Tony Gehrig: Fargo Leaders Fighting Over Refugees Distracts From Real Spending Problems


Fargo, N.D., City Commissioner Tony Gehrig listens to Commissioner Dave Piepkorn speak about Gehrig's plan to cut the city's property taxes by 20-percent during a city commissioner's meeting at the Civic Center on Monday, July 20, 2015. Nick Wagner / The Forum

“Everyone wants to talk about LSS and I’m over here like….city hall just went up 400k and no one knows.”

I made this comment in jest on my Facebook page but the more people comment on it, the more I realize how true it is.

Don’t get me wrong. Dave Piepkorn has done something I think most people see as necessary by bringing up the true cost of refugee resettlement in our city. Some people find his delivery wanting but what I hear is that the city should know the true cost, and local elected officials should have a seat at the table when deciding how many refugees we take in a year. That shouldn’t be a controversial notion and I think all five commissioners probably agree on that point.

We have city staff, committees, and others working to get us all the information regarding resettlement, and this issue will not be resolved quickly.  Because this is ongoing issue with more information and debate to come, the question begs to be asked: Are we so distracted by this conversation that we are letting real spending happen without a vigilant eye? The blunt answer is, yes.

[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]Iconic is the buzz word we now throw around to justify greater spending. I have a problem with that.[/mks_pullquote]

In case you missed it, the cost of city hall just jumped by $400,000 in a 4-1 vote. Did we make our new city hall bigger? Did we add flood protection?

No, we added massive windows that are apparently “iconic”.

Iconic is the buzz word we now throw around to justify greater spending. I have a problem with that.

The problem is big windows don’t make a building iconic. The problem is we shouldn’t be striving to make our city office building iconic. The problem is this change is the first of many that will raise the cost and will add no functionality to an already expensive building that is meant to be a safe and functional part of local government. We aren’t building a destination. We aren’t building a cathedral to big government. We already rejected that design.

This version of city hall was a compromise. The first $31.5 million plus iteration was rejected by a large portion of the voting public. At my request, we went back to the drawing board, reduced the cost by nearly $10 million, and kept the same amount of usable square footage. While I would have liked to reduce the price more, it was overall a success story for Fargo. Now, the majority of commissioners are trying to Trojan horse additional spending for city hall one change order at a time. The residents of Fargo need to take notice, and more importantly, have their voices heard.

A wise commissioner told me at my first meeting that it is easy to spend more and raise taxes, and it is meant to feel impossible to lower spending and taxes. Dave Piepkorn was right when he told me that. When I offered a plan to lower property taxes I was told that I would sink the city and I was asked who I wanted to fire. But at the last meeting, I was told that we would find $400,000 somewhere to spend more on city hall.

That is a level of hypocrisy I won’t tolerate and nor should you.