The 66th North Dakota Legislative session may be long over, but its effects are giving county commissions and auditors across the state major headaches with the struggle to implement Senate Bill 2124. The bill supported by District 10 representatives, North Dakota Department of Human Services (NDDHS) and North Dakota Association of Counties (NDACo) was meant to redesign county social services to improve the quality of services, increase the speed of delivery and reduce costs while continuing to provide property tax relief to the citizens of North Dakota. County officials in the northeast region think the bill misses the mark entirely.
By Melissa Anderson
On Monday, July 8 the meeting room in the Chase Building located in Grafton was packed with various county and state officials. Cavalier County Commissioner Stanley Dick moderated the discussion that sought answers to significant questions regarding the implementation of Senate Bill 2124 by Executive Director Chris Jones and (NDACo Executive Director Terry Traynor.
“It’s really a testament to the interest and dedication of everyone here that they are willing to put in the time…and do this,” Traynor said.
“I fully believe that they can figure this out on their own if they work together and share the resources that they already have. We are more than happy to assist but really believe they already have people in place who are administering these things today and just like any other communities you come together to best deliver the services,” Jones said.
District 10 Senator Janne Myrdal and Representative Chuck Damschen were both present and voicing support for the working together of the counties to deliver the services. Myrdal shared her optimism and belief in the counties in the proposed zone working together.
“The details have to be worked out, and people are always scared that we are going to put in more taxes. Like Cavalier County, they don’t want to be taxed more, and from the legislative point of view- absolutely not- we don’t want to increase taxation. I think this is a good start. They will get together, and they will figure this out,” Myrdal shared.
While the state level officials are optimistic about the bill’s implementation, county officials are not. Over the course of two hours the county commissioners of Cavalier, Pembina, and Walsh along with their respective auditors and states attorneys tried to get answers to questions such as how the payments for indirect costs related to the redesign will be paid out, HR policy applications, who the zonal states attorney will be, and what will happen if the $174 million set aside to fund this runs out.
Jones continued to apply pressure to the Cavalier County commissioners to agree to be the host county for the proposed zone that would include the three counties. Jones explained the reason for this push is because the employee benefits of Cavalier County are the most market competitive. The package also closely matches what the state offers, making Cavalier County the logical choice despite being the smallest county in the zone with the least number of social service workers.
“In most of them, it’s the largest county taking all the smaller ones around them, so it isn’t such a big deal,” Gellner said. “Indirect costs get budgeted under county general. Some of them aren’t excited because some of them were already paying these indirect costs out of county general budget so this isn’t new to them, but for us, we were like ‘we are going to what?’ cause were able to pay all of the expense with all of our levy and not be maxed out.”
Neighboring Walsh County has the most employees in the social services but have maxed out their mills leaving them no where to go to increase their county budget to cover the indirect costs. Pembina sits in a better financial position but again does not have the benefits that Cavalier County provides employees making them unlikely candidates for host. The combined total of social workers in Walsh and Pembina counties that would begin receiving the benefits is 32, nearly two thirds the total number of current Cavalier County employees.
“It’s going to cost just shy of $175,000 to bring them here and give them full health insurance,” Cavalier County Auditor Lisa Gellner said.
That expense along with the other benefits offered such as vacation, sick leave, retirement, etc. are covered by the state. Everything else, however, is not. The items that are needed to complete the social work are considered an indirect cost within the bill meant to streamline and make the services more efficient. Leaving the counties in the zones to pick up the tab. Cavalier County has never needed to supplement the social services budget with funds from county general, making the need for new line items and expenses in the upcoming budget necessary.
“Basically all the state has taken over is the cost of personnel, and those other expenses that we were paying out of the money we were getting from the state, all those expenses now are shifting over to county general,” Gellner said.
Jones and others from the state explained to those in attendance that the indirect costs for the years of 2020 and 2021 will be reimbursed at the 2018 level. After the bill expires in 2021 the indirect expenses i.e. the items needed to complete the social work like computers, paper, buildings, vehicles and utilities will only be reimbursed at a 25 percent rate. The end goal of all this is to “create a more effiecient and effective social service network and system and not about how we reduce costs”.
“It should cost less money administratively and [create] a well-designed system based on the unique needs of Pembina, Walsh, and Cavalier counties,” Jones said.
“Services are important and streamline the government to save money where we can, but change is difficult,” Myrdal said.
One of these indirect costs that is specifically expected to occur in Cavalier County as the pre-ordained host county is the need for additional staff. With only two full-time employees and 30 percent of their time already being spent on payroll, Gellner and her deputy would see their time being 50 percent payroll and 50 percent the rest of the Cavalier County auditor duties.
Gellner has previously requested additional part-time office staff to assist during the next election cycle. In order to handle the substantial work load that will come with administering the program along with completing the current auditor’s office duties, Gellner stated during discussion that it would be essential for her office to have an additional full-time employee.
“It’s a no-brainer; there are going to be expenses that aren’t going to be covered,” Gellner said.
While so many questions were asked relating to indirect costs, especially those that would be taken on by the host county, other questions that had been asked previously remained unsatisfactorily answered. Closing comments of the meeting had one sentiment from Walsh County Commissioner Karen Anderson being shared by many present- that the northeast corner of the state had been doing a good job and was now being unfairly burdened because of other counties. Dick’s shared his frustration with the bill and the inability to receive answers on what Jones considered “ditch” questions such as who has to pay insurance bills for vehicles, who owns the vehicles, if someone gets in a car accident and there is liability, who pays and who is responsible.
“That might be the ditch for him, but it’s not the ditch for us. That’s the roadway we’re on and that frustrates me,” Dick said.
The small step forward made from the meeting was the creation of a steering committee composed of the three county auditors, one county commissioner from each county, and a states attorney. However, there was no commitment made by Cavalier County to become the host county for the zone as there were still many unresolved issues with taking on that responsibility.
“I want to do it right. I want to do what’s best for Cavalier County citizens. It’s the one thing I’ve told Chris Jones and Terry Traynor over, over, and over again- you guys are concerned about the welfare of the clients and the workers. I’ve got to answer to 1,500 tax payers,” Dick said.
Walsh and Pembina counties, while supportive of Cavalier County, both express no desire and little to no willingness to be the host county. That leaves the Cavalier County Commission and Gellner with little doubt that the strong arming to be the host will continue especially with Jones pressuring the Commission to “just be the host county and don’t worry about it.”