Meals-on-Wheels being targeted by ND and federal lawmakers

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FARGO, N.D. (Valley News Live): The Meals-on-Wheels program helps thousands of older North Dakotan's every day but it could soon see a change to it's state funding which some people say will impact the growing need for the program. Valley News Live found out if there really is a cut to the funding and how a local program is preparing to handle it.

"Most of our people on meals are in there eighties and nineties and live alone and definitely have difficulty trying to prepare meals for themselves," said Valley Senior Services employee Bernie Johnson.

About 500 meals are delivered to people in the southern valley daily. Valley Senior Service's goal is to keep seniors in their homes.

"We depend on the meals, we eat them," said 88-year old Charles Lein.

He says he and his wife have trouble cooking and can't get out since they no longer own a car.

The demand for Meals-on-Wheels service has increased by 25% in the last five years according to Valley Senior Services Executive Director Brian Arett.

"I mean it's significant, and has to do with the growth of the older segment of the population," explained Arett.

Arett says each meal costs about $9 and adds recipients of the meals make a suggested donation of $4.

But how is the program that serves one meal a day funded? Arett says its a partnership between federal, state and county government along with donations from local organizations.

The proposed amendment to Senate Bill 2273 would cap the 'Senior Mill Levy Match" which is the amount of state money that goes to the program. It would be capped at $7 million for every two years. That money is taxpayer dollars that is matched from revenue created by taxes at the county level and collected in property evaluations.

"The figure they choose is $7 million dollars which actually represents a cut in the funding we projected we would be receiving in the next biennium," said Arett.

Arett says the exact dollar amount is hard to pinpoint.

"It's hard to know because I don't know what will happen evaluation wise with property taxes but it is probably somewhere in the range of $600,000 to $700,000. It's a significant cut," stated Arett.

Arett says it makes him nervous because they expect a cut from the federal budget as well. Recently President Donald Trump announced cuts to several government agencies in his budget outline. Arett said one agency was Health and Human Services which is where they receive the Meals-on-Wheels funding. The funding is part of the Older Americans Act.

Arett says half of the cost of the program is covered from the federal act.

"We're concerned and it's an issue we are working pretty hard on right now," said Arett.

The amendment author, Republican Representative Craig Headland of District 29, disagrees because the budget for the program is currently at $6.7 million.

"We are still providing an increase, there are no cuts to this program," explained Rep. Headland.

Headland admits the program would see more money in the next biennium if there was not a cap.

"We have to balance our budget here," said Headland. "We have to do some things to get out of here and we just didn't see continuing this appropriation without any legislative input because of the way it's been designed to increase with taxable value is not good governing."

Headland says cuts need to be made because they are forecasted for less revenue.

"We're looking at a 30% reduction in revenue from the prior biennium and I need help from someone to explain to me how we can continue with unavoidable increases when it's just not good governing," explained Headland.

But Arett feels the legislators are not seeing the big picture. He says over half of the people in nursing homes can not afford to pay for them and receive subsides which come from federal, state and county government and assist them living in the home.

"If we can keep them out of the nursing home for six days it pays for the program for a year," said Arett. "I think from a taxpayer stand point it makes sense to spend money like this to keep people in their homes."

"That seems like an argument from the political left and doesn't see any reasonable government spending limitations," explained Headland when asked about Arett's point of saving the taxpayer money. "I don't buy that argument."

Representative Headland says they can reevaluate the budget for the program in the next session. Arett says their program has been scrambling with the past growth and is concerned.

"We're going to have some problems, but we will figure it out but it won't be without some pain and a little bit of struggle," stated Arett.

The bill currently passed the house committee with a "do" pass and moves to the House for a vote. Then to conference committee between the House and Senate.

"I'd be disappointed," George Buckholz of Fargo said after finding out about the proposed cut to state funding.

"What would you be cooking for yourself George?" asked Valley Senior Service staff member, Bernie Johnson.

"Nah, not much," said Buckholz.

As for cuts from federal funding, Valley Senior Services doesn't know how much it will be impacted by that aspect yet.

The Meals-on-Wheels program in Fargo is always looking for volunteers. They have about 25 routes in Fargo and 8 routes in West Fargo. If you're interested, reach out to Valley Senior Services. We have a link in this story.