Following recession-crunched budgets, counties are increasingly sharing departments to save money.
Some days, Michael Dahmes begins his job by settling into his 14-year-old Chevy pickup and hitting the road for hours, driving to counsel families across six counties in southwestern Minnesota.
As an intensive in-home social worker, Dahmes used to be employed by Redwood County. Now that county has joined five others in one regional health and human services agency, and Dahmes is finding himself becoming more familiar with the hum of the long, straight road, sometimes even completing a nearly 120-mile loop.
“I love what I do,” said Dahmes, 63. “If I want to be able to help families and be a change agent of sorts, then [traveling] is part of the territory.”
Across Minnesota, territories are expanding as county governments are increasingly sharing departments both to save money and provide better services. The trend comes after budgets shrank during the recession and leaders were loath to turn to taxpayers to make up the difference. Merging departments also yields a better chance at winning grants and luring specialized professionals, leaders say.
In west central Minnesota, five counties are joining together to form the Horizon Public Health agency, slated to begin Jan. 1.
That same day, the Prairie County Alliance is scheduled to open, joining human service departments of three counties in southeast Minnesota.
Jackson and Cottonwood counties recently hired a shared Parks and Trails director, making it a full-time job instead of a lower priority in someone else’s work.
Those two counties recently added to a long-standing health partnership by creating Des Moines Valley Health and Human Services.
“We’ve certainly been putting some increased emphasis on it” in conferences and in newsletters, said Julie Ring, executive director of the Association of Minnesota Counties.
Still there are risks, including political and regional differences between agencies. And savings depend on how many counties participate.
But such sharing agreements appear to be increasing nationally, too, leaders say, though evidence is anecdotal.
“We are seeing more and more counties working together,” said Brian Namey, spokesman for the National Association of Counties. “In these difficult economic times, they are increasingly interested in finding ways to save.”
Keeping it local
In Minnesota, most merging has come in health and human services, which provide a range of services, from saving children from neglect to helping the elderly get long-term care.
The state Department of Health got a $125,000 grant — one of 16 nationally — from the nonprofit Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Center for Sharing Public Health Services to help explore and facilitate such sharing. The department is working with 11 local governments in Minnesota that are considering such moves.
“It became clear to us that many of our jurisdictions were thinking about this,” said Allison Thrash, supervisor of the state health department’s Office of Performance Improvement. “We did not want to lose an opportunity to learn from national experts.”
The Horizon Public Health Agency also was a grant recipient.
Most merged agencies are overseen by boards with representation from each county. Most combine without layoffs, though many cull positions through attrition. The amount of money saved varies widely, depending upon agreements and county size. In many cases, leaders said, savings aren’t realized until shared agencies are running for a few years. Through the agreements, many counties are preparing to keep costs steady while increasing services for aging populations.