Archived Story

County to vote on four-county merger in June or July

Published 10:20am Wednesday, May 1, 2013

If the Mower County board moves ahead with a plan to merge the Human Services Department with three other counties, it will change over Jan. 1, 2015.

Leaders of the four-county Southeast Minnesota Human Services Redesign met in Owatonna Tuesday to discuss the project to merge the human services departments in Mower, Dodge, Steele and Waseca counties to improve efficiencies and save money.

“It was a good positive meeting today,” commissioner Tim Gabrielson said. “It’s a big step, and we’re being very prudent on this.”

A big part of Tuesday’s meeting was for commissioners from all the counties to discuss parts of the merger that are concerns and parts they think are working well.

“We’re not rushing into anything,” Gabrielson said. “We’re looking at all the pros and cons.”

Gabrielson and others on the project’s steering committee — including county coordinator Craig Oscarson and Human Services Director Julie Stevermer — will look over all the responses later this week.

Officials discussed some details of operating the new, joint department, like how the decision making process would work and how the counties would fund the joint human services department. Since the four counties would form one service delivery authority should the plan come to fruition, commissioner Tony Bennett said leaders need to determine how the entity would work with other county departments in each of the four counties, like the county attorney and information technology. The officials also discussed ways to absorb out-of-home placement costs, especially since the burden varies by counties.

Bennett isn’t 100 percent sold the merger is the best way to move forward. Bennett was a supporter of the 12-county model because it would save money. The original, 12-county plan could have saved about $60.6 million over the next five years, according to consultant Accenture. Now with only four counties, the biggest benefit is to improve efficiencies in a government model that many call unsustainable.

Gabrielson, on the other hand, said he plans to support the plan, unless an unforeseen problem comes up.

“I’ve got some pretty good confidence that we’ll be following this plan,” he said.

Gabrielson has been a supporter of the plan to merge. He and other officials have long favored moving ahead because of state performance guidelines on human service departments that, if not met, could lead the state to merge counties. Many Mower County commissioners have said they’d rather merge and be in control than have the state forcing their hand later.

Bennett said he’s not sure the threat of state action and requirements — many of which stem from former Gov. Tim Pawlenty — is the best reason for change without significant cost savings.

“I don’t know if that’s a good enough reason,” he said.

While he admitted the savings aren’t what they would have been in the 12-county model, Gabrielson said the four-county model will improve efficiencies. With state mandates tasking the county to accomplish more services with less funds, Gabrielson said it’s important for counties to find new ways of operating.

When it comes to funding and state aid, Gabrielson said it feels like the county is often backed into a corner.

“It’s an ongoing battle,” he said. “This is nothing new.”

Gabrielson said county employees could be changing over to a different job and a few may be based in a different county. Bennett also said there could be some more telecommuters, and he acknowledged there’s a bit of apprehension among staff.

“Anytime there’s change, there’s going to be nervousness,” he said.

Bennett said employees were uncertain when the board voted to merge the health and human services departments in 2011 to save money and improve efficiencies. But now, he said it works very smoothly.

But that’s another reason Bennett is unsure of the merger. To be part of the redesign, the county would have to separate the departments again, since the other counties are not willing to merge the departments. Bennett said the combined counties have been a plus for Mower County, and he’s apprehensive to split them.

The county board will now likely vote on whether to move ahead with the next phase in June or July.

County officials have compared this vote to a wedding engagement in that it’s almost certainly permanent, but counties could back out if something big happens.

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