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Feb 18, 2010 1:51 PM by Bea Karnes, News First 5

North Dakota scrambles ahead of floods

When the Red River burst its banks last spring, flooding dozens of surrounding towns and cities, thousands of worried or displaced residents called a statewide 211 hot line to help find shelter or a meal.

But the nonprofit group that operates the service, which provides referrals for a range of social services, says it can no longer afford to do so for most of North Dakota - and residents may have to do without it as they face more flooding this spring.

FirstLink, of Fargo, which has been temporarily operating the statewide service with support from the United Way of Cass County, N.D., and neighboring Clay County, Minn., has notified the state Public Service Commission that it can only afford to provide referrals in those two counties after March 15.

State officials, lawmakers and social service agencies have been scrambling to find money to keep the service operating statewide until the Legislature can take up the issue when it meets early next year.

"March 15 is getting dangerously close to flood time in North Dakota, and we know that this is expected to be another year where we face significant challenges there," said Public Service Commissioner Tony Clark.

Kevin Cramer, the commission's chairman, said the agency will discuss options at a meeting Friday with social service agencies and veterans' organizations. He estimates that providing a statewide 211 service would cost about $200,000 annually. Cindy Miller, FirstLink's director, said Tuesday the expense may be higher.

"What we need to do is to help (FirstLink) to keep it beyond March, and get to where we have a bridge to the next legislative session," Cramer said.

The 211 number provides referrals for a variety of services, including mental health counseling and suicide prevention; locations of homeless shelters, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, food banks and child-care centers; and information about health insurance programs and summer camps.

A number of agencies advertise the number, including the American Legion, which displays it on a flyer that urges veterans to get mental health counseling if they need it.

A decade ago, the Federal Communications Commission reserved the 211 number for information and social service referrals. Calls are routed to a local or regional center, much like 911 calls go to emergency service agencies. Thirty-nine states now have 211 systems that cover all or part of each state, the FCC says.

When North Dakota's statewide 211 service was established in 2003, the Public Service Commission picked the Mental Health Association of North Dakota as its service provider.

The association subcontracted the service in Cass County, North Dakota's most populous county, to FirstLink in March 2007.

Last October, the Mental Health Association notified the Public Service Commission it was giving up the service, saying it could no longer afford to operate it. FirstLink agreed to provide statewide service temporarily while the commission advertised for another provider.

No other organization stepped forward. Last week, the commission agreed to allow FirstLink to provide 211 service only in Cass County. Miller said FirstLink may continue providing statewide 211 service if money becomes available.

Thousands of calls came in last year
FirstLink's 211 service took about 36,000 calls last year, thousands of which asked for help or information during last spring's extensive flooding in the Red River Valley, Miller said. The Mental Health Association took about 10,000 calls when it was still offering the service.

FirstLink also set up a separate flood hot line that took more than 55,000 calls, Miller said.

The National Weather Service says snowfall and winter conditions in eastern North Dakota are similar to those that prevailed in 2009, when spring flooding caused extensive damage in the Red River Valley. Parts of western and central North Dakota are also vulnerable to flooding, the Weather Service says.

FirstLink's annual budget is about $274,000. It has five full-time phone operators and nine part-timers, Miller said. It operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"I feel like everyone in the state deserves to have 211, and the ability to be able to call for resource and referral information, or to talk to someone ... whether they are in Cass County or not," Miller said. "I just think that would be really sad to say to some people, you can't have access to information that would help to make your life simpler."

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