Southeastern Minnesota proposal is in flux, but can succeed.
This afternoon in Rochester, officials from 12 southeastern Minnesota counties will assemble to discuss what they can salvage from their disintegrating plan to combine the administration of state-mandated human-services programs.
Minnesotans have good reason to urge them to keep trying. They may have overreached by aiming for a 12-county combination. But forecasts of rising demand for state help and continued government money woes cry out for county human-services operations that can do more at lower cost. That's the opportunity that multicounty endeavors present. It's also why standing pat should not be deemed an option.
The representatives of the dozen southeastern counties likely could use encouragement just now. They've been discovering that it's much easier to talk about redesigning government than to do it. After three years of effort, they watched this week as the board of commissioners in the largest of the 12, Olmsted County, voted not to join what would be a new unit of government, a multicounty "service delivery authority."
Instead, the Olmsted board voted to pursue the creation of the county's own "service delivery authority," giving its human-services operation more autonomy from state regulations.
Five other counties had already declined to go forward, either with the latest iteration of the multicounty plan (Goodhue, Wabasha, Winona, Fillmore) or, in the case of Rice County, with any collaboration with this group at all. Houston County won't act on the question until July 17.
That leaves five smaller counties -- Waseca, Steele, Dodge, Mower and Freeborn -- still willing to give it a go. They are likely wondering whether it's advisable to proceed.
Judging from the experience of another group of small counties to the west, the answer is yes. Three counties -- Lyon, Lincoln and Murray -- have collaborated on human services for several decades, with good results. Their joint venture, called Southwest Health and Human Services, now also includes Rock County, and in January it will add the human-services operations of Redwood and Pipestone counties (Pipestone's public health division has already been put under Southwest's control).
Pipestone's board rejected a bid to join the multicounty endeavor six years ago, said Sharon Hanson, Pipestone county administrator. The board then feared some of the same things that have given the southeastern counties pause -- loss of control, leading to local disadvantages.
But Pipestone's board reversed that decision last month after seeing that combining forces with other counties indeed saves money, stabilizes staffing and improves the quality of services. A larger staff allows individual staff members to specialize in ways that benefit clients, she said.
One key to Southwest Health and Human Services' success is that the counties involved have similar populations and philosophies about assisting the poor and vulnerable.
That wasn't the case for the 12 southeastern counties. Olmsted County is different from its neighbors. With more than a third of the group's total population and nearly half of its combined spending, Olmsted understandably considered a "one county, one vote" governance structure unfair. But other counties feared that if representation on the governing board were proportional to population or property tax revenue, Olmsted could control every vote.
It may be that Olmsted's departure will make combining operations easier for the remaining counties. It might even nudge counties that said no earlier to reconsider.
"They've made a lot of progress," state Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said Wednesday. "They are rejecting one model, but I think we'll see a lot of other shared-services models employed in that region. I find what they've done very encouraging, and I expect to see a lot more from them."
That's just what the county officials who will meet in Rochester today ought to hear from their constituents as well.
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