Fargo imposes sharp tax hike, brushing aside citizen concerns

The sizable property tax and utility fee hikes first proposed by the Fargo City Commission this summer set off alarm bells at The Forum editorial board. The headline of the paper’s editorial was blunt: “Fargo City Hall needs to rein in spending, demonstrate fiscal stewardship.”

There’s no other way to put this: The Fargo City Commission has lost control of its budget. Fiscal restraint seems to have gone out of vogue at City Hall.

The first sign of trouble came in June, when we learned that the city had racked up two budget deficits in a row of unprecedented magnitude.

While acknowledging the impact of inflation makes the price of everything more expensive, the editorial posed basic questions to city officials.

Where are the signs that the city has worked to reduce costs? Have memos gone out to city staff to curb travel, conserve supplies and eliminate unnecessary spending? What cutbacks have been made?

Many families and businesses have cut back to cope with higher costs, but it appears to be business as usual at Fargo City Hall.

Taxpayers also weighed in recently at their last chance to persuade commissioners to rethink the impending $11 million in property tax and utility fee hikes on residents. The Forum noted every speaker at the public meeting spoke out against the relentlessly rising cost of local government, except one–a public employee.

Most residents voiced concern over the rising costs, inspiring those attending the meeting to clap in agreement. Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney had to make repeated calls for silence, threatening a recess.

“I do not have the funds to pay these taxes,” resident John Sierman said in a tearful speech, gesturing at the crowd. “I am the one, we are the ones, to sacrifice.”

Over the last two years he’s seen his property taxes go up 9% and 15%, respectively, he said, while his power bill and food bill have also increased. Meanwhile, he’s only gotten a 4% raise at work for the last three years, he said.

When the dust settled, however, all but one city commissioner voted this week to approve a nearly $120 million city budget, seven percent higher than in 2023.

“This was not easy,” Mayor Tim Mahoney said. “In fact, this was the most difficult budget I have ever done during my 18 years at the city of Fargo.”

The city raised taxes and fees as a “last option” in a “challenging economy,” Mahoney said, citing Fargo’s rapid growth, the city’s workforce difficulties and an increased demand for public safety.

Despite the outcome, the Forum editorial board managed to highlight a positive development, namely increased transparency.

It’s troubling that the city of Fargo’s Finance Committee met monthly for more than 25 years in meetings that were closed to the public.

In fact, the mere existence of the committee wasn’t widely known.

Because the Finance Committee is mostly composed of city staff members — but also includes the mayor and one city commissioner — the rationale for the closed meetings was that these were simply routine staff meetings, not public meetings where policy was decided.

Beginning this year, after inquiries from The Forum’s Melissa Van Der Stad, the Finance Committee meetings became open to the public.