Archived Story

Mower County moves ahead with human services merger

Published 1:13pm Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Mower County Board of Commissioners voted 5-0 to become part of the Southeastern Minnesota Human Services Redesign Project Tuesday, a day after sharing information with residents and hearing feedback.

“As long as we’re this far, we have to follow through and see where this leads us,” Commissioner Jerry Reinartz said Tuesday.

The vote was the first of three to officially become part of the redesign project. County officials must approve project planning and cast a final vote to officially become part of the human services redesign, which Mower County must commit to for about three to five years, until the plan is implemented.

With the Human Services department taking up more than a third of the county’s budget, Reinartz said the county can’t sustain the high cost of services on the current model.

“The costs are just enormous,” he said.

Commissioner Mike Ankeny said the county board would likely have to add six to 10 employees if they continue on the current model.

“We’ve got to weigh all our options,” Ankeny said.

The county County commissioners mulled over conditions to joining the at-one-time 12-county merger at Monday night’s meeting, with a bit of audience input. While county commissioners are optimistic about the merger, several were pragmatic about the partnership with other counties.

“This is a very, very serious issue,” board chairman Mike Ankeny said Monday.

The board approved a resolution Tuesday to move ahead on the Human Services redesign, albeit with six conditions. The board wants the final merger model to include Health and Human Services programs, a service center in Mower County, significant cost savings if less than 12 counties participate, and guarantees that no single county would be allowed a majority vote in the Service Delivery Authority — the governing board over the merger — and to only provide mandated services.

To Reinartz the cost savings are one of the most important parts, as is equal say among all the counties.

Ankeny stressed that the county also wants to have a local presence, or a service center, here in Mower County.

Votes in other counties are producing mixed results. Winona, Fillmore and Goodhue have voted to opt out. Steele, Dodge and Waseca have voted to move forward. Freeborn and Houston tabled the vote until July.

“I would have liked to have seen the 12-county model, had there been cooperation among all the counties,” Commissioner Tony Bennett said Monday. “One of the things I hear is people talking about their current situation. You’ve got to look further down the road.”

Several commissioners felt the overall merger process may not work as planned, since the redesign consultants will have to recalculate cost savings for each county. Mower County was supposed to save about $1.5 million under a 12-county merger, and the 12-county system was supposed to run with about 705 employees working specialized jobs, a reduction of 235 jobs.

After the vote Tuesday, Bennett Bennett sited a Minnesota statute 402A, which allows counties to share services. But, the statute also judges each county on performance and threatens sanctions or penalties for under-performing counties.

Commissioners have said the statute will require counties of 55,000 or fewer to start working together. Bennett said it’s better for the board to move forward and control it’s fate, instead of having the state potentially making such decisions down the road.

Still, Bennett said there are many unknowns.

“It’s really kind of up in the air of who’s going be willing to work with you,” he said.

Commissioner Tim Gabrielson believes Mower may join a smaller county agreement of three, four, or five counties, but he isn’t sure about the overall merger plan since nothing has yet become concrete.

“We’re having figures thrown at us that are just guesstimates, at best,” he said Monday. “I can’t run my business, I can’t run my household that way, so I can’t run the county that way, either.”

Commissioners, county officials and audience members all agreed there was no way to continue running Health and Human Services under its current model, as County Coordinator Craig Oscarson estimated six to 10 more employees are needed to keep up with current resident demands.

“We have to study options for this, otherwise we just can’t keep up,” Reinartz said Monday.

Project officials will have to recalculate savings and start planning infrastructure needs. The board will have to prioritize any of its conditions so project officials can try to please all counties involved. Oscarson said several counties expressed concern that Olmsted County would have a majority vote and could force initiatives through if it so chose, while audience member and former commissioner Dave Hillier worried rising implementation costs and bringing county salaries up to Olmsted County-levels could ruin Mower coffers. Hillier also expressed concern over cutting county jobs.

“If you ran your business and if you took 20 percent of your staff and expected to carry on the same way the next day … you just can’t have that happen,” he told the board.

Once a plan is drawn up, the board must officially approve its partnership, which will take three to five years to properly implement. Until then, the board can watch as other counties struggle with the redesign question and wait to officially join the redesign.

“We can always opt out,” Ankeny said.


—Trey Mewes contributed to this report.