WORTHINGTON -- Nobles County Commissioners met for more than an hour in special session Tuesday morning to take a closer look at options for a multi-county community health services agency, but they still seem no closer to making a decision.
Minnesota Department of Health assistant commissioner Craig Acomb and director of the office of public health practice Deb Burns joined commissioners on Tuesday to outline the protocol for nullifying the joint powers agreement between Rock and Nobles counties for public health and to present the legalities and timelines for moving in a new direction.
Rock County has already voted to end its joint powers with Nobles County for community health services and instead will collaborate with Lincoln-Lyon-Murray-Pipestone Public Health. If Nobles County chooses the same collaboration, both could join LLMP in a new Southwest Health and Human Services agency as early as Jan. 1.
Commissioners in Nobles County have until mid-September to make their decision. If they choose not to collaborate with LLMP, the joint powers with Rock County is binding until Jan. 1, 2012, since a one-year notice is required by law when a community health board will be dissolved.
If the county chooses not to join the collaboration, it could form a single county health and human services department, said administrator Mel Ruppert.
Burns said a single county entity would require the formation of a human services board and an advisory committee of up to 25 members, to include commissioners, community corrections, service providers and service recipients.
Acomb said when Community Health Service agencies were established, the law required they serve a minimum population of 30,000 people.
"Since then, a lot of research has been done," Acomb said. "To be efficient, it should be a larger population of 50,000.
"It's not just in health that this is going on -- it's also in human services," he added.
Acomb was concerned about the time constraint with which the county is operating.
"That can be problematic from a legal perspective, but also from a planning perspective," he said.
Commissioner David Benson said he had more questions for Chris Sorensen, director of Lincoln-Lyon-Murray Human Services, regarding the potential collaboration. Benson spent more than an hour with the director on Monday and said other commissioners should also have an opportunity to speak with him. Plans are to invite Sorensen to Worthington for a special meeting within the next week or two.
While Benson said the collaboration "has been well thought out and has some possibilities," he also said if the collaboration doesn't work, other options could be pursued.
Board chairman Marv Zylstra said commissioners need to give the options a lot of thought.
"If we're going to go into this, I want to go into it for the long haul," Zylstra said. "I'd rather do the ground work now. We have a big decision to make."
Prior to adjourning the meeting, commissioners received comments from both Nobles-Rock Community Health Services (NRCHS) Administrator Brad Meyer and Nobles County Family Services deputy director Stacie Golombiecki.
Golombiecki presented information on the overlap of family services and public health in the county and urged commissioners to think about the uniqueness of Nobles County.
"We don't want to lose the ability to serve those unique needs," she added.
Meyer also spoke of those needs, noting the Nobles County's WIC numbers rival those of LLMP Public Health. He also pointed out the experiences and qualified staff in the NRCHS agency.
In talks with Sorensen, Meyer said he sees the NRCHS staff remaining in place, with perhaps a little more travel for some of the supervisors.
"As far as staff, I think it would be better for public health to go with the new organization," Meyer said. "You would still have the health identity. If you roll it into family services, family services really consumes the identity."
If the switch is made by the first of the year, Meyer said the pay scale would also remain the same for existing staff.
"Our staff pay scales are a bit higher than LLMP," he said. "If we waited until Jan. 1, 2012, we would have to adopt their pay scale and benefits. Our staff would either freeze at their current salary or lose to fit into that pay scale.
"Advocating for the staff, I can see more benefits of going in sooner rather than later," Meyer said.