County schedules meeting ahead of vote on Human Services merger

Published 10:20 am Wednesday, June 5, 2013

A plan to merge the Human Services departments of four counties will likely come down to money.

The Mower County board will hold a special meeting at 5:30 p.m. June 18 to discuss the costs of merging Human Services with Dodge, Steele and Waseca counties before likely voting the following week on whether to move forward or stay on their own.

Commissioners expressed concern at Tuesday’s board meeting over the price tag.

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“It’s going to be very costly if we move on to this next phase,” Board Chairman Jerry Reinartz said.

Mower County would pay $1 million or more for the costs of the next phase, and county attorney Kristen Nelsen told board members they would have no say in how that money is spent.

At the June 18 meeting, commissioners want to review cost estimates of the merger and the cost for Mower to stay on its own.

All four counties will vote on whether to move forward by the end of the month, and the vote may be more binding than the board originally thought. Officials had compared this vote to a wedding engagement in that it’s almost certainly permanent, but counties could back out if something big happens.

However, Nelsen cautioned that she views the wording of the vote as binding, which means the county could potentially face legal action should it vote “yes” now, but reverse course later. The board could only opt out if there’s something major, not if another county votes “no,” according to Nelsen.

“I read it as essentially saying, ‘We will do this,’” she said.

The four-county plan isn’t what was originally envisioned. The Southeast Minnesota Human Services Redesign was conceived as a merger of 12 counties to potentially form one service center to act as the Human Services delivery authority. Consultant Accenture indicated that plan could have saved as much as $60.6 million over the next five years.

Such significant costs savings are not possible with the four-county model, but officials have indicated there may be some savings — albeit far smaller — over time through gained efficiencies. Human Services Director Julie Stevermer and other officials have said the current system is unsustainable, so now gaining efficiencies is key.

If the board opts to merge, it will take effect Jan. 1, 2015.