Retiring city finance director oversaw Fargo's budgets for quarter of a century – INFORUM

FARGO — Kent Costin, who has overseen the City of Fargo’s finance for the past quarter century, believes the city is in “great shape” as he retires.

In those 25 years, and 10 years before that as a city accountant, he has seen the budget increase substantially as the city has grown.

The general fund budget that covers most of the day-to-day operations of the city has grown from $28.3 million in 1996 to $104.5 million in 2022.

The city population has grown right along with the budget, from about 75,000 that year to almost 126,000 in the last census.

Costin, a native of Hallock, Minnesota, believes the city will continue to grow. He said almost 50,000 residents in the metro area are in the 20-29 age group, which he believes means the city is “attracting and retaining local talent.”

He pointed out that of the nation’s 19,000 municipalities, only 300 have populations more than 100,000, putting Fargo in an elite group — but also in a position of complexity as the city operations have had to grow.

His department, with 15 employees, oversees not only the city budget, but also works with the Red River Regional Dispatch Center, Hector International Airport, pension funds, and is the fiscal agent for the Fargo-Moorhead Diversion.

Yet, he said the city has allowed him to “work in an environment that is in alignment with my personal values, a position of trust and integrity.”

Some of those values come from his parents. His father was a contractor who believed in working hard, doing high quality work and being humble. His mother, he said, taught him patience.

He joked that he had two goals in his career: To not make the front page of The Forum (as it’s usually bad news) and to make sure things don’t blow up under my watch.

That hasn’t happened, he said, in the 25 years as financial director during which he worked under four mayors, with each one possessing unique qualities and skills, he said.

“They have had the courage to deploy strategies that make sense,” he said about the city leaders. “It’s rewarding when creative, innovative strategies are undertaken that save taxpayer money.”

He realizes people’s concerns about property taxes and special assessments.

As for the city’s share of the tax bill, which also includes the school district, county and park district mill levies, he said the city’s mill rate stood at almost 62 mills about 25 years ago. The past decade has seen some of the largest decreases, from 58.25 mills in 2011 to 53 mills this year where it’s likely to stay fairly steady.

“Some people probably don’t realize that property taxes only make up about 31% of the city’s (general fund) budget,” he said, with the rest coming in state and federal aid, transfers from utility funds, fees and fines and investment income.

He said the huge growth in the city’s commercial tax base has helped to keep residential property tax rates modest, although boosts in home values, especially in the past few years, are causing bills to go up.

Costin said he has been on two task forces to try to reduce property owner shares of the controversial special assessments, with the latest examination two years ago resulting in a 70-30, city-property owner split on infrastructure projects. At one time not long ago it was a 50-50 split, he said.

He believes the specials are needed and that the city’s financial consultant has called them “a critical revenue source.”

“Someone has to pay,” he said about the infrastructure costs, and he believes the city has maintained and improved roadways and other infrastructure all the way from Hector International Airport to 52nd Avenue South.

Besides what Costin calls “squeaky clean audits” in each of his years, Mayor Tim Mahoney said the city has earned numerous awards for its financial reporting, with one award putting the city at No. 1 among cities in the Midwest for its financial status.

The mayor also said if it wasn’t for Costin and former Cass County Finance Director Mike Montplaisir, he believes the financing for the diversion would have never been achieved.

Costin calls the diversion — the first in the nation with such a public-private partnership for its construction — is a “world class project with great leadership.”

Meanwhile, Mahoney said the city is expected to name Costin’s replacement in April as a nationwide search was narrowed to five candidates who have been interviewed online. Next, the city will pick the finalists who will visit the city for in-person interviews in the coming weeks.

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