Archived Story

County’s merger on shaky ground

Published 10:59am Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The plan to merge human services departments in 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 the departments in Mower, Dodge, Steele and Waseca counties, 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 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,” Board Chairman Jerry Reinartz said. “There’s so many unanswered questions.”

The commissioners must either merge human services or continue to stand on their own, which would likely require a staff increase and other chances to meet state performance standards.

Costly moves

It 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 costs once the counties would merge human services Jan. 1, 2015 varied 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.

However, Oscarson said his numbers were far from certain.

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

Cost estimates have been based largely on estimates and assumptions, and specifics on costs won’t be available until 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 she described as ridiculous.

She said the board knows far too little about how that $1 million would be spent, and commissioners would have little say on how the $1 million would be spent.

“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,” Reinartz replied.

Nelsen said that this next step has been described as research and development, but she argued part of that process is to know when to pull the plug instead of throwing away money.

“As a taxpayer, I shutter at the thought of you turning over a million dollars of money from Mower County to other people to manage where you have no further say in how it’s spent and where there is no guaranteed outcome that this will even fly,” she said.

One sheet handed out highlighted risks and challenges the merged counties would face. It listed legal risks as low to moderate, stating the potential to affect the legal, financial and service quality through the relationship between human services and the county attorney. Nelsen asked everyone at the meeting to change that risk level to guaranteed. She said her office works well with Human Services to save the board money, but she warned that relationship wouldn’t continue after the merger when they’d be working with different counties.

Nelsen criticized the merger’s steering committee for failing to address legal services and said it was an afterthought.

She said she’s gotten “lip service” at meetings with the other counties about the legal plans, and she said she wonders what else she’s getting “lip service” about.

Nelsen said she and other county attorneys should have been asked to help early in the process.

“We would have helped for free, but nobody asked,” she said.

Finance Director Donna Welsh, who was not at the meeting, echoed similar sentiments, noting that finance directors should have been involved early on, according to Oscarson.

Nelsen also questioned if members of the four-county steering committee have something to gain from the merger being approved, and said county officials with little stake in the merger should have been consulted.

“You should be hearing from people who don’t have a dog in the fight,” she said.

Worth asking

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.

Commissioners had little positive to say about the proposed merger Tuesday, as Reinartz expressed uncertainty about staffing, the remodeling of the Government Center and the idea of splitting the now-merged Health and Human Services Department.

A board of two commissioners from each county would run the merged SDA, and Reinartz said he’s wary of the Mower County board having considerably less control over how the money is spent.

Commissioner Mike Ankeny indicated the amount of money was a tough sell, and he added there are many unknowns surrounding jobs.

Commissioners Polly Glynn and Tim Gabrielson commended county staff and the Human Services directors from each of the four counties for their work. But Gabrielson was critical of the plan.

“It’d be nice to see it work for us, but I don’t see how it possibly could,” he said.

Even with little support shown for the merger Tuesday, Gabrielson and Ankeny both said work on the merger hasn’t been for naught.

“I think it’s important that we did the research and actually explored it, because you have to explore the new things,” Ankeny said.

“I don’t think it’s been a waste of time,” Gabrielson echoed. “I think it would have been a shame if we would not have pursued something after the 12-county.”

Reinartz and Bennett have both indicated they plan to vote “no” next week, but Glynn and Gabrielson said they plan to continue researching before making a decision.

Oscarson, as he did last week, told the board it’d be better to back out now rather than later, because quitting later could hurt relationships with the other counties.

He told the board there could be possibilities to partner were the groups later or at least use some of the methods discussed throughout the project.

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