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Third refugee report presented; Fargo commissioner still not satisfied

Dave Piepkorn

FARGO — City commissioners once again reviewed a report Monday, May 8, on the cost of refugee resettlement here, and once again there was no comprehensive data.

That's because refugee status is not information most departments consider or gather, officials say. Commissioner Dave Piepkorn is insistent on getting all the data, saying what's been presented so far is "the tip of the iceberg."

He started raising questions on refugee resettlement last fall, instigating a six-month study because he believes the resettlement program is an economic burden and public safety concern, but the data doesn't prove that.

"Why don't people want us to know these numbers? This is public tax money," Piepkorn asked Monday.

Abdiwali Sharif, a former refugee from Somalia residing in Fargo, challenged Piepkorn after the commission voted to receive and file the finance committee report and criticized Mayor Tim Mahoney for allowing Piepkorn to discriminate and carry out this data hunt.

"Everyone should know by now that he is not doing it for the right reason," Sharif said. "He is doing this to marginalize refugees and I'm shocked that the city and the mayor has not done anything to prevent such behavior that enables discrimination of thousands of its residents."

Sharif asked Piepkorn if he has "the courage to sit down one on one with a single refugee mother of two who has lost her house, her hubsand and her youngest child in the conflict and look her in her eyes to tell her that a few dollars are more important than their lives."

Instead of focusing on the cost, Sharif said Piepkorn should know the positive contributions of refugees, who are also taxpayers. "But where are those numbers?" Sharif asked.

Piepkorn has requested three refugee reports, with the latest being presented Monday. He previously called a report presentation in mid-April — that he missed while on vacation — "propaganda and fake news."

His stance on refugee resettlement upset enough community members that they created a petition effort to recall the commissioner. On Monday, the recall group set up a signing station outside North Dakota State University's bookstore to get the necessary number of signatures, 3,500, by May 12 in order to hold a recall election. Recall organizers said Monday they have enough signatures and plan to submit the petition later this week.

Piepkorn's seat is up for re-election in June 2018.

Digging deeper

Costs from four departments are included in the latest report compiled by the city's finance committee. However, as noted in a committee memo: "The City of Fargo does not track refugee status in its governmental service delivery to the public, and therefore the data cannot be isolated to any particular sector of the City's overall population."

The Forum reported on Sunday, May 7 the numbers included in the report received and filed by the commission on Monday. There was no discussion on the contents of the report at Monday's meeting.

Commissioner John Strand said he welcomes Piepkorn's questioning and "wanting to dig deeper," but said it's "complicated" to tell what existing services are for refugees because the city doesn't track refugee status.

"All of these services would be provided by the city anyway," Strand said, adding that the numbers provided are a cumulative total and only part are for refugees.

Fargo Cass Public Health specifically tracks services provided to refugees in only one program area within nursing, with an estimated cost last year of $60,100 for 86 refugees.That accounts for about 1 percent of the $4.4 million annual budget for nursing services.

Ruth Roman, Public Health director, said up to 40 percent of those nursing costs related to refugees are reimbursed through federal grants or insurance.

Public Health also spent nearly $52,000 in 2016 on interpreters, but that includes all non-English speaking individuals and those needing sign language services.

The Fargo Police Department and Municipal Court have interpreters and a cultural liaison officer, but again, the costs associated with those services are not only for refugees, rather anyone who needs to use the services.

Piepkorn said a legislative study approved by Governor Doug Burgum would bring more answers and the city "should be being reimbursed by the federal government for these costs."

Kim Hyatt

Kim Hyatt is a reporter with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and a 2014 graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth. She started her newspaper career at the Owatonna People’s Press covering arts and education. In 2016, she received Minnesota Newspaper Association's Dave Pyle New Journalist Award and later that year she joined The Forum newsroom.

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