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Sorting home buyouts isn't easy

Cass County home buyout tour

Cass County unsure how to rank low-lying properties

The owners of 140 flood-prone Cass County homes outside Fargo are willing to sell to the county, but officials haven't decided which houses to put first in line.

Setting those priorities will not be easy, County Commissioner Ken Pawluk realized on a tour of buyout areas taken Tuesday by the county's Flood Buyout Program Committee.

"I thought it would be more obvious," Pawluk said. "Every place we've been is bad."

Establishing which properties are at the top of the list is important. The county may not be able to afford buying out all interested sellers like it did in 1997.

Cass County Engineer Keith Berndt said the value of the houses on the list is about $30 million, using the assessments used for property tax purposes.

But buying the houses is bound to cost more, he said. The buyout committee expects to get a consultant's estimate of how much more at a meeting on Friday.

Even if the total is not much more than $30 million, the price tag is hefty given the money available.

Cass County will apply for buyout funds through a Federal Emergency Management Agency program that has about $25 million to purchase flood-wrecked homes that were covered by flood insurance.

About one-quarter of the 140 houses on the buyout list didn't have flood insurance, Berndt said. Plus, it's a national program available to any flood-damaged area, he said.

North Dakota is also in line for some hazard mitigation money that could be used for buyouts, a block grant equal to 15 percent of the money FEMA gave in a state for public assistance.

By last week, FEMA had granted about $6.5 million in public assistance in North Dakota - 15 percent of which is $975,000. Cass County plans to apply to the state for a share of that.

Because buyout funding will likely be tight, the buyout applications will be sent in prioritized chunks.

"We don't want it to be all or one," Berndt said.

Still, Cass County Tax Director Frank Klein said it's too soon to know whether the county will get to buy all homes on the list.

Tuesday's tour - taken in a bus typically used for transporting jail inmates to court - was helpful to see each situation, said County Auditor Michael Montplaisir.

"How do you build a dike behind that home there?" he asked, gesturing toward a home in Orchard Glen.

The tour also showed that the list, which includes homes in the cities of Oxbow and Briarwood, is already pretty lean, Pawluk said.