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County talks CHS

WORTHINGTON -- While Rock County commissioners seemed ready to move forward with a multi-county public health collaboration during its meeting Tuesday morning, Nobles County commissioners applied the brakes and asked for more time to discuss the idea further.

The two boards met via interactive TV with Chris Sorenson, administrator of Lincoln-Lyon-Murray Human Services and Lincoln-Lyon-Murray-Pipestone Public Health, to discuss the potential creation of Southwest Health and Human Services. The plan would combine LLMP Public Health with LLM Human Services and Nobles-Rock Community Health Services. If approved, the agencies could be combined as early as Jan. 1.

Nobles and Rock counties have had a combined public health program for 41 years, and completed their last joint powers agreement in 2006. Rock County initiated contact with LLMP in hopes of achieving better cost savings.

Sorenson, who compiled population data and levy information on the counties involved in the discussion, said Rock and Lyon counties would see a "significant decrease" in what they contribute for operations, while some of the other smaller counties would see an increase. Rock County pays $11.50 to $12 per capita at this time for health services, while a collaborative approach would put the per capita costs at roughly $7.50.

He said the new Southwest Health and Human Services (SHHS) would be its own legal entity and employer for all employees in the existing public health and human services departments.

"Our employees shouldn't see all that much for change," he said. "Generally, we don't see their jobs changing. We need our people to be experts in the area they're already working in. We see it as a total integration."

Sorenson spoke of some of the benefits of combining agencies, including that NRCHS offers more experience in supervision and expertise in nursing.

"We are short in the area of direct nursing supervision," he said. "We know that's a resource Rock and Nobles brings to the table right away."

As for LLMP's offerings, he said they had two full-time sanitarians, one of whom focuses on testing. NRCHS also has a full-time sanitarian, while its testing is contracted through a New Ulm laboratory. He also spoke of LLMP's offerings in human resources and staff development.

Commissioner David Benson cited concerns about losing the team approach that he said has worked well for NRCHS. He also feared a loss of identity for public health.

"I might like a five or six county public health as an interim step to combining health and human services," Benson said.

There was also some concern about the timeline involved. The counties would need to decide by mid-September, when they are also working on their budgets, if they want to collaborate.

"We're about a month out from working out an arrangement," said Kyle Oldre, Rock County administrator. In that time, he said Rock and Nobles counties would need to work with the State of Minnesota because of its existing joint powers agreement, and also with Sanford, with which it contracts for the NRCHS director.

"They are ultimately creating a new body on January 1, and if you choose to do so, our counties would be on the ground floor of that new body," Oldre told commissioners from both Nobles and Rock counties. "Timing is really a good reason to explore this and take a really hard look at it."

Rock County Commissioner Ron Boyenga said Tuesday he was ready to make a decision.

"A situation like this I think you can overanalyze it," Boyenga said. "I am interested in going ahead with LLMP."

He said if that meant Rock County moving ahead or Rock and Nobles counties both moving forward, there is a benefit to collaborating.

"I think we can provide as good or better service, and I think we can save some money doing it," said Boyenga.

Nobles County Commissioner Marv Zylstra acknowledged that Rock County was further along in the discussion process than Nobles.

"We haven't really sat down as a board and discussed it here," said Zylstra. "I'm sensing that you're a little further and have more information than what we do have here."

The board set 8 a.m. on Aug. 17 as a special board meeting to discuss the potential to combine its public health agency with LLMP. This will precede a special joint meeting with Rock County Commissioners at 6 p.m. Aug. 24, to discuss the matter further. A decision must be made on the multi-county collaboration at the Sept. 7 board meeting.

Commissioner Diane Thier said the Nobles County board needs to look at what the savings will be and ensure the same level of service will be provided to local residents, while Commissioner David Benson said he wants to make sure public health still has a voice at the table if they move forward with the collaboration.

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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