A tool to attract youth. (Belleville Telescope)

2015stateCommission commits $52,500 to fund ROZ scholarships for new residents

By Deb Hadachek Telescope editor

Republic County Commissioners decided Monday to put out the welcome mat to new county residents with student loan debt. Commissioners agreed Monday to commit $10,500 per year for the next five years to match student loan repayment for seven qualified residents under the Rural Opportunity Zone program.

Under the ROZ program, people who establish a residence in Republic County can qualify for up to $3,000  a year for five years towards repayment of their student loans. The State of Kansas matches the county’s contribution up to $1,500. If the individuals reside in the county for five years, they can receive up to $15,000 towards repayment of their secondary education debts, depending on how much they owe.

“This is one of the very few occasions where the county can see a return on the money they invest,” said Luke Mahin, Republic County economic development director. Mahin said if a new resident purchases a home valued at$47,000, they will return about $800 a year property tax to the county, or $4,000 over five years. When you take into account sales tax paid on groceries and goods purchased in the county and the multiplier effect of dollars spent locally, the county quickly recoups its $7,500 investment, he said.

“It’s even more if they have kids in the school systems,” he said. There are at least five children among the applicants qualified for the program in Republic County, he said.

Commissioners debated whether they might budget more funds for ROZ in future years, to be used only if there are qualified applicants They said, however, they want to encourage private businesses to sponsor their own employees. Mahin said in Republic County the ROZ is especially helpful to attract self-employed professionals. “This is a huge help to entrepreneurs who are starting businesses or taking over businesses from people who retire,” he said.

The shaded counties above are eligible to participate in the Rural Opportunity Zone program through the Kansas Department of Commercie. Counties with stars participate in the student loan repayment program. Eligible new residents who move to a ROZ county may also be exempt from paying state income tax for five years. The program is designed to help rural counties lure new residents to bolster declining populations.

Donors, businesses participate

Republic County qualifies for the Rural Opportunity Zone program because it was among counties in Kansas that lost more than 10 percent of population between the 2000 and 2010 censuses. Republic County Commissioners were slow to embrace the program, and the scholarships of the first three ROZ recipients in Republic County were funded by private donations and a grant from the Duclos Foundation. Two more ROZ scholarships were matched by Republic County Hospital for new employees, and another individual pays her own match through the sponsorship of the Pike Valley school district.

Mahin told commissioners Monday there are six more individuals qualified for the program awaiting funding on a first come, first serve basis at least two more planned to pay their own match in order to get the state’s share of the match towards their debt repayment.

“When this program first came out, I was totally against it,” said Commissioner Linda Holl Monday. “I’ve changed my mind over the years. The numbers show it is paying off in the long run.”

“I think as young people move here, the faster they can get settled and buy a house–the ROZ may help them put money towards a house rather than their student loan debt,” said Commissioner Ed Splichal. “They are investing in our county.”

“And I think that our participation casts an image for the county that Republic County is pro-growth.” Mahin agrees. “What we’ve seen and heard statewide, is that the $1,500 really matters between renting or owning a home.”

Mahin pointed out the results in Greeley County, population 1,300. That county is currently sponsoring 25 scholarships at $1,500 each, and estimates ROZ has brought 55 new residents to the county. Greeley County officials say all but one of the 55 new residents are under the age of 40. These ROZ households account for children, five of which are in school and 12 are pre-school age. School enrollment grew 25 percent increase from 2013 to 2014.

“That’s a smaller county that is funding more people than we do,” Holl commented. Republic County’s population is about 5,000. Mahin said that Norton and Phillips County also fund scholarships for all applicants who qualify.

“Statewide, there were over 700 applicants to the ROZ program,” he says. “Most have a connection to a rural community– either they grew up there, a spouse did, or they came from a rural county and wanted to move back.”

Questions contact Luke Mahin at rced@nckcn.com or 785-374-3047.

 Interested in the ROZ Student Loan Repayment Program?