Wednesday, June 13, 2018

VIDEO: Update Provided on Social Service Redesign Project

North Dakota Department of Human Services Executive Director, Chris Jones, provided a half hour update on the Social Services Redesign project with an audience of county social
services staff from Burleigh and Morton Counties. 

As the idea was to do this presentation for county social services staff and
county officials across the state, the presentation and the question and answer
session that followed were recorded and are now available as a You Tube
video.  With the Q&A it is 52 minutes long, but is well worth the time to gain a better understanding of what is being explored and the progress that has been made.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Majority of ND Counties Lowering Property Taxes According to ND Tax Dept. Report

A large majority of counties are collecting less from taxpayers in 2018. That was the statement NDACo’s Government Affairs Specialist, Donnell Preskey, provided to the interim Taxation Committee during their recent meeting. The committee is studying the property tax system. They dedicated several hours to take an in-depth look at how property taxes have increased or decreased since 2015.

“The volume of counties that are showing double digit decreases in levies should be reassuring to legislators that our counties are good stewards of taxpayer’s dollars,” said Preskey. “The state funds used to relieve the local tax burden of paying for county social services had a positive impact on taxpayers across the state.”

The North Dakota Tax Department provided a report to committee members that highlighted property tax mill levy information for tax years 2015, 2016 and 2017 for counties, cities, schools and parks. The information excluded new growth. Less than half of the 50 largest cities, schools and park districts in the state reduced property taxes.

Preskey said, “Forty-seven of the 53 counties did what you, the legislature, expected of them, lowering levies which decreased what they collected from taxpayers in 2017.”

NDACo was asked to provide information on counties who had the most dramatic increases or decreases in property tax collections. It is evident that each county has a unique mix of revenues that vary from year to year, and their ability to manage those reserves can be impacted greatly by a natural disaster, a rare facility construction, or, in a small county, something as minor as a couple lengthy incarcerations. Clearly, the volatility of energy revenues for western counties and the impact of state aid for the smaller counties are the largest and most commonly cited factors for counties that are outliers either to the positive or negative.  Click here to view NDACo analysis of county "outliers"


NDACo was also asked to provide information to the committee regarding counties use of social media. This request was in response to a prior committee discussion suggesting a bill be drafted to “require political subdivisions that have a Facebook page to post on the Facebook page any assessment or budget notices required to be published in the newspaper. This would be in addition to the requirement to publish notices in the newspaper.”

Preskey acknowledged the value of using social media in communicating with citizens but recognized how singling out one social media platform and naming it in code could be dangerous with how fast the social media world and applications are changing.


In addition, while 47 of our 53 counties have a Facebook page, these pages are managed by various county departments. For example, many counties have an emergency management Facebook page or a sheriff’s department page, but not a general county Facebook page.  In some cases, counties have multiple Facebook pages for specific departments.  Click here to see a list of counties social media platforms.


“We would oppose such a proposal as a requirement. More than likely, if a county has a Facebook page, they are using it already as a resource to reach their citizens. There is no need to make this a mandate,” Preskey testified.


The interim Judiciary Committee is studying notice requirements with the intent of reducing some of the notices, this proposal would be a move in the opposite direction. NDACo provided that committee with a list of 142 various notices, documents and listings which counties are required to publish as mandated by state law and identified five areas worth review.  Chairman Hogue has drafted a bill that would eliminate some notice requirements or allow for them to be completed in another manner such as posted on county websites. The committee reviewed the bill draft in April but did not take action.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

NDDOT Exploring Fee Increases

The North Dakota Department of Transportation (NDDOT) announced it will be proposing an increase in driver’s license and motor vehicle fees. Deputy Director Mark Nelson shared with members of the Interim Government Finance committee that the NDDOT has been directed by Governor Doug Burgum to move forward on a proposal for the 2019 Legislative Session.

Fees for driver’s licenses and vehicle registration have not been changed for numerous years. The driver’s license fees are $15 for 6 years, a fee that has stayed static since 1987. The registration fees were last adjusted in 2005. The fees are set by legislative approval. Adjustments to the fees have been discussed in past years, however, Nelson says prior Executive Branches never felt the time was right to make an increase.

The driver’s license and registration fees at their current level are costing the state $2.45 million a year. The NDDOT presented examples of how the fees can be adjusted to allow for the fees to be revenue neutral. For example, a $26 increase for a Class D license (the most popular license) would cover the cost to break even. This would be a total cost of $41 every six years.  

