The New Year brings an exciting change to counties with the redesign of social services and the creation of human service zones. On January 1, all zones will be operating.
Getting to this point has not been an easy task. The work to create a new system to administer social services has been monumental. In the past six months, county commissioners working with social service directors, auditors and others created 19 zones. In each of those 19 zones, counties identified a host county, a zone board and an interim zone director. The host county is responsible for the administrative duties for the zone and the employees.
“County officials have put in thousands of hours in the meetings, plan reviews, debates and negotiations. To create the most appropriate framework for their zone,” said North Dakota Association of Counties Executive Director Terry Traynor. “The greatest short-term challenge has been combining the budgets, indirect costs, capital investments, payroll and benefit variations from the existing 46 administrative counties into the 19 ‘host counties’ in the newly established human service zones.”
Counties were provided considerable latitude in defining their “zone” for service delivery. There are four single-county zones, four two-county zones, six three-county zones, three four-county zones, one five-county zone and one six-county zone. County officials took into consideration staffing needs, client load, distance to clients, and existing business patterns when making their decisions in forming the zones.
The zones are unique in that they do not define the service area for clients but really act as an administrative hub. Zones have the ability to collaborate with other zones to build client-centered services that a client can access wherever it is convenient for them.
No employee positions will be eliminated; however, 140 county employees will become state employees. “It is important to understand, all social service offices in the courthouses or county buildings will remain open and function as they have. The social service redesign zone concept does not reduce access locations,” emphasized Traynor.
Why the change?
For more than three decades, counties, legislators, the Department of Human Services, and many stakeholders have debated the financing and structure of the delivery of social services. As federal and state governments became more involved in programs to assist vulnerable citizens, county officials have struggled with their role in the financing and delivery of these programs.
The Legislature in 2019, passed SB 2124, also known as social services redesign. The bill allows for the funding of social services with state dollars and the creation of up to 19 social service zones. The legislation, in turn, eliminated the local property tax levy counties used to fund social services, providing a savings to property owners across the state.
“While the plan to redesign social services was largely spurred by the need to reduce the property tax support of social services, it has provided an opportunity to develop a plan for the most significant service delivery change in probably 40 years,” said Traynor.
There are two key points counties stressed in the development of the redesign process. Counties sought to reduce the burden of property taxes on their citizens while preserving and enhancing the local delivery of services. Traynor added, “In the view of county officials, it is imperative that access to services must not be diminished but, wherever possible, enhanced. Maintaining a county employed and directed workforce is essential to this, as it will keep county officials at the table and engaged in evaluating current and redesigned delivery mechanisms.”
Two key milestones after January 1 are the hiring of a zone director for all zones by March 31, 2020. Zones will need to have their zone plan complete by June 2020.
The Department of Human Services (DHS) has a transition team that has been working with counties and providing technical assistance on forming zones, budgets, agreements and zone plan development. At the same time, the team has been working to continue redesigning program delivery.
“As we continue to do program redesign, we will see more consistency in how services are provided across the state and expect to see a greater increase in quality and timeliness for the services delivered at the local level, which helps the client,” said DHS Chief Operating Officer Sara Stolt.
“There is not going to be any negative effects in service delivery,” commented Adams County Social Service Director Cheryl Dix. “If anything, I think we will be able to offer more specialty in particular areas of adult service, of children and families – it will be good. It will not have a negative effect.”
Pilot programs have already helped to identify efficiencies. For example, in child protection services, recent changes to processes used to take in reports has resulted in assessments being completed faster and getting services to families sooner.
“It’s about how do we best deliver social services to citizens across the state. How do we remove boundaries, and make sure we are leveraging the assets and resources that we already have to be more efficient and evolve to serve clients better,” said DHS Director Chris Jones.
Moving forward, Jones and Traynor hope they can show the difference redesign is making in improved service delivery. Along with how the cohesive work between DHS, Association of Counties and county officials has been a factor in achieving this transition.
There will be items to address next session. Indirect costs related to social services is one issue already identified. “The state and county understanding of indirect costs is different, and consensus must be reached through the 2021 session on what remains a county property tax cost and what should be fully funded through state resources,” said Traynor.
County social services assists our most vulnerable population. Social service workers provide services, such as helping elderly stay in their homes; providing food, medical, and heat assistance; assessing child abuse and neglect; licensing childcare providers; assisting families if possible or placing kids who need homes in foster care. There is a social service office in every North Dakota county.
Traynor continued, “The most important challenge for counties will be ensuring that services are maintained and improved within the new administrative structure. The work to be carried out by zone employees is so critical for our most vulnerable youth and adults, it will be critical to recruit and maintain the best staff possible.”