Questions abound as commissioners consider 12-county Human Services merger
Jun 22, 2012 (Austin Daily Herald - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
When it comes to the 12-county merger of Human Services, the county board has more questions than answers.
The board is scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to move forward and continue to be part of the Southeast Minnesota Human Services Redesign -- a potential merger of 12 counties' human services departments. The dozen counties originally involved hired Accenture to study potential ways to merge, share services and use technology to improve efficiencies and save money.
Commissioners Mike Ankeny, Jerry Reinartz and Ray Tucker have said they're undecided about how to vote.
"There's a lot of unanswered questions there yet," Reinartz said.
Mower County will host an informational meeting at 6 p.m. Monday, June 25, in the Government Center before the board votes Tuesday, though the board could table the decision until July.
All counties will vote by early next month, but six have already made their decision; Fillmore, Winona and Goodhue counties have opted out and Waseca Dodge and Steele counties have voted to move forward. Freeborn tabled the vote until early next month.
Mower's board can vote to move ahead, move ahead with conditions or back out. If the board votes now to move ahead, it can still back out later.
Commissioners Tim Gabrielson and Tony Bennett have said they're leaning toward voting to move forward, as long as the vote includes conditions and a way out.
"We don't want to paint ourselves into a corner," Gabrielson said.
Gabrielson said he's excited to work with other county boards to get more ideas on how to proceed.
"Two, three heads are a lot better than one in trying to fix a problem or figure out ways to maintain services," he said.
While Tucker has said he could be swayed either way, the four-term commissioner echoed a sentiment all commissioners and many county officials share: "I believe that the way we provide those services today has got to change," he said.
With three of the 12 counties already out, officials say it's more likely smaller groups of counties will share services.
Ankeny has hedged at the idea of the county having to spend a great deal of money to move forward. Reinartz agreed, noting the county needs to see where other counties stand.
"We can't really do anything until we know which counties are in and which counties are out," he said.
County, state and federal officials have long discussed the need to change the way Human Services assistance is processed and delivered. Human Services Director Julie Stevermer described the model as unsustainable.
The problem, Stevermer said, is that the need for services and assistance is increasing, but state and federal dollars are decreasing and are unlikely to return.
In a report, Accenture estimated the 12 counties' expenditures in 2010 totaled $123.5 million, including state and federal contributions. Mower's expenditures were the third highest at $3.5 million, according to the report.
Under the 12-county model, Accenture estimated the counties could save about $60.6 million over the next five years -- about $34.8 million in county dollars, $23.5 million in federal dollars and $2.5 million in state funds. Mower County's cost avoidance was $1.77 million, and another model shows $4.7 million in cost avoidance for the county over the first 15 years.
However, that's changed now that at least three counties are out. Stevermer said the remaining counties will have to regroup and will likely implement a model to have smaller groups of counties sharing services and working collaboratively.
"It cuts back dramatically on the cost avoidance," Stevermer said.
The projected savings come at a cost, as counties would have to pay in. The Accenture model calls for $19.1 million for transition activities, which include $5.4 million in technology improvements and $4.5 million to analyze the business process and form call centers.
However, Stevermer noted Accenture's numbers are just projections, and the costs can't be guaranteed.
The projected cost savings have been a sticking point for commissioners, as Reinartz questioned where the $1.77 million in savings would come from.
"It's hard for me to see any cost savings," he said, referring to the high need for Human Services stemming from a growing elderly population.
The Accenture plan would find much of its savings through payroll reductions and technology improvements, according to Gabrielson.
Accenture's model would cut about 240 jobs through technology and joining services across the 12 counties, according to Gabrielson. But he isn't sure that's feasible.
"Personally, I don't think that's going to happen," he said. "Because there's too many people that require the services, and you can only spread yourself so thin."
Right now, Gabrielson said, it's more likely employees could transfer or commute to another county.
"I don't really see us losing much or any help," he said.
But Gabrielson said there is still the need for change.
"We need to be efficient, so we don't have to hire additional staff," he said. "I don't want to lose any staff because they're good jobs. We have an excellent staff at Health and Human Services, and I want all those people to be here and able to support the town while doing the job that we have to have done."
Along with staff cuts, Stevermer said, some of the projected savings could come from cuts through attrition and through improved technology and efficiency.
"Is it all staff? No." she said. "It's gained efficiencies, so you don't have to hire to keep up with the demands."
Bennett said employees have expressed concern about their jobs at county meetings.
Counties and officials are also feeling pressure from Minnesota statute 402A, which allows counties to share services. But, the statute also judges each county on performance and threatens sanctions or penalties for under-performing counties.
In the future, Stevermer said, it will be difficult for Mower to stand alone in providing services, especially for smaller to medium sized counties. In order to meet the outcome requirements alone, Stevermer said, the county would need to invest in more staff and technology.
With the county already concerned about unfunded mandates, commissioners fear the state may force their hand and make them work with other counties eventually.
"I'd certainly rather choose who I'm going to work with," Bennett said.
The need for services isn't likely to decrease. When the economy is in a recession, Stevermer noted, the demand for services only goes up. About 18 percent of Mower County residents are receiving some sort of assistance and more qualify but are choosing not to, she said.
"We have a really growing elderly population," she said.
That will drive costs, because Stevermer said the elderly population uses a high amount of long-term care and assistance. Most of those services go toward people who really need them, Stevermer said, using the example of a homeless single mother who recently came in to get diapers.
"Our whole focus is providing services to our most vulnerable people," she said.
Stevermer also said Mower County has a high number of children living in poverty. A few years ago, Human Services used up most of its reserves, so Stevermer said any overages now come directly from the county's reserves or general budget.
Out of home placements of children in foster care and other facilities has been a key factor driving that budget, and Stevermer said they have little control over costs.
"When you have kids that are in crisis or kids that are in a very vulnerable situation, they have to get removed," she said. "And that's our job to do that."
Mower's child support caseloads are high, and the open caseloads to work ratio ranked in the top 10 in the state at 249 to 1 in 2010, according to a state survey. The county had 2,617 open cases.
Bennett said the project is ripe with uncertainty now that counties have backed out, which has thrown off Accenture estimates. He admitted the project has been frustrating at times.
"The whole thing's just irritating," he said, adding that it's not a fun situation for anyone, especially employees and customers.
The 12 counties have spent about $1 million in grants from the Bush Foundation, and Mower County has contributed about $20,000, according to Stevermer. The Bush Foundation was interested in donating to the 12-county model, according to Stevermer. Counties will seek more Bush Foundation grants, but it's unclear if the group will award them to the smaller subset of counties.
Despite the upfront costs, Bennett said, he's trying to look at the project in terms of what's best for Mower County 10 to 20 years down the road.
"You don't want to be short-sighted," he said.
Stevermer said she's trying not to get bogged down by the details and questions.
"You look at it one step at a time, otherwise it gets to be too mind boggling," she said.
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