County to continue with human services merger

Published 1:30 pm Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Freeborn County commissioners on Tuesday voted to move forward with discussions toward a proposed regional human services merger.

Out of the original 12 counties considering the collaboration, there are now five counties moving forward in the project and five that have opted out. Two have yet to vote.

In addition to Freeborn, those moving forward are Waseca, Dodge, Steele and Mower counties.

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Goodhue, Winona, Fillmore, Wabasha and Rice counties have opted out, and votes in Olmsted and Houston counties are expected to come next week.

The local vote was split with commissioners Chris Shoff, Mike Lee and Jim Nelson voting to continue, while commissioners Dan Belshan and Glen Mathiason voted against.

Freeborn County Administrator John Kluever said the Tuesday vote does not ask the county to contribute any additional funding, and the county still has time to back out of the plan.

“As long as it doesn’t cost us more money, what does it hurt to get a clearer picture,” Lee said after the meeting.

The proposal has been in the works for more than two years after the original 12 southeast Minnesota counties selected consultant firm Accenture to develop a human services delivery model focused on moving from a county-based to a regional approach. A representative from each county has served on a steering committee as the proposal has been formed.

Accenture has been paid about $1 million in grants from the St. Paul-based Bush Foundation for the development of the proposal, and counties have chipped in smaller contributions, based on population. Freeborn County’s share was $17,000.

The idea came about because of continuous cuts in state and federal funding. This has led to reduced funding in most of the region’s counties. At the same time, more people are turning to county government for help with human services because of the economy and the aging of the population.

Under the proposal, decisions for services would be made through a governance board consisting of representatives from each county, with the number of votes from each county determined by the number of people served.

When all 12 counties were involved, there would be an estimated reduction from about 700 jobs across the counties to about 500 jobs during the first 10 years.

Freeborn County was expected to avoid $2.5 million in costs after the first five years, $5.5 million after the first 10 years and $8.4 million after the first 15 years.

These numbers would change with fewer counties on board.

During discussion about the proposal Tuesday, Belshan voiced concern with how each county’s vote would be weighted and with how much is being spent to pay the consultant firm.

He also pointed out how the proposal called for $19 million in implementation costs when all 12 counties were involved, $11 million of which would go to the consultant.

“This is a consultant-driven plan,” Belshan said.

He said he thinks the human services directors and administrators in the counties should instead get together and look at potential cost savings.

“They know the local area better than anybody,” he noted.

Belshan also brought up how the county’s public health and human services budget should be looked at to see which nonmandated programs the county is offering.

A few of the commissioners briefly mentioned whether Freeborn County should consider joining services with just one or two other counties.

Belshan said if Freeborn County’s population drops below 30,000, the county will be required to either merge its public health and human services departments or combine public health departments with another county.

What’s next?

With fewer counties in on the proposal, the steering committee and the consultant firm will meet again July 12 to begin reconfiguring the plan for the counties still on board.

Kluever said much of the plan hinges on the vote of Olmsted County, the largest county considering the collaboration.

If Olmsted drops out of the merger, the plan is likely to fold.

He said he has heard that there may not be much movement about the issue prior to the November elections, so it could be several months before any further action is taken.