By Brad Mosher
There is going to be some big changes in how Hettinger County handles its social services needs.
None will bigger than when the all of the counties in the state must adapt to a new state-mandated re-alignment of social services by New Years Day in 2021.
Hettinger will not be the only county to combine counties into larger zones – it will combine with Stark, Dunn, Golden Valley, Billings and Beach counties.
The adoption of a zone system is part of a plan set up by the state several years ago and set up a timetable for the transition which ends in January 2021.
The first step was to identify the counties in each human service zone, identify the host county and determine the board members for each zone as part of an agreement.
By December 2019, each zone is supposed to have its zone agreements finished and a zone board established.
According to the guidelines, the zone board needs to have no more than 15 board members appointed by county commissioners; have at least one county commissioner from each county in the zone, elect a vice presiding presiding officer and appoint a secretary, and establish a procedure for review of the claims against the human service zone human services fund.
The first zone payment will be due in early January. At that time, the zone payment will be based on the most recent data for the area and be made to the host county.
By the end of March in 2020, a zone director needs to be hired by the zone board. He or she would be employees by the zone and located within the service area. The director would also be serving as the presiding officer.
By the end of June, the board must have a zone plan organized with access points and covering the changes in roles with plans to meet the guidelines.
Biggest change in history
According to the Hettinger County Social Services executive director, Doug Weghi, the social services department is going through probably its biggest change in Hettinger County history.
“We have been county social services and each county has had its own social service boards since 1935. What is going to happen now is that we (Hettinger County) are going to a multi-county social service district that will be called zones.
“Hettinger County won’t have their own social services board any more,” said Weghi, who has been a county director since 1985. That was also a reason to recently honor former board members with a tree planting behind the social services building on Millionaire Avenue in Mott. There were nine former board members recognized with the memorial tree planting in early July.
The decision to join with the Stark County group was simple. “For us, if you look at New England, we are only 27 miles away from Dickinson. It makes sense to work with the bigger group. That is why we went in that direction. From Mott, it is roughly 60 miles to Dickinson. As far as the zone, we (Hettinger County) has decided to go north.”
“About two legislative sessions ago, there was pretty strong discussion with the legislature and the Association of Counties about the property tax burdens. They were looking at property tax relief,” Weghi said.
“What came out of the session two years ago, they came up with a funding formula and they started funding social services. In most of the counties, they (the state) fully fund it. But in some counties, they didn’t fully fund because of the formula.
“It drove down into the property tax that the counties had. Now, they have gotten rid of those tax authorities and so social services will be strictly paid for with state funding,” he explained.
“That was the impetus… the starting point. Then they started saying if they going to be paying for this, what else can we do and how else can we start to work together,” the county director said.
Over the years, the programs have gotten more complicated over the years. “In small counties, it is hard for one worker to know all the programs and all the program rules. But, if we go to a multi-county concept, each worker will specialize in some program. They will become an expert.”
The zone will be able to take a look and so who the best worker is in the region to handle the problem, he explained. “It might be a worker coming from a different county… it might be a Hettinger County worker doing something in Stark (County). We always think Stark because Stark is the bigger county, but it will be probably where the expertise will be.”
Locations not changing
“The locations will not be changed,” according to Weghi. “The offices will still stay the same. The administration will come out of one point.
“In the past, there have been county directors in Golden Valley and in Billings together and in Dunn, Stark, Hettinger, Adams and Bowman – they have all had county directors.
“Now, the zone will only have one county director. The other people that are there will do other kinds of duties for that zone.”
He said that the local staffing will not be changed.
The eligibility questions for food stamps, services and Medicaid will be getting processed for different counties. “Their case loads will change. They will probably be managing more cases,” Weghi said.
One example he cited was in child protection services. “We have child protection workers that live in Hettinger County. We have several that live in Stark County. We have some live in Bowman County. Even though they are in different zones, they very likely will still work together in the region too.
“So Bowman, Slope and Adams will probably work together with the larger group too. It is just that their administration will come out of there (the Bowman-Adams-Slope zone).”
Zones limited to 19
There is a limit to the number of zones in the state.
“When they developed the zone concept, they looked at 19 zones in the state. They looked at four counties being their own zones. So Cass, Grand Forks, Burleigh and Ward would be their own zones because they have more than 60,000 people.
“The other counties in North Dakota will represent 15 zones. It would be less, but it will not be any more than 19 total zones – 15 with the smaller counties,” he explained.
He said that distance and time played a factor in how the zones were organized.
Weghi also said the system will be set up to utilize as much technology as possible, including Skype and teleconferencing. “They are planning to do that and as people get older and with eligibility applying for food stamps and those types of things, they plan to use the computers as much as possible.
“A trained eligibility worker can service a large area,” he added.
When it comes to initial contacts, Weghi said he believes the social services will remain local. “In New England, for example, I think people will probably go to Dickinson because of the distance when they are applying for food stamps and that type of stuff.
“Basically, they are looking at blurring the boundaries so that people can go wherever it works out the best for them,” he explained.
Much of the structure and the name of the new zone has yet to be established. “The board won’t be established until November,” he said.
History of “poor relief”
The individual counties were responsible for “poor relief” during the first territorial assembly in 1862 and again in 1889 with the first state constitution.
It went through a change in 1913 when poor relief was transferred from the county commissioners to the township officer through 1915.
During the Depression, more changes were made. In 1933, there was a state emergency relief committee to manage a federal loan program.
A year later, the Federal Emergency Relief Act was passed and by mid-1934, state and county committees were established.
In 1937, public assistance programs were started in the counties.
County Social Service Boards were established as voluntary in 1933, becoming mandatory in 1935.
The county board will be replaced by the new zonal alignment.