By Deb Hadachek Telescope News
Read online – www.thebellevilletelescope.com
Republic County Commissioners passed a resolution January 21 that will be forwarded to the Kansas Department of Commerce of the county’s intent to continue to participate in the Rural Opportunity Zone scholarship program.
Republic County commits $22,500 a year to match the state’s contribution of up to $1,500 each year in student loan repayment for qualified individuals who return to Republic County to establish homes. Qualified individuals must purchase a home or rent a house or apartment to qualify.
The total value of the program to a student is up to $15,000 over a five year period.
Seventy-seven Kansas counties are authorized to participate in the ROZ program. The match can be approved from county funds or paid by employers. About 50 counties, including Republic, make some match monies available from county funds; in other counties, the benefit is available only if employers pay the match for the student. Employers in Republic County can sponsor a student they hope to recruit and skip the wait list.
Commissioner Edwin Splichal said he fears Kansas Governor Laura Kelly does not support the program, which will sunset in 2021 unless state funding is reauthorized by the Kansas Legislature. A report on the Kansas Department of Commerce website says that data does not support the goal of the program, to slow out-migration of populations in rural counties. (https://www. kansascommerce.gov/wpcontent/uploads/2019/12/ ROZ-Report-Final_KDC. pdf) The report also contends that a survey of participants says students would have moved to the counties without the incentive.
But Splichal says what Republic County pays into the program is recouped through property taxes paid by participants.
“We’ve got a program that pays for itself to benefit the county,” Splichal said. “In the scope of the state budget, not much money is committed to this program.”
In 2019 Republic County had 14 students enrolled in the program, and another 23 on a list hoping for funding.
In return, those qualified ROZ beneficiaries paid an average of $2,038 in property taxes in Republic County last year–a total of $33,000, according to data compiled by Republic County Economic Development Director Luke Mahin.
The original 50 counties chosen to participate in the program, including Republic, lost more than 10 percent of their population between the 2000 and 2010 Census. Republic County lost 13 percent.
Students and new residents may also qualify for a Kansas income tax rebate under another section of the program.
The Rural Opportunity Zone (ROZ) Program was introduced by the Brownback Administration in 2012 as a policy solution to slow or reverse outmigration from rural communities. It includes two individual financial incentives: student loan repayment assistance and a five-year state income tax exemption. While both components of the program are funded through a single appropriation of $5 million, they maintain separate eligibility requirements, according to the Kansas Department of Commerce, which administers the program.