Department heads back move, merger

Published 6:22 pm Saturday, December 10, 2011

Health and Human services will be making the move from the Oak Park Mall location to downtown Austin to the Jail and Justice Center which will be renovated to house the county office. - Eric Johnson/

To the leaders of Health and Human Services, the recently approved move downtown and potential merger of their departments is a chance to streamline.

“The move is kind of exciting because if we were to merge, it would present an opportunity to structure and position a little bit differently,” Human Services Director Julie Stevermer said. “There are some efficiencies that we could gain if we were to merge and do some cross-over work.”

The county board approved the financing to move the offices from Oak Park Mall to vacant space in the Government Center.

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By the departments move in a few years, they could be moving as a combined office. The county board is expected to vote on the merger at Tuesday’s board meeting, a move that would save an estimated $90,000.

Stevermer and Interim Public Health Director Lisa Kocer both recommended the the move.

Kocer said there’s merit in joining the offices, because of shared services potential.

“We help many of the same population,” she said.

So far, the relationship between the departments has been positive and free of controversy that slowed mergers in some counties.

“Thus far, the working relationship with Human Services and Public Health has been really good,” Kocer said.

There’s no shortage of challenges between the two offices, with an aging population and some of the highest case loads in the state in Human Services, not to mention mandates that have caused budgetary headaches for Stevermer for years.

This has left Stevermer looking for ways improve efficiency, as an aging population will increase the need for services.

If the offices merge, Stevermer said it would present opportunities to cross-train employees, as well.

“It gives us a little bit more time for some folks to be able to get their work done,” she said.

For example, Public Health and Human Services both have a service window. The two would likely be combined if the offices merge.

Once approved, Kocer said they can begin training staff in new duties.

“The sooner we get started on that the easier the transition will be,” Kocer said.



Another issue is time lost traveling to and from the mall and downtown county offices. Currently, Human Service offices has what County Coordinator Craig Oscarson calls a “virtual employee,” since about 25 to 30 hours a week are spent in travel — essentially a half position.

“We came up with about 25 to 30 hours (of travel per week),” Stevermer said. “It’s a part-time position, really.”

Stevermer said her staff commonly works with people in the County Attorney’s offices and other offices, but it’s hard to form a collaborative working relationship with them being located far away.

“Being out here, we don’t have that,” Stevermer said. “Because we do work with court services, and we do work with the county attorney.”

Stevermer also said they lack meeting space at the mall, which is a challenge since Health and Human Services share space.

Child support officers travel every Tuesday and the social workers also travel. Now, they often have to travel downtown and wait for court hearings, where they can’t get work done.

“Given our case load sizes, that would help quite significantly,” Stevermer said. “The travel time and the wait time would be lessened and give our staff a little bit more time to work. … It’s much easier to walk across the street.”



Not only will the move provide new space, it’ll give them updated technology.

Employees have long had issues with outdated phones and Internet at the mall offices, and the solution won’t be fixed until the offices move downtown.

Slow Internet and faulty phones often slow work at Human Services, according to Stevermer.

“It is slow, and we can’t do anything about it until we would make the move,” she said. “And really, it cuts down on a person’s time.”

Stevermer said she’ll often have to wait and fiddle with her computer until she can access her Outlook e-mail, a problem shared by other staff.

“It cuts down on a person’s time,” Stevermer said. “There’s been days where it’s taken 20 minutes to boot my computer to get on Outlook.”


What’s next?

Between Health and Human Services, there are about 70 to 75 positions based out of the mall. However, 13 of those employees telecommute and work from home. They will likely continue to do so if the offices move downtown, according to Stevermer.

If the merger is approved Tuesday, many of those employees will begin learning to work in both offices.

The county will also hold discussions with the two unions, AFSCME and Local 9, about the possibility of people switching unions.

“We really are appreciative that the board gave us this opportunity to work on this together,” Kocer said.