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Continued: More Minnesota counties join hands to share services, save money

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Last update: July 5, 2014 - 6:35 AM

Six counties that make up Southwest Health and Human Services are saving an estimated $300,000 to $500,000 annually by sharing, but putting most of that money back into services and staff, said Director Chris Sorensen.

Counties are careful to keep local offices, assuring residents won’t have to travel farther to get help. Instead, top administrators are the ones traveling, adding “windshield time” to their vernacular. Increasingly, counties are using video technology to cut down on travel time.

The sharing allows some counties to give better service, administrators said. Adoption processing, for example, requires specialized knowledge, but in small counties there aren’t a high number of adoptions. Combining counties allows a single staff expert to oversee more adoptions and offer more adept service.

Residents also might get help more quickly for all of their needs. When people come in, they might typically meet with an intake worker.

If an intake worker in one county is busy, the new client might be able to see another intake worker through video technology, depending on the situation.

“Where we can do that electronically … we’ll certainly look for those efficiencies,” said Jane Hardwick, transition director for Minnesota Prairie County Alliance, which will combine human services in Waseca, Dodge and Steele counties. “We don’t want to diminish the quality of the personal contact at the same time.”

Merging pains

Pulling off a merger isn’t always easy, though. Regional differences sometimes get in the way. Smaller counties fear getting overrun by larger ones, for instance, leaders said.

Originally, the Prairie County Alliance was going to include 12 counties, but several bowed out over the course of a couple of years.

The original group fell apart “based on some, you might say, philosophical differences,” said Craig Oscarson, coordinator for Mower County, which was the last to opt out last year. Some counties want to provide bare bones services, he said, while other counties want to provide more progressive services that in theory cost more on Day One, but in the long term should save money.

Consultants had told Mower County officials originally that the county might save more than $400,000 annually by joining its neighbors. Then, after it was whittled down to four counties, consultants put the savings at far less. Mower County’s own staff studied the new plan and wondered if it might actually cost the county, so they decided against joining the group for now.

Undeterred by drives

In southwest Minnesota, Dahmes provides in-home counseling to a range of families, including some with parenting problems or chemical-dependency issues.

Dahmes, a one-time farmer who went to school for social work, said he’s happy to be working in a larger area, even if it means more windshield time. It gives more families better odds at working out problems before their county takes drastic action, he said.

So he packs his bag of forms and files and gets behind the wheel, undeterred by the ­longer drives.

“I still get an awfully good feeling when I’m able to help,” he said.

 

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102

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