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.
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.”
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