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Mike Nowatzki, Forum News Service, Published December 13 2013

Energy impact fund for ND state employees getting closer look

BISMARCK – A program that provides state employees with temporary raises and rental assistance in western North Dakota’s Oil Patch will get a closer look from the state budget office after a lawmaker questioned whether the money is going to those who really need it.

Earlier this year, the Legislature voted to set aside $8.5 million from the state’s general fund and special funds to create the Energy Development Impact Funding Pool for the 2013-2015 biennium.

State agencies can apply for the funding to provide up to six months of rental assistance and salary differential payments in areas where they’ve had difficulty hiring and retaining employees because of the high cost of living and more competitive salaries offered by the private sector.

Employees benefiting from the fund receive an average of roughly $500 per month in salary payments and $600 to $650 per month in rental assistance, which is based on a survey of what they would pay for housing outside the Oil Patch, said Sheila Peterson, fiscal director for the state Office of Management and Budget.

For the first six months of the biennium that began July 1, the state’s Emergency Commission authorized OMB to distribute $1.4 million from the funding pool, with 93 percent of that going to salaries and the rest to rental assistance, Peterson said.

On Tuesday, the commission approved $2.1 million for the second round of funding from January to June, with about 92 percent targeted for salaries.

Rep. Jeff Delzer, R-Underwood, a commission member and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, questioned whether the payments were warranted for all of the areas receiving them. He said he also was disappointed that the commission didn’t have more up-to-date housing figures.

One major change in the second round of funding was that the Department of Human Services requested assistance for its employees at the North Central Human Service Center in Minot.

Marcie Wuitschick, human resource director for Human Services, said in an emailed statement that based on turnover rates and economic information, “the department felt that Minot staff have experienced the impact of energy development that has taken place.”

Gov. Jack Dalrymple, the commission’s chairman, directed Peterson to visit with agencies to make sure the money is being maximized and directed at employees who need it most.

“The idea is to try to find those people who are truly impacted by the oil development,” he said.

The North Dakota Department of Transportation, which employs about 1,040 workers and is the state’s second-largest agency after Human Services, has the most employees receiving impact funds.

DOT accounts for 80 percent of the 726 state employees receiving salary payments and 42 percent of the 45 employees receiving housing assistance, Peterson said.

Transportation Department spokeswoman Peggy Anderson said the assistance is targeted mainly at snowplow operators, truck drivers, shop workers and driver’s license examiners, the hardest positions to hire and retain.

“We’re one of the agencies that’s been hardest hit by the energy boom and the industry because our employees have the same skill set needed for jobs in the energy industry,” she said.

The impact fund allowed the DOT to achieve some market competitiveness at first, but as the energy industry remains strong, the job market is becoming even more competitive, Anderson said. Of the DOT’s 38 job vacancies across the state, 15 are in the Williston District, she said. The assistance also is offered to employees in the Dickinson and Minot districts.

“Our employees work hard and we’re using all of our resources to serve North Dakota, and we’re really thankful to have this funding so that we can retain our experienced staff,” she said.

The DOT will receive $992,693 of the nearly $2.1 million approved Tuesday, while Human Services will receive $838,689. The other recipients are the Industrial Commission ($90,000), Highway Patrol ($79,662), Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation ($60,303), Game and Fish Department ($25,512), Tax Commissioner’s Office ($21,000) and the State Historical Society ($13,842).