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County board appears primed to vote down Human Services merger

Published 11:05pm Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The plan to merge the Human Services departments of four counties is on thin, cracking ice in Mower County.

Partway through a meeting Tuesday night at the Government Center to discuss the costs of a Service Delivery Authority that would combine Mower, Dodge, Steele and Waseca counties’ Human Services, one commissioner urged the board to vote and end the talks.

“I don’t think there’s the votes on the board to pass this,” Commissioner Tony Bennett said.

The board opted to wait to vote until next Tuesday’s board meeting as originally planned, but Tuesday’s meeting with about 13 county employees indicated commissioners and employees alike are too wary of the many unanswered questions and looming $1 million price tag to move ahead.

“A million dollars is an awful lot to risk on such an uncertain venture,” Commissioner Jerry Reinartz said. “There’s so many unanswered questions.”

The commissioners must choose to approve to the merger or stand on their own and likely add staff to meet state performance standards — both choices that will cost more money.

The debate on the merger started about four years ago as a plan to combine 12 counties as the Southeast Minnesota Human Services Redesign. But many counties opted out and whittled the plan to four counties.

Steele and Dodge voted to move on to the next phase last week, and Waseca County tabled its vote until July.

The merger would cost Mower County a little more than $1 million to move to the next phase, but that’s only the first set of costs. Estimates of the merged SDA’s costs once it takes effect in 2015 vary drastically.

Consultant Clifton Allen estimated Mower County could save $200,000 to $300,000 a year after the merger, but County Coordinator Craig Oscarson and county staff estimated the county could pay $700,000 more a year after the merger.

However, Oscarson said his numbers were far from certain.

“Don’t go to Vegas on my numbers,” he said.

Specific estimates and totals would come from the next phase — after each county designated large sums of money to the merger.

County Attorney Kristen Nelsen lambasted the merger for too many unanswered questions and a lack of transparency, as the county has little say in what the money would go for in the next phase.

“I know you’re all business people in one form or fashion,” Nelsen said to the board. “How many of you would put your own money on something that’s based solely on assumptions, on something with no firm or actual data that people can back up?”

“I was sitting here thinking that myself,” Commissioner Jerry Reinartz responded.

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