GRAND FORKS-Each day, up to 70 volunteers and Grand Forks Senior Center staff put together hot and cold meals to deliver to about 100 residents who otherwise cannot leave their homes.
For the ones receiving the meals, mostly seniors, it is "their ray of sunshine," said Dawne Barwin, the center's Meals on Wheels coordinator.
"For some, it's probably the one person they see every day," she said of meal recipients.
A proposed amendment to a North Dakota Senate bill limiting matching funds to senior citizen services has some, including Grand Forks Senior Center staff, worried Meals on Wheels programs across the state could be at risk, especially considering President Donald Trump's budget cut proposals.
The proposal would cap the matching grants from the state's senior citizen services and programs fund at $3.5 million annually, roughly the same as the $3,493,688 the state paid to counties this year, according to figures provided by the North Dakota Treasurer's Office. State matching funds have grown steadily over the past decade, from just less than $1 million paid in 2006 to the almost $3.5 million paid in 2017.
The Office of the State Tax Commissioner predicts the state would pay more than $3.9 million next year in matching funds, based on last year's tax figures. Rep. Kathy Hogan, D-Fargo, said that would roughly amount to a $400,000 cut, and she worried a cap wouldn't account for program growth.
"I think there's a lot ... of unintended consequences," Hogan said. "And because we didn't really have a hearing, we didn't really process it."
The proposal is part of an amendment that was attached to an unrelated Senate bill.
Senate Bill 2273 originally was given a "do not pass" recommendation from the House Finance and Taxation Committee this month. But it was re-referred to the committee last week and given a "do pass" recommendation with the amendment, proposed by Rep. Craig Headland, R-Montpelier, the committee's chairman.
For Grand Forks Senior Center Executive Director Colette Iseminger, the amendment appeared to come out of nowhere.
"All of the sudden they were talking about this amendment," she said.
Headland said the committee still is reviewing the bill before it heads to the floor for a vote.
Headland pointed to the state's budget woes in arguing lawmakers need to limit automatic funding increases, and he said the cap was proposed after new information came from the Treasurer's Office. He noted the cap is a little more than what was paid this year.
"There is no reduction in the program," Headland said. "We have to look at all areas of government that have these automatic increases that are really out of our hands."
The amendment comes less than a week after Trump proposed a nearly 18 percent cut across the board for the U.S. Health and Human Service Department. He also suggested eliminating the $715 million Community Service Block Grant program, which provides funds to Meal on Wheels programs across the country.
Funding for North Dakota Meals on Wheels programs don't come from the CSBG, but they do come from the HHS. Citing the vagueness of Trump's budget, Iseminger and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp worry Meals on Wheels in North Dakota still could be in danger in light of White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney's comments.
"We had (Mulvaney) basically say he did not think Meals on Wheels was an effective program," Heitkamp said. "That's ridiculous."
She also feared for other programs that help families with low incomes heat their homes.
"We can go through all of these programs, and somehow it seems like the programs that hit the top line ... all hit low-income elderly residents the hardest," she said. "I think that is a value statement."
Waiting list or fewer meals
Meals on Wheels in North Dakota served 1.12 million meals to nearly 19,000 seniors last year, with about 512,000 meals being delivered to 5,200 seniors at their homes. With the programs in North Dakota totaling $8.86 million, $2.58 million was covered by federal funds.
Each senior meal for North Dakotans costs $8.59-federal funds pays for more than a third of the meal, the state pays 21 percent, local providers cover about 15 percent and seniors pay 29 percent, or about $2.50, according to the North Dakota Senior Service Providers.
Iseminger said capping grants would help the state budget, but expenses have increased over time-a senior meal went from $6.02 in 2007 to $8.59 in 2015.
With the elderly population growing and possible cuts on the horizon, she fears the center won't be able to afford to supply meals to everyone who requests them. That could mean stopping weekend meals or creating a waiting list, she said.
"We have never implemented a waiting list for our Meals on Wheels, but if our funding is going to be cut, I see that coming, that we would have to say we can only do so many meals a day," she said. "The problem with that is most people who call and need to get meals, it's not something that can wait, especially if they are in a crisis situation."
Iseminger also worried other programs the center provides could suffer, such as activities, health services, the resource team and transportation aid.
She's uncertain whether the North Dakota amendment would pass. There is a lot of support for senior services in the Legislature, she said, but she understands the state has to make cuts as revenue decreases.
"I think the mentality for some of the legislators is everybody has to feel the pain," she said.