Strange Priorities In Western North Dakota


Back in 2011, voters in Williston, North Dakota, cast their ballots in favor of a half-cent sales tax increase to fund the cities parks. Keep in mind that Williston is in the heart of the Bakken oil boom, and that sales tax revenues in the city have grown dramatically as a result. The city had $250 million more in in taxable sales than Fargo, which has a metro population nearly 10 times larger than Williston’s.

This chart shows Williston’s dramatic rise in sales tax revenues compared to the state’s four largest cities.


Committing that amount of revenue to parks in a city where growing road, sewer and water infrastructure to keep up population growth has been a challenge has always seemed a little insane to me. And the spending decisions being made with that windfall in tax revenues prove my point. Williston is building, with funds from this sales tax increase, what is being described as the largest municipal water park in the nation complete with an indoor surfing facility.

Meanwhile, a vote on taxes raising money for school improvements in the city (dramatic population growth has meant dramatic enrollment growth) just went down in flames:

Nearly two thousand voters came to the polls in Williston yesterday and said “no” to a plan to raise 55 million dollars for school improvements and building projects.

The final vote tally showed 1415 against the plan and only 551 in favor.

A second question that would have allowed a much smaller tax increase also failed.

Williston Superintendent Dr. Viola LaFontaine says the votes leave the district in a money crunch, but leaders will regroup and come up with another way to deal with the influx of students caused by the oil boom in the region.

Here’s an idea: How about holding off on the indoor surfing facility until you have enough classroom space for all the school kids?

Rob Port is the editor of In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters.

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  • Noodak

    While I did support Williston’s right to build the water park, the whole school thingy leaves me scratching my head.

    • Rob

      I never disputed that the citizens of Williston had the right to raise their own taxes and build an extravagant water park. I just questioned the wisdom of the policy given a) the city’s other priorities and b) the complaints about how the state isn’t helping out enough with local oil impacts.

      It’s a little hard to believe that Willison needs more state money when they’re building an indoor surf facility.

      • awfulorv

        It’s apparent that lethargy on the part of concerned citizens, in the face of vigorous efforts by proponents of these boodoogles, is the root cause of these projects going forward. The White Elephant in Grand Forks, the larger than needed swimming pool at Davies High in Fargo, and now this facility, which, it seems, has to be built right now, when there are so many other projects which deserve attention. It appears that a new game, Common Sense Casting, has overcome the country sometime back while we, of the “greatest generation”, sat on our plaudits, not wanting to spoil their party by slapping the “Yutes” upside their heads, and kicking their arses, thus keeping them on, what we thought to be, the right course. Alas…

  • reggy

    The school district worked for a year and a half on a bad model that at no point ever had community support, the voters said no to a tax increase for a proposal they didn’t like, and you’re calling them out for not passing a tax hike to pay for something they didn’t want? What was so great about their plan that makes you think it should’ve gotten support?

    If you’d done any research you’d realize that this wasn’t a vote against improving education in Williston; there’s consensus agreement that it isn’t where it should be in terms of facilities or quality of education. It was a decisive vote against the current administration and their inability to come up with something that the community could buy in to.

    • Rob

      I’m not commenting on whether or not the schools proposal was necessarily a good proposal.

      I’m commenting on priorities where indoor surfing is a funding issue that gets addressed before schools.

  • WOOF

    Oil doth make Arabs of us all.
    Ski Dubai.

    • guest

      So if obama were to lift his ban on drilling here in the states, that would make us all Americans? Now, thanks to you I know why obama won’t drill, he hates America and Americans. Thanks for your insight.

  • ND Observer

    It appears that as much as Williston needs funding for schools, voters do not have confidence in the school district administration. LaFontaine was before the Legislature begging for money claiming hundreds of new students that never showed up. It is clear to me that voters was to have confidence in leadership before giving them money,

  • bigdaddybernie

    Never forget the ” Oil Separation Tax ” which was dedicated to ” Education “! . . . . What a SCAM that was !

  • MetisMick

    Now you’re going to get the surfing community up in arms!!

  • Lynn Bergman

    Republicrats in the legislature will bail out Williston schools. Democrat voters in North Dakota can vote either party’s representatives in to get the Democrat platform implemented.

  • kevindf

    How many voters there have school age children?

  • Flamejob5

    Based upon what i’ve heard from a few family member’s up there the city was asking for a 25% increase in new property taxes. …and not long after a previous hike in property taxes after recent reassessments since the boom.

    I would have voted no too.

  • jimmypop

    how the f do you only have 2,000 voters voting on $55M in stuff? that is scary right there….

    regardless, this is the very reason why moving all our taxes to bismarck was stupid. at least the local had a say here. if the money went to bismarck, i bet youd have $55M in new expenses…, buildings…going up next year.

    • Rob

      Yeah, the locals are so brilliant they indoor surf facility when they dont have enough road or sewer infrastructure.


    • Former Willistonite

      EASY! they did not promote the election, they tried to steal it by only telling those they thought would favor it, teachers students etc, there was a lot wrong with how this election was handled. I’m thinking this isnt over…

  • JW-American

    If the way I understand the proposal, they wanted to tear down and already packed school (Rickard) and replace it with a huge monster 1000plus student elementary school. (West Fargo did many studies on Elementary school sizes, and 550 seemed to be the max that you would want to have in an Elementary school before the children start to loose out)

    2) Tear down a second (packed) elementary school Wilkinson and replace it with a large elementary school.

    That in itself was poor planning enough for me to veto it, had I lived there. then they wanted to build a new middle school too.

    Here’s an Idea… close down the mission of UND-Williston for a 4 year Hiatus, use the classroom space for High School classes and shift some of the Middle school classes across the parking lot to the High school. at least till they get a handle on what this boom means to the school district as far as permanency and attendance goes.

    I understand that most of the classrooms in the main hall of UND-W have been converted into office space for the instructors, and the tech trades have been reduced dramatically, (Welding, auto/diesel mech a which really begs the question… what do they teach there and could it be taught elsewhere at least for a short time?

    the brand spanking new student housing units could come in handy for new police, sheriffs and teachers ’till rents come down a bit in town.

    but alas, they will just get more money from the state and build, baby build.