune. Jan. 13, 2013

Trust in the people

Agreed: Burleigh and Morton counties should build and operate a new jail.

Beyond that the county commissioners, at this early stage in deciding jail issues, are of several minds — such as where to get the estimated $50 million for jail construction. Some want to establish home rule and use sales tax. Others would rely on general obligation bonds, paid off by property tax collection and/or sales tax.

The division between the commissions is driven, in part, by a sense of urgency. Sheriffs Pat Heinert and Dave Shipman will tell you they could use those cells now and that waiting two or more years would put undue stress on local law enforcement, with the consequences felt by the public.

The public cares about this because $50 million doesn't come easy. Further, people lean toward locking up those charged or convicted of crimes, especially those of a violent nature. For that to happen, more cells are needed.

The issue becomes: How do we get there?

Give the commissioners credit. They are talking through all of the options. They've put the numbers on paper dozens of different ways, trying to find the most cost effective, doable answer. They've done it openly, in public meetings.

The counties also are on solid ground in establishing need. A study was done, and it recommended a joint facility.

The key to the development of a combined jail of some form must be public involvement. The county commissions should not avoid a public vote on financing and taxes. With $50 million at stake, there absolutely should be an up-or-down vote by the taxpayers.

Countywide votes might stretch the timeline; however, spending of this magnitude justifies the delay.

In recent talks, the Burleigh County Commission has focused on two options. The first, a multi-step process, would require the state Legislature change the law so that the county could have a vote on home rule and a sales tax in a special election. That special election might be necessary in Morton and Burleigh counties.

The second option would be for the counties to lease-purchase the jail from a third party. The costs could be picked up by general obligation bonds and/or sales taxes. This second option would not, by law, require a vote of the public.

The home rule/sales tax option could pay off the jail in as little as five years. The lease-purchase option might be for as long as 20 years.

Woven into the thinking over the pros and cons of how to fund the jail is the fear that citizens, faced with a vote to build a $50 million jail, will see little personal benefit and vote no. Jails, typically, have been hard sells.

Be that as it may, we believe taxpayers ought to have a voice on such a large expenditure, whether a jail gets paid for by home rule and sales tax or through a lease purchase agreement. To avoid a vote because local officials believe taxpayers will object runs counter to good government. To push a $50 million expenditure through without a vote, to save time, fails to acknowledge that taxpayers have to work for their money.

Bismarck-Mandan voters have recently approved bond issues for school construction. The Bismarck bond for $86.5 million passed by an 85 percent super majority. In both cases, school boards worked aggressively to provide the public with information prior to the vote. The public was much less well informed on a vote over the proposed expansion of the Bismarck Civic Center, and it failed.

Along the way, public officials have to have some faith that taxpayers will make the right decision.


The Forum of Fargo. Jan. 15, 2013

A stronger higher ed system?

Eyes rolled and jaws dropped when North Dakota's higher education chancellor said he needed 30 additional employees in the University System's office to do the job right. Legislators, most of them loath to add to the state's payroll (even when more workers are necessary), prattled on about how out of bounds Chancellor Hamid Shirvani was.

But on further examination the request might not be so startling. The NDUS staff is 26. Gov. Jack Dalrymple's budget calls for adding seven. Seems generous, until staffing levels are compared to the agenda the chancellor has put forth for the system. Shirvani proposes improvements that are designed to strengthen the higher education system as a system, not 11 campuses going their own ways. He wants more transparency and accountability. His goals have been embraced by the state Board of Higher Education. He seems to have the support of key lawmakers.

It cannot be done with an NDUS staff that is stressed already by a workload that continues to grow, without added responsibilities that will come with the chancellor's mandates. If the system is to be meaningful at all, the administrative and implementation staff should be sized right in order to do the job right.

Shirvani's reforms are as thoughtful as they are ambitious. No doubt they will be modified along the way. He might have shot high for 30 new employees, knowing he won't get all of them.

Consensus is building among educators and legislators that the chancellor did his homework and developed strategies that can strengthen the system. But it can't be a halfway effort. That's a recipe for stagnation, for business as usual. And that means failure.


Grand Forks Herald. Jan. 14, 2013

Colleges routinely own or lease aircraft

Should the aircraft be used as economically as possible? Absolutely. Should North Dakota agencies share their aircraft to bring the cost-per-flight-hour down? Without a doubt.

But throughout the debate about North Dakota State University's leased plane, some have said that university officials shouldn't be flying in state-owned aircraft at all. Such flights are an extravagance, and when NDSU President Dean Bresciani goes to Bismarck to visit the Legislature, he should drive, critics say.

The critics are wrong, as the field of business aviation proves 24 hours a day.

Most of America's more than 6,300 airports serve general aviation aircraft only; just 560 airports handle commercial passenger flights.

And most of the 15,000 business aircraft registered in the United States are flown by small- and mid-sized companies, not large firms.

Clearly, lots of people — including lots of private-sector entrepreneurs and executives, people who answer to a profit-or-loss bottom line — find that the time saved by flying point-to-point more than makes up for the cost, especially when distances are great, commercial air service isn't available and attending a meeting otherwise would consume too much of executives' time.

And what's true for businesses also is true for nonprofit organizations and government. There are more than 2,000 business-type aircraft in government service across the United States, and they "drive taxpayer value in many ways on the federal, state and local levels," concludes 2012 study conducted in part by the National Association of State Aviation Officials.

That's why the University of Wyoming owns and operates an aircraft. "Only employees and guests of the University of Wyoming on university business are permitted to fly on university aircraft," the University of Wyoming Flight Information webpage notes.

That's why Oklahoma State University owns aircraft: "University-owned and operated aircraft may be utilized for university faculty and staff transportation on university business," OSU's website declares.

That's why the University of Tennessee owns aircraft: "It is the intent of these policies that efficient use of university aircraft will be made to conduct official university business. . Time is an important consideration for the president, vice presidents, chancellors and other senior staff."

And Ohio University: "University personnel are encouraged to consider university owned and operated aircraft for business travel."

And the University of Texas system, which, "as authorized by the Legislature, owns and operates a nine-passenger aircraft. . The aircraft is to be used by system faculty and staff in the conduct of official state business, and its use is governed by state law."

And the University of Virginia: "The University Airplane is available as a means of providing on-demand air transportation. . Scheduling priority will be given to the Office of the President in reserving the university's airplane."

And the University of Kansas, whose "University Aircraft Policy" is designed "to provide university personnel with aircraft for traveling on official university business when time is critical to their mission."

And so on.

Again, it's in North Dakota's interest that NDSU — and UND and every other agency — operate aircraft as cost-effectively as possible.

But it's also in the interest of this 69,000-square-mile state, the 20th largest state in the union, to maximize the productivity of its highest paid executives by minimizing their travel time. The list includes the governor, and it includes the university presidents, whose jobs routinely take them to every corner of the state.