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Editorial: Nobles County - time to collaborate

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For months, even years, Nobles County commissioners have spoken of their desire to collaborate, partner or join forces with another entity on a project. We've heard about it often in regard to a library, and more recently with the proposal to create a six-county Southwest Health and Human Services agency.

However, when it comes right down to it, it seems county commissioners haven't learned how to cooperate.

Such was the case on Tuesday when, after recent meetings with state and local public health officials and spending hours in discussion, commissioners made a 3-2 decision to walk away from a public health collaboration. Instead, they will continue to research the idea of combining the county's public health agency with its human services and community corrections departments.

Commissioner David Benson should be commended for standing in support of the collaboration. He has been a strong voice for public health -- Benson will receive the 2010 award for outstanding dedication to public health in a ceremony next week in Brainerd -- and also a strong supporter of building partnerships with other agencies. We just wish some of the other county commissioners shared his foresight.

In previous meetings, commissioners have been told by the Minnesota Department of Health that for a county to operate an effective and efficient public health agency, it needs to serve a population of at least 50,000. Nobles County's population is slightly more than 20,000.

Commissioners have also been told by Nobles-Rock Community Health Administrator Brad Meyer that a budget for a stand-alone agency could not support all of the existing staff. Meyer has already been told he won't have a job when Nobles and Rock counties part ways at the end of 2011, yet he has spoken in support of the six-county collaboration to ensure his employees retain their positions.

For weeks, commissioners have asked to see budgets and plans on the two options. While they've had a glimpse of an estimated budget and a mock-up of how a joint powers agreement would work in the Southwest Health and Human Services agency, they have yet to see a budget for a single-county health, human services and community corrections idea.

A couple doesn't go out and buy a house without at least developing a budget and knowing if that house is going to serve them for years to come. Why then would commissioners choose a path having so little information to go on?

Will a single-county entity work? It may, but the state has already said it will be less efficient. There's also concern that as a small agency, it wouldn't be as successful in getting grants to help fund health education and programming.

Will staff need to be cut? That could certainly happen, and if staff it does programming will undoubtedly suffer. Public Health already operates with a bare-bones staff, albeit one that weathered the storm of a major tuberculosis outbreak in 2008 and responded with public flu clinics during the H1N1 scare of 2009.

Commissioners should not have been so hasty to make a decision without having all of the facts in front of them, and we hope it isn't too late for them to reconsider a multi-county collaboration. Combining our efforts with another agency, keeping staff in place to do their work, and improving our ability to get outside funds to help in those efforts seems like a no-brainer.