North Dakota is a prosperous state with lots of people in need and lots of money left on the table.
Participants in a town hall meeting sponsored by the North Dakota Economic Security and Prosperity Alliance were left with that conclusion as they fit information provided by the alliance into their local reality.
Statistics presented by the alliance showed one of eight North Dakotans lives in poverty. Poverty is defined as an income of less than $10,830 for a single person or $22,050 for a family of four in 2010. In Minot, nearly 15 percent of residents live in poverty. Seniors have a rate of 12 percent and children 16 percent, but the Native American population is at 43 percent.
April Fairfield presents data on state revenue during a town hall meeting of the North Dakota Economic Security and Prosperity Alliance in Minot Monday.
Nearly a quarter of working families are below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
Yet groups in Minot looking to distribute flood assistance to families at 300 percent of poverty have been unable to get enough income-eligible applicants.
Pat Smith, executive director of the Souris Valley United Way, said a $3.5 million Rebuild and Retain grant that came out of a legislative special session still has $1 million remaining. The only qualification is income for a flood victim to get a grant, which has averaged $4,000. For a couple, that income is $52,000, but many people find they aren't eligible, despite their need for help in recovering from the disaster, Smith said.
Mark Lyman with Odney, who serves as the city's public information officer, added that a state loan program for flood victims also left millions on the table.
"Not everyone is willing to take out another loan or can do that through their bank," he said. "It's not so surprising because some people got right out in front of this special session and took care of themselves and said, 'I am not waiting.' So we have a lot of people who just moved on. That's also tough for people because when money becomes available, they want to get reimbursed for it, and they can't do that with federal dollars."
The city also has federal dollars from a Community Development Block Grant to assist low- to moderate-income families with rebuilding, but finding applicants and getting them qualified isn't as easy as it seems, Lyman said.
Some in the group questioned the benefits of property-tax relief that the state has been granting by taking on more of the cost of schools. They especially are left pondering as Minot's taxing entities look at higher levies to recover from the flood and keep up with population growth.
"We have had property tax relief now for two legislative sessions and none of it gets to the property tax," Charles Tuttle of Minot said.
April Fairfield, senior policy analyst for the North Dakota Economic Policy Project, presented data showing huge increases in oil tax income to the state but a decline in the percentage that goes to the general fund. About 80 percent of oil revenue goes into savings and special accounts.
"It means that policy makers have 20 cents on the dollar to actually make investments in the state," Fairfield said.
The percentage of oil income going to the general fund has fallen from 35 percent of oil revenue to about 8 percent. If 35 percent of oil revenues went to the general fund, it would be a difference of $1.3 billion available for investing in areas that state residents want to see funded, said Fairfield, a former Democratic legislator.
About 20 people were in attendance at the meeting, designed to give the public a chance to share their ideas for the state.
The alliance's mission is to develop policy recommendations that help working families, such as a state earned income tax credit, state investment in Head Start and developing a comprehensive plan for affordable housing. The Otto Bremer Foundation, the Northwest Area Foundation, and the Northern Plains Initiative financially support these efforts.