The fees generated through driver’s license operations are deposited into the State Highway Fund; accordingly for every dollar of costs incurred in excess of revenues generated, there is one dollar less that is available to spend on transportation by NDDOT.

In addition, the costs to cover the Motor Vehicle Division are far greater than the revenue. The state is $11 million away from breaking even every year. To adjust the registration fees so that they are revenue neutral, a $10 increase would be necessary.

Every dollar of cost incurred by Motor Vehicle is one dollar that does not go into the Highway Tax Distribution Fund and is therefore not available to fund transportation. The chart shows Highway Distribution Fund Allocations with the numbers in red illustrating how each area loses funding to cover costs totaling $11 million per year next biennium.

As you can see by the chart, if a proposal to adjust fees so that the costs for motor vehicle revenue neutral, counties could see an increase of $2.4 million in transportation funds.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Utah OMB Director Shares Expertise on Social Service Redesign Project

 Utah OMB Director Kristen Cox spoke Tuesday (5/1) to members involved in the Social Service Redesign project in North Dakota. Kristen has extensive experience in implementing programs throughout state government that focus on increasing efficiency and effectiveness. She has seen remarkable results in both client outcomes and cost savings for state agencies.

The day-long workshop on Operational Excellence in Government provided participants with an approach they can use as the state moves forward in complying with SB 2206 the redesign of Social Services.

Cox provided a summary of her day-long presentation and can be viewed here:

Thursday, April 26, 2018

NDACo Asked to Testify on Justice Reinvestment Impacts to Counties

NDACo was asked to speak to the interim Justice Reinvestment Committee regarding reactions to the Justice Reinvestment initiatives that were rolled out in a series of bills passed in the 2017 Legislative Session that addressed reducing incarceration; primarily at the state level. Aaron Birst drew from his conversations with State's Attorneys on the impacts of the legislation. He told the committee the reduced sentences have worked well and have not been too problematic. However the presumptive probation legislation has created some issues for prosecutors. This law mandates most first time C Felony offenders must only receive probation instead of any prison/jail time.

"County prosecutors 100% support Justice Reinvestment. The $7 million budgeted for community programs in 2017 is just not enough," said Birst. "Prosecutors are also very concerned about proposed budget cuts that Governor Doug Burgum suggested when he released his budget guidelines to state agencies last week. In particular, counties believe funding cuts to the juvenile court system would be detrimental." 

As a follow up, NDACo informed the committee about the establishment of the County Working Group on Justice Reinvestment that recently held a session to identify potential concepts or models that any county in the state could implement as alternatives to jail. The working group was made up of 22 county officials from across the state and from various county capacities including: Sheriffs, Commissioners, Jail Administrators, State's Attorneys, a Social Service Director, Public Health director and a County Administrator.

The working group was set up to assist counties in complying with legislation passed last session that requires counties to develop a local inmate population plan to prioritize admissions. ND DOCR and ND DHS presented on programs and resources that are available and being used to address alternatives at the state level.

A report highlighting the key findings from this planning session is being compiled. We highly anticipate policy will be developed to provide assistance for the local effort of addressing alternatives and expanding behavior health programs.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Human Services Committee Talks Behavior Health & Social Services

The Human Services Committee has gathered to work through a full two-day agenda. The start of their work included the first ever review on the next phase of the state's behavior health system. Human Services Research Institute (HSRI) has been contracted for this task. They presented some of their findings and identified potential first steps in implementing their recommendations.
During the presentation, HSRI identified that in North Dakota in 2017 $59 million of state and federal dollars was spent on mental health treatment. About $19 million was spent on substance use treatment. HSRI has found that most of the dollars in both these areas are spent on the most expensive services. They recommend the state continue exploring ways to improve behavior health services provided to individuals who have been involved in the justice system.

In addition, the committee received an update on the "Social Service Redesign" project from DHS Director Chris Jones. He emphasized that the project is really focused on redesigning a system to focus on the client by improving the system in an more efficient and effective manner so that the client receives better service. He told the committee roles may change and the roles may not look the same everywhere. Chairwoman Representative Kathy Hogan called this a comprehensive revamp of the whole system at the state and county level.
"This is one of the largest structural changes we have looked at in a long-time," said Hogan.
"This started out as a financial move, but I am excited to see how it has blossomed into a total system review," said Senator Judy Lee.
NDACo Interim Director, Terry Traynor was asked how the counties are responding to the Social Services Redesign project. Traynor told the committee that since the beginning of 2018, 19 committees have met for day-long meetings that involve 60 individuals from both county social services and DHS.
"From my perception, the counties are excited that the redesign project is focusing on how services can be delivered to the client better," said Traynor. "There may have been anxiety of our county folks going into this project, but through this process the anxiety has lessened and enthusiasm has grown, this is definitely not just a funding question anymore." 

