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Showdown At City Commission Hall

by C.S. Hagen | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | News | May 8th, 2017

As the two-hour-long Fargo City Commissioners meeting prepared to adjourn Monday, Erin Buzick, an organizer of the recall petition for City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn, was given permission to speak.

“Basically, I said that I understand that my inclusion in this community comes with a price tag to the city,” Buzick said. “However, I have never been reduced to a dollar sign. My intrinsic value has never been debated in the commission hall nor in the local media.” She addressed Piepkorn on ongoing issues pertaining to refugee resettlement.

“Commissioner Piepkorn, I know you’re fond of saying you’re not very smart,” Buzick said. “I respectfully disagree with you. I find it very difficult to believe that when you started this line of questioning that you didn’t understand the impact of your words.”

“If you want to look back and see the numbers we were told the original cost was $28,000 to the city, and now it’s turned out to be $220,000 a year,” Piepkorn said. “Those are specific for refugees. LSS [Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota] told us they were getting $800 per refugee, and it turns out last year they received $4 million dollars. So those are lies, aren’t they? Or are they truths?”

Abdiwali Sharif, a former refugee, also spoke before the City Commission.

“As a former refugee myself, and I hope I can relate to many other refugees who have made Fargo their home since World War II, I would like to know why the city is targeting refugees?” Sharif said.

“While I understand Commissioner Piepkorn’s agenda to prevent more refugees being resettled in Fargo citing cost issues, everyone should know by now that he is not doing it for the right reasons. He is doing this to marginalize refugees, and I am shocked that the city and the mayor has not done anything to prevent such behavior that enables discrimination of thousands of its residents.”

“I think I said a couple times that the costs are important, but that I hope the city is not going down the road of trying to quantify people,” Buzick said. “I hope that Fargo can recognize that people are people, and should be treated as such.”

Her statement was met with silence. Piepkorn had already moved to adjourn, but the motion was not seconded, which led into a few minutes of back and forth between Buzick and Piepkorn.

Mayor Tim Mahoney ended the debate, and the recall petition has slightly more than a month to finish, according to State Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.

On May 5, Stenehjem replied in a letter to Fargo City Attorney Eric Johnson that all recall elections are valid if filed one year before end of term. Apparently, there was confusion about timing specifications within the North Dakota Century Code pertaining to the preceding year or one actual year - 365 days - for a recall to take place.

Fargo City Commission - photo by C.S. Hagen

Piepkorn’s term ends on June 12, 2018, so as long as the recall filing officer certifies the petition is valid prior to June 12, 2017, the recall election may occur, Stenehjem said. If the petition is not properly filed by June 12, then a recall election cannot occur, according to the North Dakota Century Code.

Minutes before the verbal tit-for-tat, the Fargo Cass Public Health turned in a report to Fargo City Commissioners stating that government agencies do not compile statistics based on refugees.

The report, the third of its kind, reaffirmed that government agencies do not track refugees, according to Fargo Cass Public Health Director Ruth Roman.

“But we don’t compile those kinds of statistics,” Roman said shortly before the meeting adjourned. Roman received a request for dollars spent on refugees, she told city commissioners, and approximately 35 to 40 percent of costs from nursing are reimbursed through the federal grants and through insurance.

Under a budget of $549,156 in 2016, Fargo Cass Public Health spent $51,647 on interpreters, $56,749 in 2015, and $47,188 in 2014, according to a report provided by the department.

Fargo Cass Public Health also completed a manual count by referral for the past year, which included 34 new families introduced by Lutheran Social Services from April 1, 2016 until March 31, 2017. The estimated costs for providing services for the 34 families is $5,950, Roman reported.

The only refugee status Fargo Cass Public Health tracks is nursing, Roman reported, which oversaw 86 individuals in 2016 with a cost of $60,100, another 97 individuals in 2015 at a cost of $52,925, and 160 individuals in 2014 at a cost of $84,060, Roman reported.

The first report filed by the Fargo Human Relations Commission in April stated that statistics were difficult to obtain, but that refugees were good for the city having a cost-positive impact of $3,250 per individual. A second report filed on May 4 by the City of Fargo’s Finance Committee stated that the city has spent up to $750,000 on refugees since 2014, including the hiring of a cultural liaison officer, an interpreter, social service grants, and on the Human Relations Commission.

“I would encourage people to look at last October when I brought this point up initially, we were told some numbers that were not even close, they were way low,” Piepkorn said during the meeting. “They were obviously incorrect. The other question I have is ‘Why don’t people want us to know these numbers?’ To me, this is public tax money. When people say ’It’s not our business,’ it is our business. It’s public tax money that we’re spending.”

City Commissioner John Strand said that the report reflected the “tip of the iceberg” to better understanding the issues. “All of these services would be provided by the city anyway. So it’s hard to tell how many of our existing services like nursing care are for refugees, and then we don’t track refugees, which makes it even more complicated.”

A legislative study committee will begin looking at Fargo and West Fargo city and school numbers that pertaining to refugee resettlement costs in January 2018, Piepkorn said.

“The bigger thing that should be happening is that we should be reimbursed by the federal government,” Piepkorn said. “We don’t have anything to do with it. We don’t even know how many refugees are coming this year, and yet we’re having to pay. Eventually what’s going to happen is that we’re going to request the federal government to reimburse us and that’s how it should be.”

