FARGO — With the state taking over most of the funding for county social services agencies in an attempt to keep property taxes down across North Dakota, bumps in the transition were apparent at a meeting Friday, Nov. 15.
State Sens. Judy Lee, West Fargo, and Kathy Hogan, Fargo, along with North Dakota Human Services Director Chris Jones, met with Cass County officials to try to answer some questions about the switch that takes effect Jan. 1.
Statewide, there will no longer be separate social services agencies in the counties, and most will be in new "zones," or groups of counties, to try to cut down on administrative costs and streamline services.
Some counties have already worked together for years, but instead of 45 separate agencies in the state, there will now be only 19, with residents allowed to go for services in any of the offices.
However, four of the state's largest counties — Cass, Burleigh, Grand Forks and Ward — will have their own zones. Cass is the largest as it accounts for about 25% of the caseload statewide.
Lee and Hogan said they knew there would be problems along the way. State legislators and the state human services department are keeping track and hoping to address them in the next session, they added.
Some of the concerns raised Friday as far as Cass County were over the interim director position, salaries and benefits for social services employees, makeup of the new board that will oversee the zone and how the state and county would work together in the future.
Jones told the gathering, which included three county commissioners, that current Social Services Director Chip Ammerman should stay on as the interim director to provide stability and because he is familiar with the budgeting and the old and new systems.
Commissioner Duane Breitling said that sounded like the state was dictating what the county does.
"I have real a problem with that," he said.
The new permanent directors of the zones across the state must be named by April 1. In zones where counties are joining together, up to five former county directors could lose their top positions, although Hogan said there was a provision in the bill that no employees would lose their jobs because of the transition.
When Ammerman was asked what problems he saw, he said his employees were concerned about their salaries and benefits.
Under the new state law, Jones said social services employees statewide will remain under county benefit plans, but counties will be reimbursed. As of Jan. 1, however, the majority of the employees will be paid by state dollars.
Although no one will see salary reductions, pay increases will be dictated by the state.
Jones added that he was seeing "a wide variety of disparities in the state as far as salaries for people doing the same jobs."
He also said his department wanted to be involved in some hiring and firing decisions.
Despite the complaints, Hogan and Lee emphasized their hopes to see a smooth transition to the new system that would go unnoticed by clients, and that the clients were the priority. However, they realized there were going to be the problems.
Hogan added with the funding change, the state Human Services Department wanted to have an "equal voice" in some of the decisions.
"It's a new way of thinking," she said.
The two parties talked at length about who would be on a new "zone board," an advisory board to the newly created agencies. Jones said so far in some of the other zones, a majority of the members were county commissioners, although others appointed included state legislators, private citizens and people in fields associated with social services.
The Cass County commissioners and the current Social Services Board will work on finalizing the plan for the new "zone" that they will submit to the state during two meetings on Monday.
Lee said there will be a meeting for the public to comment on changes in the social services system and on behavioral health issues in the state next Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. at the Ramada Inn in Fargo.