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Oil Patch stipends being eliminated for state employees

WILLISTON, N.D. — With less competition for employees, some state agencies are beginning to reduce or phase out extra pay for western North Dakota employees.

The North Dakota Department of Transportation is among the agencies gradually reducing stipends designed to fill critical jobs in the Oil Patch where high wages made it challenging to recruit and retain workers.

Economic conditions have changed with low oil prices, less competition for workers and more affordable housing.

"Three years ago, we used to have 20 to 25 openings," said Peggy Anderson, spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation. "Now we have just a few."

The state allocated just under $8 million for the 2015-17 biennium in energy impact funding for rental subsidies and other salary add-ons, said Sheila Peterson with the Office of Management and Budget. About half of that amount was spent during the first year of the biennium, she said.

The Legislature last session directed the seven agencies receiving those dollars to begin reducing the stipends, Peterson said.

"The Legislature indicated this should be considered one-time money and all of the agencies should anticipate a phase-out of it by the 17-19 biennium," said Peterson, who is director of the fiscal management division.

For 270 Department of Transportation employees, including snow plow drivers, mechanics and other workers, their stipends will be gradually reduced beginning with their March paychecks, Anderson said. The amounts vary, but one worker currently getting a $750 monthly stipend will see that gradually reduced to $400 a month in July, she said.

Similarly, the North Dakota Highway Patrol will reduce $500 monthly stipends for 22 western North Dakota troopers to $300 starting March 1, said Lt. Tom Iverson.

"We've wanted to be conservative with this from the beginning," Iverson said. "We have always planned to phase it down."

The Highway Patrol does not have any openings in western North Dakota, Iverson said. "I don't think it's going to have an adverse effect on our recruitment and retention," Iverson said.

Both the Department of Transportation and the Highway Patrol plan to continue rental subsidies in Oil Patch counties, but those programs also will continue to be under review.

"All the agencies all along have told their employees this is one-time money, it's subject to legislative appropriation," Peterson said.

The North Dakota Department of Human Services already has reduced $500 monthly stipends for about 285 western North Dakota workers. Since last July, the employees in Williston and Dickinson have received $400 stipends and workers in Minot have received $200. The add-ons are being evaluated for the next fiscal year, said spokeswoman Heather Steffl.

The North Dakota Historical Society also recently reduced monthly stipends for three employees from $600 to $260 and will re-evaluate the stipends again before the end of the fiscal year.

Watford City Mayor Brent Sanford said it has become easier to recruit public sector employees in western North Dakota as housing has gotten cheaper and the job market has tightened.

But the community continues to find it challenging to hire law enforcement, Sanford said.

"It probably is time to look at these incentives," Sanford said. "If they see people not able to fill the positions again, then they'll have to look at it again."