JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Just How Rich Is Billings County?

I’ve been moping around the house most of this cold, wet, windy, dreary, week, feeling sorry for myself because I can’t get out in the garden. I managed one garden day early in the week and planted about half of what I hope will be this year’s potato crop, but I’ve got a big bag of seed potatoes in the garage waiting to be cut up and dropped into the good, rich dirt in my garden.

The weatherman says that’s not going to happen any time soon — it’s still cold and windy out there again today —so I decided to spend some time following up on something I wrote in this space a week or so ago. This past week, I wrote about possible funding to build the new bridge over the Little Missouri State Scenic River. I said that “Billings County is one of the richest counties in the state …”

Well, I’ve been saying that for a while, and so have others, but I thought maybe I should try to verify it, which brings me to the point of this week’s ramblings.

I’m going to start out by saying I love Marcia Kessel. Don’t worry, John Kessel, it’s not romantic love. I’m not IN LOVE with your wife. So let me put that another way. My readers know I just love the North Dakota Bad Lands, and Billings County, home to Medora and headquarters for Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Marcia is the Billings County auditor and treasurer. And I just love the way she does her job as Billings County’s gatekeeper.

And yes, you read that right. Auditor and treasurer. In about two-thirds of North Dakota counties, those are two separate people, in two separate offices. But not in Billings County. Billings County, with 1,018 residents counted in 2022, is the second-least-populous county in North Dakota. But even the county with the smallest population, Slope County, Billings County’s neighbor to the south, with a population of just 672 in 2022, elects two different people to the jobs.

That tells you something about Marcia Kessel. She wears both hats, gets the job done just fine and saves her residents money.

So with a bunch of free time on my hands this week, I enlisted Marcia’s help in answering the question: How rich is Billings County? Could the county really afford to just go ahead and build its bridge without any state or federal help? I sent Marcia an e-mail asking “… is there any way I can find out how much money Billings County has in the bank?”

As always, when I send her an e-mail, Marcia’s response was prompt. Less than 24 hours later, I got an e-mail back from Marcia that said, “Attached please find the treasurer’s cash report for the end of March.”

Sure enough, there it was, a spreadsheet showing every single penny of Billings County’s money. All $70,987,772.59 of it. You read that right. Almost $71 million dollars. Cash. In the bank. That’s almost $71,000 for every single resident of Billings County.

And it was by asking that money question that I learned about Marcia’s two hats. I studied that spreadsheet for a while and then went poking around the Billings County website, and there I learned that Marcia was not just the Billings County auditor, as I had thought all along, but also the Billings County treasurer.

But back to matters at hand. The question of paying for that bridge. Now, Billings County commissioners couldn’t exactly use all of that $70 million to build the bridge. The Road and Bridge Fund has just $9 million. But they have $12 million in their Capital Improvement Fund, $13 million in their General Fund, $5.5 million in their Operating and Maintenance Reserve Fund and a little more than a million dollars of federal money in their Highway Distribution Fund. Plenty of money to build a bridge, I’d say.

Sheesh. Seventy million dollars.

Let’s look at it this way. If Billings County was a corporation, which it kind of is, and its thousand residents were the stockholders, which they kind of are, they’d each have about $71,000 worth of stock.

So how does that compare to other North Dakota counties? Is it true, as I said, that Billings County is one of the richest counties in the state? Well, let’s compare it with the county I live in, Burleigh, a hundred or so miles down Interstate 94. We have about 100,000 residents, a hundred times as many people as Billings County. If each of us wanted to have the same $70,000 worth of stock in our county, the county would have to have $7 billion in the bank. That’s billion, with a B.

I looked at some financial statements from Burleigh County, and as best I can tell — hey, I’m an English major) — it looks like Burleigh County has somewhere between $60 million and $80 million in the bank. That’s Million. With an M.

I looked around at some other county balance sheets, and what I learned was a number of counties have more money in the bank than Billings County, but on a per-capita basis, Billings is the richest.

Seventy-one million. That’s a lot of money for Marcia Kessel and her staff of three or four, who I can see when I walk by the window of the courthouse, to manage. They’re obviously doing a good job. The county’s rich.

Oh, I’m sure there are other counties out west that are rich as well. But I’ve been paying pretty close attention to Billings County because of its bridge proposal. And every time I’ve needed some information about that, I’ve been able to call on Billings County Auditor/Treasurer Marcia Kessel and get it. And that’s why I love her.

And all this digging into bank statements got me to thinking about somebody else I used to love. Marcia’s dad. Joe Lamb. Yes, THAT Joe Lamb. The president of the Bank of North Dakota during the George Sinner years. Before Sinner appointed him, he was president and owner of Lamb’s Bank in Michigan, N.D. The smallest bank in the state, he claimed. Probably so. Overnight in 1986, he went from running the smallest bank in the state to the largest.

And yes, I loved that guy. He was so much fun to be around. And he was a really good banker. He modernized the state-owned bank, cleaning out a lot of dead wood on the staff, instituting modern banking practices, increasing the bank’s profits and improving the bank’s credit rating.  Joe was a friend of mine, a dear friend, despite the fact he was, appropriate for a banker, one of the two most tight-fisted men I ever knew. (The other was Byron Dorgan. I remember back in Dorgan’s early days in Washington, D.C., someone good-naturedly giving him the nickname “Highpockets Dorgan” because, they said, jokingly, his pocket were up so high he couldn’t get his hands into them to get out any money.)

Joe Lamb died too young, at 68, back in 2003. One of my favorite stories about Joe was the time he and I had to go to a meeting in northeast North Dakota, Walhalla, I think, to represent the Sinner administration. Joe’s secretary at the bank called Bob Watts at Capital Aviation, to charter a plane to get us there in time for an evening meeting and back home again. When we got to the airport, Bob asked Joe if he wanted to take the Cessna 175, or 185. Joe asked what the difference was. Bob replied that the 185 was a little faster, but the 175 was $10 an hour cheaper. Joe said we’d take the 175.

We hopped in, Joe in the front seat beside Bob and me in the back. Somewhere around Devils Lake, just as it was getting dark. we hit a rainstorm. Bob turned on his windshield wiper and steered us through the storm in driving rain. Joe tried to stare out through his wet windshield, but couldn’t see much.

Finally, Joe asked Bob “How come you get a windshield wiper and I don’t?” Bob replied “Well, for $10 more an hour, you could have had one, too.”

Anyway, back to the point of this article. Marcia is one of five children of Joe and Diane Lamb and grew up in eastern North Dakota. She got her college degree in business and ended up in Medora some time after her mother, Diane, who was divorced from Joe, had married a lawyer from out west, Pat Weir, who had bought a ranchette near Medora and was about to become the county’s state’s attorney, a position that he still holds. Marcia hired on as county auditor/treasurer about a dozen years ag, and married a local rancher this past year.

She’s efficient and professional and seems to be the right person for the job right now. The oil boom has changed Billings County, but she seems to steer the commissioners in the right direction much of the time. They rely on her a lot. So do those of us who write stories about Billings County.

So my little quest to find out about Billings County’s wealth led me down memory lane in a week that wasn’t good for much else. I’ve rambled on a bit here. Thanks for letting me reminisce. It was way more fun than writing about a really BAD idea —a Bridge to Nowhere in the Bad Lands.

2 thoughts on “JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Just How Rich Is Billings County?”

  • Richard Henry Watson April 19, 2024 at 12:18 pm


  • John Burke April 19, 2024 at 1:00 pm

    Great piece, Jim! Your articles help me maintain a connection with North Dakota. Even though I’ve chosen not to live there, my sense of connection runs very deep.


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