Legislature OKs child care funding

VELVA – The $1 million approved by the North Dakota Legislature to bolster the state’s child-care services fell far short of the request but child advocates still were pleased that some help will be available in the next biennium.

Penny Smith, a specialist with Child Care Resource & Referral, Bismarck, told city officials at a regional North Dakota League of Cities meeting in Velva Tuesday that House Bill 1422 will help start and sustain family, group and center child-care facilities. The bill is awaiting the governor’s signature.

The bill also provides $300,000 for special needs child care, increases the permitted size of a group child-care from 18 to 30 children and changes the income eligibility in the child-care assistance program. Smith said the change in income eligibility will help families who have seen wages increase but also have seen expenses such as food and housing increase. Their incomes have become too high to qualify for help, although their need has not changed, she said.

HB 1422 provided $15 million in grant assistance when it was introduced. Although the final appropriation was much less, Smith said the $1 million will be critical in helping expand child care services to meet current and projected needs. The biggest supply and demand issues have been in western North Dakota, but the imbalance is moving east, she said.

“We need to be proactive and address the issues before we are playing catch up,” Smith said. “We like to think of child care in a community as infrastructure. It’s just as important as emergency services and roads. … If people can’t get to work, that affects everyone.”

Funding in the Commerce Department budget, still working its way through the Legislature, includes about $2.6 million in grants to cities to help establish child-care buildings. This continues an existing program but decreases the local community’s share from 50 percent to 25 percent and doubles the maximum grant available to $500,000, which includes the local share.

In addition to child-care legislation, city officials received an update on the fate of numerous other bills affecting local government. Approved legislation included a bill provided $64 million to non-oil-producing counties and cities for roads. Another approved bill limits property-tax exemptions for businesses to the primary sector in communities of more than 40,000 residents. Smaller communities can grant the exemptions to retail businesses if approved by voters.

Other legislation allows city officials to now be compensated for work as ambulance or fire crew members without running up against a legal conflict. No longer is “malfeasance” a disqualification for serving on a city governing board, either.

Jerry Hjelmstad, staff attorney and deputy director for the League, said it was difficult to define malfeasance, which means a violation of the public trust. Malfeasance isn’t a disqualification for other elected offices, he added.

The Legislature approved a bill related to government liability in emergencies, such as fighting fires and floods. Legislators amended a bill that would have allowed damages caused by the government’s efforts to be paid through a state disaster relief fund. The final version eliminates the state funding source and says that local government may pay for damages. The bill enables cities and counties to pay for damages by levying special assessments on residents who benefited from the emergency actions taken.

Steve Spilde, director of the North Dakota Insurance Reserve Fund, said legislators recognized from testimony by city officials that cities in the past have gone beyond what is required to address damage caused by their emergency actions.

“The committee was convinced that a lot of good things happened, even though picking up after bad events, and that the freedom should be there to allow for cities and counties to be able do that in the future,” he said.