April 11, 2012
There is a great deal of concern among my household and that of thousands of households in western North Dakota. I am a life long North Dakotan as is my spouse. Both our families have long standing ties to the community that trace back to homesteading days. Our grand parents and great grand parents came to this state two and three generations ago and by the sweat of their brow and the callousing of their hands carved out a life, a community, a future from the land. Some years were good to them, some not, as is the case when you rely on God’s grace to send rain when needed, to hold storms at bay until harvest in done, to keep the family healthy and safe in between.
North Dakota has been blessed with abundant natural resources, both in the agriculture sector, which includes our families, as well as the energy sector which touches all of us whether or not one has an interest in those resources. One could say that we are in a “good” cycle now and they would be able to make a strong case for that argument. In many cases they are right. The state has, as you are aware, reaped a bountiful harvest from the recent activity in oil exploration and production. Ron Ness, President of the North Dakota Petroleum Council recently reported that there are 5300 wells operating in the state with that to certainly increase. The deputy tax commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger reported in a recent interview that the state has harvested 350,000 barrels of oil per day in March of this year and the state projects to receive $2 billion in oil tax revenue over the next two years. Ron Ness indicated production could reach 700,000 barrels per day by 2015. The last two year budget included $1 billion in savings earmarked for the various state trust funds. In the calendar year 2010, 31% of North Dakota’s tax revenue came directly from oil taxes. It may be more as of this date.
There are many numbers that help tell the story. The city of Williston for example has been rated by the U.S. Census Bureau as the fastest growing micropolitan area in the United States between April 1, 2010 and June 1, 2011 with a growth rate of 8.8%. In 2010 Williston’s population was estimated at 17,000. In 2012 that number has been estimated at 38,000. Tom Rolfstad of the Williston Economic Development Association has cited sources estimating this to grow to 50,000 in 3 years and 100,000 in 5 to 7 years. A similar growth is being experienced through out western N.D.
Watford City’s population swelled from 1500 to 6000 in 18 month. Tioga had a residential population of 2000 a short time ago, but that has certainly doubled during this expansion.
The impacts of this growth are evident in many ways. Williston schools struggle to stay afloat. In a PBS NewsHour September 27,2012 interview, District 8 Principal Steve Guglich said he expects the districts enrollment to double in the next couple years. The school district hired 14 new teachers last year according to Mr. Guglich. 5 are still without permanent housing. In the same interview, Williston Public School District 1 Superintendent Viola LaFonataine echoed those concerns. She said the student influx has required the revamping and use of an old and outdated elementary school building, Mcvay, and the use of multiple portable class rooms. 34 portables were added last year alone, 24 at Mcvay, and 8 at Williston Middle School. The housing shortage has caused harm to students as well as teachers. According to Superintendent LaFontaine there were approximately 19 homeless students in district 1 five years ago. Today there are 170. As families move to the area this crisis will intensify.
Is there a doctor in the house? Increasingly, in western North Dakota, the answer is no. Scare you? If not it should. Maybe where you live you have ample access to healthcare with a variety of specialists. I say that’s wonderful. But at the same time I say to you, your fellow North Dakotans deserve the same care, or at the very least basic level care. Hospitals here have taken a beating. A Stanford University Rural West Initiative piece dated October 1 2012 addresses the issues we face here and is well worth a look.
Healthcare access in rural areas has always been challenging but has become critical with the oil boom and influx of population. Physicians, nurses and all levels of healthcare professionals have been stretched to the limit. Because of the rural nature of the state, the recruitment of new physicans and healthcare professionals is difficult. In the past the population was aging and therefore a different approach was needed to care for them. Recently the patients being served are younger and the injuries and needs quite different. Families with newborns are increasing, as are industrial and vehicular accident and trauma injuries. With limited walk-in services in the community many services are provided at the E.R. level. The Stanford article quotes a statistic by Matt Grimshaw, CEO at Mercy Medical Center in Williston, that pre-boom E.R. visits were about 8,000 per year. In 2013 that will triple to more than 24,000. The article quotes the CEO of Tioga Medical Center, Randall Pederson and Dr. Tyrone Langager at Montrail County Medical Center in Stanley addressing similar concerns with E.R. visits off the charts.
Bad debt is increasing as well, mostly due to the fact that even with good paying jobs, housing is not available. Those receiving services disappear into the community without a traceable address. Even with precautions to obtain as much information as possible, they are sometimes like a wisp of smoke. The workforce in this area is very “fluid” to say the least. Grimshaw indicated pre-boom bad debt at $2 million per year. This year? $7 million. This is not sustainable.
Law enforcement, firefighters, or ambulance departments have felt the pressure as well. Law enforcement reports a 260% increase in emergency calls since 2009. Nights with 30 or more calls are common now. In the past there were an average of 5 or 6 a night. Ambulance calls have doubled in the last 5 years with 436 vehicular crashes last year, many between cars and semis, however the Williston Fire Department still has the same number of employees it had prior to the boom. The police department has fared slightly better and has been authorized by the Williston City Commission to hire 7 new officers and have done that. They are needed as DUI’s are up 77% from 2009 numbers. More domestic calls, crashes, fights, more child abuse cases.
What will it take to recruit professionals for all areas? More doctors, nurses,lawyers, dentists, therapists, accountants, teachers, firefighters, law enforcement, retail, hospitality industry, or tradesman? One word. Infrastructure.
Williston hired the services of Advanced Engineering and Environmental Services Incorporated to assess those needs. Here is a quick, but certainly not all inclusive, “laundry list” of what they reported as essential. The needs of the city in their opinion include, $102 million for storm sewers, $18 million for solid waste, $23 million water plant upgrade, $87 million for waste water improvements, and $258 million for roads and transportation.
That’s just the “ground work ” but it is essential in order to build homes, that will bring families that will fill out our community and broaden the tax base. It will bring the teachers to teach, the store owners to provide goods and services, the healthcare workers to care for our families, and the clergy to minister to us. It will provide the city workers to care for our city, to keep it clean, keep it safe, and promote not only Williston, or Tioga, Stanley, Watford City, or Dickinson, but North Dakota as a whole. We have a rare opportunity here, a once in a lifetime opportunity to show the nation and in some instances the world what we can do here in rural America. We can provide a way to lift our country out of its dependence on foreign oil. We can provide jobs to Americans and security to the nation at the same time, but we can not do it alone. We need our legislators.We need them to see a vision that is not a two year or three year vision. We need them to look a dozen years, two dozen years down the road. To see what will be not only next year, but next generation. That vision requires courage. It requires a bit of a risk. It requires funding. Without courage it will be difficult to take that first step. Without enduring risk it will be difficult to stay steady and patient and without funding it will be impossible altogether.
I hope they strike down proposed cuts in funding to oil impacted communities. When the “collection plate” is passed please take a moment to support adding to it. It is an investment in our fellow North Dakotans, old and new alike. It is an investment in our children and their children. It is a reminder that we are a state that cares for one another, friend and stranger alike and are a people who are not afraid to meet a challenge. We can do this, we must do this, but we must do so together.