White Bear Lake, Northwest Youth and Family Services closing in on merger

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW
  • Star Tribune
  • May 12, 2012 - 7:54 PM

Officials in White Bear Lake have found a way to save money and get out of the counseling business, yet keep services available to residents.

The city is in the final stages of negotiating a merger in which the White Bear Lake Area Community Counseling Center would combine with Northwest Youth and Family Services (NYFS), a nonprofit social service and mental health agency that serves residents in northern Ramsey County. The hope is that the two agencies will become a single entity on July 1, said City Manager Mark Sather.

White Bear Lake currently allocates $104,000, or 3 percent of its budget, to run the counseling center at 1280 N. Birch Lake Blvd. If the organizations merge, however, that figure would drop incrementally over a five-year period, said Julie Williams, director of the White Bear center.

More important, officials from NYFS and the city say, the merger would mitigate program cuts and allow current services to continue. The new organization, if approved, likely would operate under a new name.

"This is not a 'larger is better,'" said Jerry Hromatka, president of the Shoreview-based NYFS. "This ensures that services will be available."

NYFS is funded by nine communities. The nonprofit makes up the rest of its roughly $4 million budget by obtaining grants and through fundraising. As a government agency, Williams didn't have the luxury of soliciting donations.

"As the head of a city department, we don't have fundraising squads," she said. "A lot of people are not going to donate to the city. They feel they have donated with their taxes."

The White Bear Community Counseling Center opened 41 years ago and offers outpatient mental health services to youth, adults and families in crisis. It also provides individual and family therapy and runs a program for at-risk youth.

Merger talks popped up about 18 months ago as both NYFS and White Bear's counseling center found it increasingly difficult to secure federal grants, and communities began allocating fewer and fewer dollars for social services.

Eight years ago, the White Bear center served 1,143 people on a $664,905 budget. With the onset of the recession, outside money dried up, including a $30,000 federal grant it used to put hundreds of adults through free parenting classes. Without the money, those classes were eliminated. Other cuts have slowly whittled away at its budget and client base. Today, with 664 clients, the budget is $516,615.

"That has slowly reduced the agency in terms of service delivery to the minimal of what the community needed," Williams said. The merger, she said, will save current programs, give White Bear residents access to such services as mentoring and tutoring that are not offered, and "brings together two organizations that have long, positive histories and good reputations."

With a merger, White Bear Lake's annual financial contribution would drop. The same is true in Mahtomedi, Birchwood Village, Vadnais Heights and White Bear Township, cities that also send clients to the White Bear Lake counseling center. (Hugo currently contributes a flat fee of $5,000 a year.) However, because those communities would pay less, fundraising to make up the difference would have to pick up, Williams said.

The White Bear Lake City Council recently passed a resolution supporting the merger, which would end the city's responsibility for running the counseling center it has operated for more than 40 years.

"Nobody on the council thought we should get out of the business," Sather said. "We think it is really important, but have a fiduciary responsibility to the residents."

NYFS's Hromatka said he feels the merger would be good because the organizations already have a similar mission. He said that finding a way to match programs, culture and finances is doable, as is eliminating duplication.

"Things are not getting easier," he said. "Kids are having harder issues to deal with and they come at an earlier age. We have to do more with less, and this is one of those ways to do that."

Tim Harlow • 651-925-5039 Twitter: @timstrib

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