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Health services merger is urged

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news Red Wing, 55066

Red Wing Minnesota 2760 North Service Drive / P.O. Box 15 55066

There was a time when Greg Schoener and Karen Main would never have agreed to merging their departments.

On Tuesday, however, they sat united before the Goodhue County Board and suggested consolidating the Public Health Service and Human Services offices by 2011.

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"We've been thinking about this now for a long time," said Main, who runs Public Health. "At one time, both of us would have rather fallen on our swords than say we would consider merging."

"But I feel good about what we came up with," Main said last week.

The memo to commissioners suggests employees from both departments move to one location on or before the end of 2009.

The departments are currently housed in different facilities about a block apart in downtown Red Wing near the Government Center.

A space study of existing facilities and potential new facilities will be completed over the next six months, according to the recommendation.

Commissioners on Tuesday asked Main and Schoener, who heads up the county's Human Services Department, to produce a cost estimate for the space study.

Schoener said most of that work will be done internally, but some outside help will be needed.

"I've seen this coming for a long time. It'll work, no doubt about it," Commissioner Richard Samuelson said. "But where are we going to house everyone? It's going to be a problem."

The county's Public Health and Welfare boards should also merge by the end of 2009, but departmental leadership will remain split. A director to oversee both departments should be selected by the end of 2011.

"We took our time putting this together and we give time for people who do the work to work out the details," Main said. "That's critical to making this work."

Previous county boards and department heads have examined the idea, to no avail.

Main said the pieces have fallen together this time thanks in large part to a meeting in April attended by more than 100 people.

Officials from several counties as well as local residents got together and talked about the benefits and disadvantages of merging or co-locating the two departments.

The "open spaces" meeting format, Main said, allowed employees countywide to talk as peers and put their own stamp on the merger process.

Schoener called the meeting a "pretty powerful event."

Main and Schoener both said a slow but steady approach that utilizes the talents of current employees is important to a smooth transition.

"We need to make this a grass-roots kind of project," Main said.

"Let the people who know how to do the work plan how it's going to operate. Let them figure it out."

Taking that all-in approach will not only be key to a successful local program but could make Goodhue County's merged departments a model

for the entire state, Main said.

Better for the public?

While April's meeting seemed to breathe new life into a stale topic, important questions still remain regarding the eventual merger.

Officials still don't know whether co-locating and merging the departments will save money. What is becoming clearer, however, is that putting employees together will mean better service for the public.

"This will really mean one-stop shopping," Commissioner Ted Seifert said.

Both departments provide health services to the community.

"It's really a continuum," Main said.

The difference, she added, is that "Public Health is invested in keeping people as healthy as possible. Human Services is invested in helping people when things have gone wrong."

According to the report submitted to commissioners, the departments "have a symbiotic relationship between their core missions."

Public Health focuses on the health of the community at large, while Human Services concentrates on the individual, the report states.

Merging the sometimes overlapping services will "increase the likelihood that services will be more available, affordable and accessible to the citizenry," according to the report.

Preparing for future

County commissioners made it one of their goals in both 2007 and 2008 to discuss possibilities for the departments.

Commissioners say they've received no complaints about how either department operates and that the request for a report wasn't solely driven by cost savings.

For Commissioner Dan Rechtzigel, the discussion seemed like a logical one, especially as Main and Schoener both edge closer to retirement.

"The question the board really had was where do we go when you two leave?" Rechtzigel said.

"Do we continue the standard operations or look at some sort of combination?

"When we lose these two invaluable resources, what do we do next?"

Goodhue County officials sent out a survey last year to each Minnesota county asking for input on their public health and human services departments.

Sixty-six counties responded; 17 reporting merged public health and human services divisions.

"Some are not really merged very effectively," Schoener said.

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