Keppers named new Wadena County Public Health director starting in February 2022

The county board also discussed a report on combining Human Services and Public Health which states that combining the departments would not bring cost savings to the county or better serve the public.

Erica Keppers.jpg
Erica Keppers, Wadena County Public Health. Contributed / Wadena County Public Health, 2021

How can Wadena County save money and continue offering services well to residents? Commissioners discussed one of the big ideas that didn’t pan out for now—combining the Human Services and Public Health departments—on Tuesday, Nov. 2.

When looking at combining the departments as a whole, leaders said it would not bring cost savings or better serve the public. These leaders included a committee of county coordinator Ryan Odden, Public Health associate director and nursing supervisor Erica Keppers, director Cindy Pederson and Human Services director Jennifer Westrum along with a second meeting including commissioners Sheldon Monson and Jon Kangas. Commissioner Kangas was not present at the board meeting on Tuesday.

The idea was based on having one director position for Human Services and Public Health. Both departments have set administrative leaders over the department as a whole and within the department units. Monson said the leaders are fulfilling their roles.

The services include required state services through the departments with disease prevention and health promotion, bioterrorism and emergency preparedness, family health, assuring access to health care and environmental health at Public Health. Human Services works on child welfare services, publicly-funded health care programs and services for people who have mental health challenges, are chemically dependent or have physical or developmental disabilities. Projects like car seat clinics, case management and grants could be worked on together.

“It is important to remember that public health and human services are not the same,” the report states. “The missions, focus of action, issues addressed, approaches and authorities of the two agencies are different.”


Within Region Five, the two departments are “integrated” in Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison and Todd counties. The report states, “Wadena County’s administrative structure is in line with the other (counties’) agencies without reorganizing.” The combined departments include different services, separate financials and varying percentages of the county population in managed care enrollment.

The committee also looked at having Public Health move into the Human Services building, which would be necessary for the departments to work well if they were combined, as the report stated. The project would include changes to the lobby, upstairs conference rooms, downstairs office rooms and space for medical supplies for about $389,875. The Workforce Development Center would also have to move locations.

County attorney Kyra Ladd said some financial impacts were not addressed, such as revenue from the sale of the Public Health building or the cost changes from the state instead of the county running the food, pools and lodging licensing program.

Another financial question weighs on grant writing, which has allowed Public Health to not ask for a levy increase since 2011 when Pederson became director. Keppers said she and other staff members also work on grant writing and she is familiar with the process.

The leadership of these departments has changed, too, with Human Services director Westrum hired in March 2020 and Tuesday’s approval of Keppers as the new Public Health director starting in February 2022. Keppers has been a nurse for 29 years, including 15 years at Public Health with five of those years as nursing supervisor. She has a masters in nursing administration.

The approval also comes with an extension of Pederson’s phased retirement to February. The time allows for more training and giving duties to Keppers as well as training a new nursing supervisor. The board approved posting the nursing supervisor position internally and externally. The hiring and position changes will keep the department at 14 staff members.


“Erica is a known quantity, and I think that’s important when you have known quantities within the county that you can promote, and has the experience and has been part of the culture of that department and will continue to be part of the culture of that department and lead the culture of that department and keep it going in an ongoing basis,” said commissioner Bill Stearns.

While the idea of combining Public Health and Human Services isn’t totally off the table, commissioners agreed the county would not benefit from the transition currently.

Highway department projects

As the new county engineer, Darin Fellbaum highlighted the current projects of the fairgrounds drainage, County State Aid Highway 92 and two deficient bridges.

In a separate project, the board approved a water and sewer extension to the Beer Garden building for $21,500. Kreklau voted against the project because he felt it was nice but not necessarily needed. Stearns said it is a health and safety need. With Kern & Tabery already on site dewatering, they hope to save money by completing the project now. This project is funded through the American Rescue Plan Act. The project will begin as long as the water pipes are available. Additional dewatering costs are also possible.

  • CSAH 92 : The project is in the design phase and will be a focus in summer 2022. The re-construction of Greenwood Avenue is for the Tri-County Health Care project. The road adds to the county’s state aid miles to claim funding.

  • Deficient bridges: A pedestrian and snowmobile trail bridge in Old Wadena Park will be abandoned and removed due to washout issues. The trail will have to be re-routed. The 20-30 foot bridge is a heavy structure as it was once a vehicle bridge. The county is looking at funding options for the removal.

The second bridge crosses the Shell River and has a hole on the outside edge of one beam. Barriers have been placed on the shoulder for vehicles to drive safely. Commissioners approved adding the bridge to a list of bridges for possible state funding.

  • Sheriff’s building parking lot at the fairgrounds: The gravel parking lot will be paved from the building to the curb to avoid tracking in dirt. Odden said the issue has been discussed at the building committee several times. Kreklau said it was another want and not need. The project of $10,600 will likely happen in spring 2022. The funds are from the Minnesota Counties Intergovernmental Trust, which is not from the levy.

The board also approved:

  • The hires of Jacqueline Lysdahl, Human Services office support specialist, for $14.79 per hour and Kari Carlson, highway department accountant, for $27.06 per hour.

  • Re-appointing Jensine Kurtti and Gordy Aagard to the planning commission through October 2024.

  • The Association of Minnesota Counties delegates as the commissioners, Odden and Westrum.

  • The victim witness coordinator grant through September 2023. The grant covers costs for the program and coordinator position. Coordinator Marcy Miller works with crime victims on their rights to make sure they are being met. The program is through the county attorney’s office.

  • A conditional use permit for a second family dwelling in Bullard Township. The existing structure is a farmhouse that will be used for hosting visiting family members.

  • A conditional use permit for a gravel pit in Blueberry Township. The pit includes mining, processing and stockpiling gravel with some hot mix operations. The pit will be open Monday-Friday from 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturdays from 6:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

  • Correct abatement paperwork for the former Orton’s Gas Station that the Minnesota Department of Transportation was supposed to be exempt from for 2020.

  • Discussed submitted ideas for the American Rescue Plan Act funds; the county received about $2.7 million . The funds are eligible through 2024. Odden and county staff members will research costs and information for the courthouse and Public Health HVAC systems, jail kitchen and Sebeka, Menahga and Verndale downtown revitalization projects.

  • Discussed categories of budget, service delivery, department organization, payroll and benefits, highway department, commissioners/board and buildings for ideas on saving the county money. While a committee was proposed to organize the ideas, the discussions will happen over several meetings at the full board level.

Rebecca Mitchell started as a Digital Content Producer for the Post Bulletin in August 2022. She specializes in feature reporting as well as enhancing online articles. Readers can reach Rebecca at 507-285-7681 or
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