BISMARCK – There is an “incredible amount” of anger and frustration in Williams County over how the oil boom has affected the way of life for local residents, a county commissioner said Thursday.
Officials from the oil and gas counties appeared one after another to talk to the North Dakota Legislature’s interim energy committee about the challenges they face and how much money they need to address oil impacts.
Housing, crime, lack of employees, strained budgets, stressed emergency services, traffic, day care shortages and the need for more schools were among the topics brought up.
Williams County Commissioner Dan Kalil received applause from the audience after his testimony about the toll the boom has taken on Williston. The area is short on patience, jail space, groceries and fuel; and long on sewage, garbage, anger and frustration, he said.
“Our quality of life is gone. It is absolutely gone,” he said. “My community is gone, and I’m heartbroken. I never wanted to live anyplace but Williston, North Dakota, and now I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Kalil said his goal as a local official was to leave his county better than he found it, but now he doesn’t know if that’s possible. All of the challenges are a symptom of what the problem is: too much too fast, Kalil said.
“This level of activity has only led to unwarranted greed and unbelievable pressure on everyone,” he said. “We cannot sustain this. Somebody has to be brave enough to stand up and say, ‘Too much, too fast.’ ”
The state has “a moral obligation” as a stakeholder to do everything it can to help, he said.
“We cannot destroy North Dakota to fill the coffers of Bismarck. We cannot do this,” Kalil said, referring to the oil and gas tax revenue the state receives. “We went from oil exploration to oil exploitation.”
The sentiment in Williams County is that the third- and fourth-generation culture is being traded for a transient work force and “the mug shots of two undesirable people from Colorado,” he said. He was referring to the men heading to the Oil Patch who are now suspected of kidnapping a Montana teacher who is presumed dead.
Legislators also heard about the strain on volunteer ambulance departments overwhelmed with calls.
Volunteers are stressed and hard to find due to the increased time commitments, lack of funding, and need for more training and equipment, said Cody Friesz, administrator of the North Dakota EMS Association.
The calls ambulance personnel respond to are also more gruesome than they used to be, which stresses volunteers, said Donna Scott, a Dunn County commissioner.
School officials from throughout western North Dakota discussed their climbing enrollments, the need for more school buildings and the need for more impact funding from the state.
The distributions to schools in the oil counties are not answering the rapid-growth issues, said Gary Wilz, superintendent of Killdeer Public Schools.
Housing is in such demand, said Shawn Kessel, Dickinson’s city administrator, that his uncle, who owns a four-bedroom home in Dickinson, sleeps in one bedroom and rents out the other three at $800 a month each.
City sanitation truck drivers have been recruited while on their garbage routes because oil companies prize employees who are licensed to drive commercial trucks, Kessel said.
Although the census counted Dickinson’s population at about 18,000, Kessel believes the city is serving about 22,000 people. North Dakota State University has estimated the city’s population will grow to 35,000 people within four years, Kessel said.
“We’re going to have to basically pick up the city of Mandan and drop it into the city of Dickinson, and do it in four to five years,” he said. “That means adding all the roads, all the fire, all the police, and everything else.”
Brad Bekkedahl, a Williston city commissioner, said although his city’s population is growing rapidly, almost 1,000 longtime residents have left in the last two years, fed up with the city’s newly acquired crowding and traffic problems.
“Those are the people that built our churches, went to our PTAs. They built our community. It’s tough to lose those people,” Bekkedahl said. “We’re getting more back in, but we’re losing our core.”
Energy Committee Chairman Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said Thursday’s testimony indicated that legislators need to look at revising the gross production tax formula and send more money to political subdivisions. Legislators also need to look at more money for roads, he said.
There’s no question help is needed to address the impacts, Wardner said. While there are those who want to spend the state’s oil revenue on assorted causes, the state needs to take care of the oil counties, he said.
“We may have a lot of money, but we have a lot of needs,” he said. “They’re the ones that are taking the hit for the whole state.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.