Tensions surrounding refugee resettlement in Fargo and have created strife, ripped allies apart, since Pipekorn’s outburst during a City Commissioner’s meeting last October. Last year, Piepkorn’s scrutiny into unearthing the financial “burden” of specific minority groups brought into the area by Lutheran Social Services sparked the anti-immigrant interest of Breitbart News, the “alt-right” online news forum formerly led by Steve Bannon, a coincidence Piepkorn denied he had anything to do with.

Lutheran Social Services is the organization contracted by the state to manage the arrival of refugees and immigrants to North Dakota. The organization provides resettlement services in Fargo, West Fargo, Grand Forks, Bismarck, and in Moorhead, Minnesota, according to Lutheran Social Services’ 2014 990 tax filing.

The organization’s New Americans Services program provided services to 436 new refugee arrivals, 149 secondary migrants, 10 people seeking asylum, two parolees, and 14 unaccompanied refugee minors in 2014, according to tax filings. Of that number, 321 found employment in 2015 through Lutheran Social Services assistance. In 2014, immigration specialists assisted 1,267 individuals with green cards, and provided 19,570 days of care to refugee children who had no parents.

A total of $3,895,096 went to refugee programs out of $11 million listed as federal government grants for the period up to June 30, 2016, with the City of Fargo directly contributing $500 for the Building Bridges conference, according to Shirley Dykshoorn, vice president of Senior and Humanitarian Services for Lutheran Social Services. One percent of the dollars expended by city health staff went toward refugees, she reported. “We provide dollars for those services under a contract with the Health Department,” she said.

Lutheran Social Services not only resettles refugees to a state that until recently has remained homogeneously white since its inception in 1889, but helps New Americans find jobs, with emergency cash services, startup food, and other core services. In 2017 alone, the organization has also provided $282,395 worth of awards to units of local government including the Fargo Adult Learning Center, Fargo Board of Education, the Somali Community Development of North Dakota, the New American Consortium, and the Family Healthcare Center.

“There have been a lot of people feeling they are targeted, by the request of having a whole group of legal immigrants studied,” Dykshoorn said. “You could argue that there are other people in the community that have costs associated with them.”

For instance, college students, Dykshoorn said. Have college students affected increased police numbers?

“They are legal residents of the community, it’s sort of a carry over from elections and immigration issues that have been put forth,” Dykshoorn said. “That’s the other part of the discussion; it’s difficult to segregate data. As a person who has a legal right in this country you are allowed to move where you choose.

“You can’t look at it with a narrow lens.”

Her organization has repeatedly requested sit-downs with Piepkorn. So far, he has refused. All information Piepkorn is requesting is through the City of Fargo, which is then sent back to the city and then to Piepkorn, Dykshoorn said.

Not only has Piepkorn not visited Lutheran Social Services, he is not believing the facts that are being given him, Dykshoorn said.

Piepkorn has stated that Lutheran Social Services CEO Jessica Thomasson makes $350,000 per year, which is incorrect, Dykshoorn stated. Thomasson’s annual salary is approximately $143,000. Additionally, statements have been made that the organization spent $15 million on a new Fargo office building in 2015, on land purchased in 2008, but the facility actually ran a cost of $5 million paid for with donations, cheaper than renting. Lutheran Social Services conducted a nearly six-year capital campaign before the building was built, Dykshoorn stated.

“He’s requesting through his city channels, and thinks there are a lot of other costs to city government. In some respects he’s requested the information from the right source, but he doesn’t believe what has been provided to him.”

Lutheran Social Services is monitored several times every year by the federal government and by contracted voluntary agencies, Dykshoorn said.

“If they thought we were doing something inappropriate they would be right on us,” Dykshoorn said. “We are regularly under the microscope for the services that are provided. We will try to provide the education and clarity to him [Piepkorn] that he is requesting.”

Comparing Piepkorn’s inquest into refugee resettlement as fear mongering, the recall petition of Piepkorn began in March, and division was recently incited between recall organizers and the Fargo/Moorhead Refugee Advisory Council, or FMRAC. Council members stated that recall organizers had been harassed and threatened while on their routes; recall organizers said they had not heard of any reports of threats. Fargo Police said no incidents of threats or harassment have been reported.

“We have a simple message,” FMRAC responded to an email and directed to Piepkorn. “Please do not spread false rumors. Refugees have already suffered enough, and they don’t deserve to be targeted the way they are right now.”

On April 30, FMRAC directors invited Piepkorn to an honorary membership on the council. So far, Piepkorn has not accepted. The invitation came days after hate fliers were pinned to telephone poles in downtown Fargo. The fliers were reportedly sponsored by “alt-right” and hate groups such as VDare, Occidental Observer, American Renaissance, Counter-Currents, Redice-TV, and the Flyovers.

Pinning advertisements on public or private property without consent is illegal, according to the North Dakota Century Code. Fargo Police Public Information Officer Joseph Anderson reported no one involved with disseminating the hate fliers had been arrested yet.

The recall committee has until this Friday, May 12, to finish the petition, as the city needs up to 30 days to have the petition certified.

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