BISMARCK — How North Dakota counties go about their current budgeting remains a key question as they plan to form "human service zones" for sharing social services.

County commissioners, auditors, social services directors and board members from all 53 counties met at the state Capitol in Bismarck on Tuesday, June 11, to discuss zone planning. A bill from the 2019 legislative session reorganized the state's 47 county social service districts into as many as 19 state-funded "human service zones" yet to be outlined.

The bill continued the state's steady takeover of the costs of social services, praised for its local property tax relief. Counties with more than 60,000 people may stand alone, while smaller counties will form multi-county zones, essentially to share social services without borders.

State Human Services Executive Director Chris Jones has stressed that the zones are essentially administrative hubs, with one county to be the "host" for each zone's fiscal matters. Most social services personnel will be employed by their zone's "host" county. Some will become state workers.

But there's uncertainty for what's ahead.

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Rolette County Social Services Director Dinah Breland expressed concerns for continuity as zones are formed and how Rolette will interact with other counties and clients within a zone, given its caseload.

Breland said Rolette County has the highest caseload behind the state's four largest population counties of Cass, Burleigh, Grand Forks and Ward. Rolette County, home to the Turtle Mountain Reservation, also has 25% of the North Dakota cases in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, she added.

Cass County Commissioner Chad Peterson said the multi-county zones make sense, noting his perspective in the Fargo-Moorhead-West Fargo metro area, where the cities share resources such as water and a SWAT team.

Budgeting for zones once they're formed is spelled out in law, but it's a bit murkier as counties transition. Jones said his department will work on a budgeting process, telling counties to plan as they usually have.

The department also will offer a "focus day" in July for counties to delve into fiscal and administrative issues of zone planning.

"The methodology in how we get our budgetary needs done, that staffing, that space ... that's sort of the quandary we're having," Peterson said. "I think everyone is well-intended. It's a matter of getting things refined to the point where we're all making informed decisions."

Cass intends to stand alone as a zone, he added, but it might share some services with Steele and Traill counties, which merged into Agassiz Valley Social Services in January, before the bill.

Agassiz Valley Director Kim Jacobson was involved in the bill's legislative process. Agassiz Valley also will form a zone, she said, but will be potentially "softening" its borders to help rural Cass and Grand Forks counties.

North Dakota Association of Counties Executive Director Terry Traynor said some counties have expressed interest in forming zones within their judicial districts to work with the same court officers for family services and foster care. North Dakota's judicial districts are basically multi-county units of the state's court system.

Counties have until Dec. 1 to form their zones.

"We're just going to have to work through the process and see what happens," Jones said.