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One of the biggest policy bills of the 2019 North Dakota legislative session was to reorganize county social services in up to 19 multi-county "human service zones."

With its passage, Morton, Grant and Sioux counties are coordinating to form a zone. Morton County Social Services Director Dennis Meier said the zone would formalize relationships that already exist.

Burleigh County plans to stand alone as counties with more than 60,000 residents may be their own zone. Both Burleigh and Morton each have staff specialized in all programs of social services, so there wasn't a need to join, Meier added.

"We thought we could be better utilized providing resources and sharing services with the smaller counties to our south and west that we already have relationships with and share services with," Meier said.

Chris Jones, executive director of the North Dakota Department of Human Services, said the zones are for administrative purposes. About 140 county social services employees of 1,000 statewide will become state employees under the bill. No employees or access points to services would be eliminated, he said.

"I think it's such a big change in some ways. In some ways, it's not," Jones said. "I think our ultimate goal is how do we continue to provide social services across the state in such a way that everybody has access to the same services, regardless of what county you're in." 

Sharing services and major property tax relief were points of praise for the bill during the session. The bill continued the state's slow and steady takeover of the cost of county social services in North Dakota.

Some counties in recent years have already formed their own agencies. McLean, Mercer, Oliver and Sheridan counties formed Dakota Central Social Services in 2007. Steele and Traill counties combined into Agassiz Valley Social Services in 2019. 

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Eight counties of southwestern North Dakota have mulled forming a zone. Jones said there's flexibility in forming zones and reshaping if needed.

Counties have until Dec. 1 to form their zones. Meier said a steering committee will guide the process for the Morton-Grant-Sioux zone.

Full implementation of the zones is to be phased in by January 2021, when the next legislative session starts. 

For now, the Morton, Grant and Sioux county commissions have drafted resolutions outlining their intent to form a zone after meeting in May. The Morton County Commission will take public comment on the resolution from 5:30 to 6 p.m. Monday at the Morton County Courthouse in Mandan. 

County social services directors and county commissioners will meet Tuesday at the state Capitol for an overview of the zones and a planning discussion.

Burleigh County Social Services Director Kim Osadchuk said the zones make sense for social services in North Dakota, especially for uniformity and helping smaller counties that have employees who wear multiple hats in social services. The zones wouldn't be restricted to their own counties for sharing services.

"The whole goal is to provide services without borders and barriers," Osadchuk said. 

Social services in North Dakota extend to child and family services, such as foster care and child abuse investigations; adult services, such as in-home care for disabled and elderly persons; and economic assistance, such as programs for medical, food and home heating assistance.

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Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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