As a result of recent Kansas State legislation, Bourbon County has been designated a Rural Opportunity Zone. The legislation creates opportunities for individuals who move to Bourbon County from out of state, including Kansas income tax exemption under certain qualifications and a set amount of college tuition reimbursement in participating counties. However, the availability of the latter half of the program will depend on Bourbon County’s decision to opt in or opt out of participation in Student Loan Assistance.
According to the Kansas Rural Opportunity Zone Program FY2012 Guidelines, an individual must have moved to Bourbon County by or after July 1, 2013 and before January 1, 2016, have lived outside of Kansas for 5 or more years immediately prior to application, and earned less than $10,000 from sources in Kansas in that 5 years. The applicant must also have lived in Bourbon County during the “entire taxable year” for which the individual has applied for credit.
In addition, the guidelines set down similar requirements for tuition reimbursement. However, potential applicants should note that Bourbon County has not yet opted in to this part of the program. Each county that is designated a Rural Opportunity Zone is allowed to decide whether or not it will participate in tuition reimbursement. If the county were to do so, applicants would be required to have established residence in Bourbon County on or after July 1, 2013, and prior to the county’s opt in for the Student Loan Repayment program. The applicant must also have completed an associates’ degree, bachelor’s degree before applying for the program, and have “a current outstanding student loan balance,” according to the guidelines.
According to city Economic Development Director Heather Griffith, the ROZ legislation benefits the area in that it “gives [workers] a little more incentive” to move to the area, and may help to “bring in a workforce we may not currently have.”
At the August 2nd Bourbon County Commissioners’ meeting, Craig VanWey, Regional Project Manager at the Kansas Department of Commerce, added his explanation of the ROZ program. “The focus of this program is to try and reverse some of the population decline in these counties,” VanWey said. VanWey explained that the original 50 counties that were designated ROZs were selected because they had experienced a “double digit period of decline” from 2000-2012.”There is a lot of interest from some of the surrounding counties,” VanWey said. VanWey also mentioned that 45% of the people enrolled in the student loan repayment portion of the program are in the healthcare and education fields.
VanWey explained that if the county were to opt in, it would need to set aside money to support its half of the reimbursement payment. “Most counties have opted in at either 1,500 to 6,000 per year,” VanWey said. He explained that the state had set aside funds to match every county’s investment up to $20,000. “We don’t see many counties give $20,000 per year,” VanWey said.
VanWey said that there exist three different ways to fund the student loan repayment: devoting county funds to ROZ program, garnering local employers’ contributions, and funding through individual donations. For county or donation funded repayments, the allocation is first come first serve, but if funded by an employer, that employer can “earmark who that money goes to,” VanWey said. VanWey explained that some companies are beginning to use the student loan repayment program as a recruiting tool to reach employees from outside their respective counties. “The employer sponsorship . . . is gaining traction,” VanWey said.
Of the perfect scenario for an applicant, VanWey said “This program is ultimately going to increase school enrollment, increase your tax base.” However, VanWey indicated that this was not always the case.
According to Greenwood County Economic Development Director Cindy Pereira, 4 people are currently enrolled in the tuition reimbursement program in Greenwood County, which has also been designated a Rural Opportunity Zone. In addition, Chris Harris of the Kansas Department of Commerce Business and Community Development Division reported that the state had received 912 applications total for the student loan repayment program, and that 518 of those had already been approved. Of the applications the state has received, Harris said the paperwork coming in had been “very consistent and very sustained.” Harris also mentioned that the applicant pool had not just been traditional college-aged students. “It’s been diverse,” Harris said. “1/4 of them were working in healthcare, another in education, another quarter in finance, engineering, manufacturing and agriculture.
Though the ROZ program is beneficial, it is not a quick fix for population decline.
When asked what kind of impact the program has had on ROZ communities, Harris said “It does take a while to see an impact. In these little communities . . . the impact increases in scale over time.” According to Harris, 68% of everyone who applies said that the ROZ was important to them in their decision to move to the community, and 300 of 912 applicants for tuition repayment have been out-of-state applicants. Harris also mentioned that the Department of Commerce has seen applicants from 40 different states, which indicates the program’s reach is beyond just the immediate area surrounding Kansas.