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County and SWMH discuss needs, building space

WORTHINGTON -- After recent comments made by Nobles County Commissioners on the assessment of mental health needs and development of a "mental health campus" in Worthington, members of Southwestern Mental Health (SWMH) Center's board of directors requested a joint meeting Wednesday night for a face-to-face discussion.

Marlene Trageser, board chair and layperson representing Pipestone County, said the meeting was necessary to address concerns over the steps taken toward building a new facility in Worthington. The board continues to move forward with an architect to design a facility on the former Central Elementary School property, while Nobles County Commissioners and administrator Mel Ruppert have suggested SWMH is putting the cart before the horse.

"To me, I think you're going about this backwards -- you've got a lot, and you're trying to fit things in," Ruppert said. He suggested the board consider first what the mental health needs are in the community and then try to address them in the planning of a new building.

However, with Worthington Regional Hospital's oncology unit construction zone mere feet from the front door of the SWMH office, time is of the essence. The agency's 20-year lease on the building expires in June 2009, at which time they must move.

"The time frame has been a driving factor," said Trageser, adding that they want to develop a facility to incorporate Unity House and have enough office space for SWMH to work in one office building. Presently, offices are located in the SWMH building at 1024 Seventh Ave., 701 11th St., and at the Nobles County Government Center. The agency serves the five member counties of Nobles, Rock, Pipestone, Cottonwood and Jackson.

Scott Johnson, director of SWMH, said they are looking to build a facility in Worthington with approximately 8,500-square-feet of office space, with another 4,500-square-feet approximately for mental health beds and detox use.

"The board has moved to purchase the Central School site to develop it," Johnson told the group. With the office and Unity House space, as well as parking lots, he said there would still be room for further development.

"I think we have until January or February to continue to look at that site and what we want to do before they (Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, the agency that owns the parcel) lose interest with us and develop it into residential lots," Johnson added.

"Over the years, we have looked at a lot of sites, and we do like the idea of a centrally-located building," said Trageser. "... We do want to proceed with our plans."

The county, on the other hand, has worked since March to identify mental health needs. Ruppert said services identified as being needed in Worthington are chemical dependency treatment, detox, psychiatric care, intensive residential therapy, patient-visitor support and crisis beds. To meet those needs most efficiently, he said developing a campus-type facility with room to grow would be the best use of taxpayer dollars. Whether the Central Elementary School site is the appropriate location depends on the space needed, Ruppert added.

Nobles County Commissioner Diane Thier questioned the decision-making process for the new facility.

"Since Nobles County is going to be putting up the building and paying for it, shouldn't it be the county's decision what we want to build?" Thier asked. "Nobles County ought to look at what we need and where we want to put it, and then talk to (SWMH) about whether you want to contract with us.

"We want what's best for Nobles County, whether that's working with Southwestern Mental Health or some other agency," she added.

Providing all of the mental health services Nobles County identified, however, will require SWMH to offer services they've previously found to be cost-prohibitive, said SWMH board member and Rock County Commissioner Jane Wildung. Also, she said some of the programs Ruppert mentioned are services the agency has never before provided.

"We have programs and services that we have operated ... that we know we can afford to operate," said Wildung of the current facility plans.

"When you get into detox, it's a very expensive thing," added Nobles County lay member Chuck Magyar. "We really can't justify another one in this area. I think we need to look at this as a multi-county facility, otherwise why doesn't every county just go their own way?"

Breaking up the collaboration would require each county to find new methods to serve their mentally ill residents -- a likely more expensive move.

"That's why Jackson County wanted back in -- we found it was more expensive than being in partnership with you," said Jackson County Commissioner Loren Tusa.

After an hour and a half of discussion, the board and Nobles County agreed to meet again early in the New Year to further delve into the facility issues. In the meantime, Ruppert was asked to supply the SWMH board with the number of patients sent out-of-county for treatment and the costs associated with that. In turn, Johnson was asked to supply the county with figures relating to staffing the services the county needs.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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