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Interim Committee Studies Publication Costs

This Interim, the Judiciary Committee is taking a look at the various legal notice and publishing requirements of state agencies and political subdivisions. They are asking for the costs associated with meeting these requirements and are looking to identify potential notification alternatives.
This study came as a result of state leaders encouraging state agencies to look for budget savings. It has been identified that state agencies alone spend an estimated $3.7 million each biennium on publishing legal notices. In a climate where every agency is asked to be more fiscally responsible, these costs can’t be reduced because they are legally required. 
Counties are impacted by these costs as well. The North Dakota Association of Counties surveyed counties on their 2018 budget for publications. We can estimate $450,000 will be spent by counties in 2018 on meeting publication requirements. Our review of the publication requirements identified 142 various notices, documents and listings which counties are required to publish (generally in their official county newspaper) as mandated by state law.  You can find a list of those requirements by following this link: County Identified Required Publications.

Requirement to Publish Meeting Minutes and Expenditures
Many auditors singled out the requirement to have minutes of the commission meeting printed as the most costly. Take Towner County for example. Of their $10,000 budget for publications, publishing meeting minutes costs $6,000 a year, or $500 a month. For some, the biggest chunk of the cost to publish minutes is listing checks and expenditures, essentially “after the fact.” 

A number of North Dakota counties have made expenditure data available to citizens in an even easier to understand format through the use of a transparency portal. Five of our counties are using OpenGov or Socrata, which is essentially an open checkbook for citizens to view expenditures and budget information via the county’s website.  
NDACo urged the Judiciary Committee to review NDCC 11-11-35 and 11-11-37 and consider drafting legislation to remove the listing of expenditures as part of the minutes or to repeal the requirement to publish meeting minutes entirely.  

Requirement to Publish Notice of Meetings
This may also be an appropriate time to ponder the meeting notice requirement for local governments. We have witnessed how well the public meeting notice portal on the North Dakota Secretary of State website is working. This system is sufficient for state government and other governing bodies and may be adequate as well for local government. This would not bar county board meeting dates from being listed in the newspaper’s upcoming calendar of events.
It is important to note that advertising rates are negotiated and set every biennium by OMB. Although this mechanism is efficient, local governments have little direct control of this cost.  

Notice of Election for Commodity Groups
Counties are also responsible for advertising the notices of elections for commodity groups that are paid for by the County Extension fund. We would argue that it would be more fitting to have the commodity groups pay for these ads rather than an expense to our county taxpayers -- especially at a time when counties will be asked to pick up a greater share in the cost of Extension.   

NDACo Requests Date Change for Financial Statement
As NDACo looked at these requirements we were made aware of a minor tweak that will be necessary to NDCC 11-11-11 subsection 4 under the general duties of the board of county commissioners. Auditors say the date of March 15th for publishing financial statements should be changed to a later date such as November 15th.  This is necessary as the State and private auditors do not complete their fiscal audits until the end of summer, and those are essential to providing accurate statements.  

Many of these requirements are more than a century old. There are inconsistencies in requirements and in the language. NDACo has worked over the years to address some of these as we are made aware of issues on case-by-case basis. We have made recent progress in addressing publications that we have identified as being unnecessary. The 2017 Legislative Assembly passed two bills that have reduced county publication costs slightly.

  • HB 1231: Repealed the quarterly NDSU Extension advertisement requirement in county newspapers.

  • SB 2171: Reduced the number of weeks from three to two that counties had to publish advertisements for the sale of county equipment.

Many of our counties are not only meeting the state-mandated publishing requirements; but in addition, they are posting this information on their websites and Facebook pages – in addition to what those counties with “transparency portals” are doing.

Of the 53 counties, only six do not have websites.  A number of counties also have their meetings televised, live streamed or recorded and available online.
Counties most certainly understand the necessity of informing the public and firmly believe in being transparent. There are many examples of how counties are going above what is mandated by using other tools and technology to reach their citizens.