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Wadena Board explores reorganizing social services and public health departments

As part of their ongoing effort to restructure Wadena County government to make it more efficient and effective, Wadena commissioners held a special meeting on Jan. 17. All commissioners attended, along with County Attorney Kyra Ladd, County Engineer Ryan Odden, Social Services Director Paul Sailer, Public Health Director Cindy Pederson, and Auditor/Treasurer Judy Taves. Thus, the meeting included the four of the county's five revenue fund managers as well as its commissioners.

The agenda contained three major topics: First, a discussion of three options for organizing the county's Social Services and Public Health Departments: (1) whether to combine the social services and the public health departments, forming one human services division with a single director; (2) whether to join with Todd and Morrison counties to form a giant regional health and human services division with one director, and three deputy directors (one for each county); or (3) whether to leave things the way they are.

Second, a discussion of options for organizing transit services: (1) leave them as they are under social services, or (2) transfer them to the highway department.

Third, a discussion of the completed job study of the county coordinator position.

The social services and public health departments reorganization topic jumped to the top of the county's agenda when social services director Paul Sailer announced his retirement two weeks ago, effective Mar. 31. At that point, commissioners saw that they had to study the issue and make a relatively quick decision about how and whether to replace him.

Todd County combined its public health and social services departments to form one Health and Human Services (HHS) Division about 18 months ago. Todd County promoted its public health director and made her the manager of the new division. But she resigned Dec. 30 and Todd County is currently interviewing for her replacement.

Todd and Morrison commissioners have expressed interest in exploring the idea of creating a regional HHS agency that would serve all three counties.

According to a Feb. 2011 report prepared by the Minnesota Department of Health and distributed at the meeting, 54 of Minnesota's 87 counties had stand-alone public health departments. Of the remaining 33 counties, 28 had formed human service agencies that combine public health with social services.

According to current 2014 research carried out by Ladd and distributed at the meeting, the three counties in central Minnesota considering a combined human service agency (Todd, Wadena, Morrison) all operate their social services functions under the authority of the Children's Community Services Act (Minn. Stat 256M). A total of 50 counties operate their social services functions in this way. Ten other counties operate as local social service agencies under Minn. Stat. 393, eighteen counties operate as human service boards under Minn Stat 402, and three large counties have idiosyncratic forms of social services administration.

The Wadena commissioners and fund managers discussed the pros and cons of all three options for reorganization. Sailer brought up several important issues that would have to be handled before the two departments could be combined and/or joined with two other counties.

• What would happen to the fund balances that each department in each county would be carrying?

• The other two counties have employees represented by labor unions (AFSCME and Teamsters), while Wadena County Social Services employees are part of the MERIT system. The other two counties' pay scales are about 5% above Wadena's. In a combined agency, would Wadena County have to raise about 75 employees' pay by 5%? This would be extremely costly.

• When Sailer retires, there will be no experienced Social Services administrator in any of the three counties. Todd currently has no one, while Morrison's director has two years' experience in the job. Who would be hired to serve as a regional director?

• While it might seem as though Wadena County would save money by not hiring someone to fill Sailer's position, and instead paying 1/3 of the salary of a regional director, would Wadena County have to hire a deputy director for each department who would be the on-site manager? A regional director would be in Wadena County less than 1/3 of the time, because Todd and Morrison Counties have a combined population of 58,000 people, while Wadena County has only 13,000 people. Does the county want an absentee regional director of the important public health and social service functions?

Pederson opposed combining the departments and opposed creating a regional HHS agency. She said that Todd, Wadena, and Morrison Counties already cooperate in a regional health agency, the Tri-County Health Board, and she saw no reason to dissolve this well-functioning unit to try a new unit that would be twice as large and would combine somewhat contradictory goals for serving people.

The issues raised by Sailer and Pederson were sobering ones that apparently had not been previously considered by the commissioners. During the discussion, Commissioner Bill Stearns seemed to favor the regional agency option, while Commissioners Dave Hillukka, Rodney Bounds, and Ron Noon seemed to oppose it. Commissioner Jim Hofer was neutral in his comments.

No decision was made at the meeting about any of the three options for reorganizing the Social Services and Public Health Departments. Commissioners will meet on Jan. 28 with the commissioners and department heads of the other two counties to discuss the possibility of forming a regional HHS agency and determine what would be involved in such a venture.

The second agenda item — transit services and where they should be housed — was vigorously discussed. Sailer's recommendation was to transfer transit to the Highway Department, along with its 11 full- and part-time employees. Odden would become the supervisor of transit, probably through one of his subordinates.

The costs of transit were considered, along with the potential subsidy from MNDOT for providing the service. Bounds and Stearns cautioned that transferring the function from Social Services to Highway would increase its cost, while Odden and Sailer disagreed and said that MNDOT would cover everything. Everyone seemed to agree that MNDOT should be notified by letter that Wadena County was interested in becoming a regional hub for several counties' transit services.

Sailer and Odden asked the commissioners to give them a clear direction on whether to explore the logistics of making the transfer of transit from social services to highway. By consensus, commissioners agreed that Sailer and Odden should meet and talk about the transfer process and come up with a plan.

The third major agenda item was the completed Hay Group study of the county coordinator position. The Hay Group's conclusion, after evaluating the job description submitted by the county, was that the county coordinator position was worth 805 points on the Hay Group's pay equity scale. This conclusion seemed to surprise some of the commissioners.

Other Wadena County upper management positions have been evaluated as Grade 59 at 807 points (County Engineer, County Attorney, and Social Service Director III), and as Grade 58 at 674 points (Public Health Director and Sheriff).

Commissioners agreed to study the Hay Group report and come back to the Jan. 21 county board meeting with recommendations about adding or subtracting job responsibilities.