Archived Story

Update: County says ‘no’ to human services merger

Published 9:50am Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The county board ended four years of talks about merging human services Tuesday and opted to stay on its own.

The board unanimously voted against joining a service delivery authority that would merge the department with Steele, Dodge and Waseca counties because there were too many unanswered questions, especially about the $1 million cost to move onto the next phase.

“It just was not a good financial decision for the county board,” Board Chairman Jerry Reinartz said.

The debate on the merger started about four years ago as a plan to combine 12 counties as the Southeast Minnesota Human Services Redesign to save money and gain efficiencies. But many counties opted out, which whittled the plan to four counties, and Mower County officials soured on the plans in recent weeks.

Reinartz said $1 million was too much to pay when the board knew few specifics about costs and operations.

“I would like to have seen some real proof of cost savings when they were requiring such an investment from us to proceed,” Reinartz said.


A frustrating failure

Commissioner Tim Gabrielson said he was frustrated that the plan failed, and said he wished there would have been another phase that didn’t require a $1 million commitment to sort out unanswered questions.

“I think it could have worked if there had been another phase,” he said.

Before having to pay $1 million in startup money, Gabrielson said the board should have had more direction.

“We went through some phases, then all of a sudden you’re jumping over a cliff,” Gabrielson said.

Commissioner Mike Ankeny also expressed frustration and said there should have been more concrete answers.

Commissioner Polly Glynn said she wished the county attorneys and finance directors would have had been more involved.

Gabrielson agreed and said many of the questions could have been answered if the finance directors and county attorneys had been involved earlier. He said they weren’t involved because the human services directors didn’t think it was necessary until later.

“I think that was a mistake,” Gabrielson said.

The vote was especially tough for Gabrielson, as he was on the SDA’s steering committee and has worked on the planning since shortly after he was first elected.

“You’d like to see a project that you worked hard on for a long time go through, but if things aren’t right you can’t really vote to move forward when there are too many unknown variables,” he said.

Gabrielson said Mower County’s $1 million would have made up almost a third of the startup costs, but he said commissioners were concerned if they’d have a say for in how the SDA operated.

“You want to be able to steer the ship or help steer the ship, and we didn’t know if were we were going to have a chance to hang on to the tiller,” Gabrielson said.

The SDA was going to be run by a special board of two commissioners from each county.


A matter of risk

Reinartz said the costs posed too much of a risk, and Mower is better off staying on its own. With the merger not taking effect until 2015, Reinartz said the startup costs would have been like paying double, as the county would still pay for a few years of operations before merging.

Out of home placement costs, which make up a significant chunk of the human services budget, would have stayed with Mower County and there was no guarantee of them being added to the SDA.

“That was another negative,” Reinartz said.

The merger in part came out of talks that state will soon implement performance measurement standards on counties’ human services departments. If those are not met, county officials fear fines or other action. However, County Coordinator Craig Oscarson said state leaders have indicated they’ll work with counties that don’t meet the standards as long as the county is working to improve.

Some changes — and likely added costs — are still likely in human services’ future. Gabrielson said things need to be done differently in the face of continued changes and unfunded mandates at the state and federal level.

“We can’t continue going the way we’re going,” he said.

To meet the performance measurement standards, Julie Stevermer, director of human services, will ask for about $490,000 of new staff — which could be more than nine positions, according to county officials.

Gabrielson said the new employees could start as early as this year, but Oscarson said it could be further down the road.

Still, commissioners said that is a better choice than devoting more money to merging.

“It’s a lot less risk,” Reinartz said.

Tuesday’s vote may not close the book on the merger, as Gabrielson said Mower County could discuss it the future if the other counties work out the details.

The Mower County board spent $27,253 to study the four county merger, but more was funded through the Bush Foundation.

At a June 18 meeting, Ankeny and other commissioners said researching the merger was not a waste of time or resources.

“I think it’s important that we did the research and actually explored it, because you have to explore the new things,” Ankeny said on the 18th.

Glynn said she hopes this serves as learning tool for future merger projects, as this was a sort of guinea pig project.

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