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Kandiyohi Co. and Renville Co. will merge health boards

WILLMAR -- Unanimous votes Tuesday by the Kandiyohi County and Renville County boards of commissioners have set in motion the merger of the two counties' public health boards.

The new partnership is expected to create efficiencies and expand prospects for obtaining grants because of the larger population base.

The merger will mean a joint powers agreement to establish a Kandiyohi-Renville Community Health Board that will provide overall leadership and direction to the public health departments and serve as the governing link to the state Department of Health.

Each county, however, will retain its own public health office and staff.

The change should be "seamless" to the public, said Ann Stehn, Kandiyohi County Public Health Director, in a phone interview late Tuesday afternoon.

There will be no staffing changes and little if any impact to county residents now, she said, but the merger could result in additional services for both counties in the future.

The state has been encouraging the creation of multi-county public health departments, said Stehn at Tuesday's meeting.

"This is happening all across the state, to be working in partnership," said Stehn. "We are on our way to a new partnership."

The decision to merge was made on the recommendation of a study group comprised of representatives from both counties that met over the last 14 months to explore the similarities and differences between the two departments, economic and health data from the counties and the challenges and trends impacting local government and public health.

The process looked at the pros and cons of a merger.

The challenges listed in the report include the counties using different computer software and different county-based purchasing programs for health care services. It was also noted that departments in both counties have unionized staff and that Kandiyohi County's larger population could "lead to feelings of being unequal partners."

Advantages to a merger include geographical proximity, increased opportunities for grants, having a "synergy" with other county partnerships including an existing partnership with the counties' environmental health programs and a having a common history of supporting public health programs.

"By far there were more opportunities," said Jill Bruns, Renville County Public Health Director, who praised the group for having a "can-do" attitude.

Bruns said the two counties share a similar vision. "There's so much hope," she said. "There's not this feeling of despair."

Bruns said the two counties are willing to be "innovative and take a few risks" to move ahead with a new plan for the future.

"I'm just proud to be part of this group," said Kandiyohi County Commissioner Jim Butterfield, who was part of the study group.

Kandiyohi County Commissioner Harlan Madsen, who also served on the committee, said the exploration was rewarding and exciting. "Yes, there were a few bumps in the road, but not road blocks," he said.

The merger is expected to be in effect by Jan. 1.

There is considerable work to be done before then, however.

After sending notice to the Minnesota Department of Health about the change, a name for the new joint board will have to be decided and the study group will reconvene and become a "transition team" to work on implementation of a plan that will outline different duties for the county staff.

In showing the proposed flow chart of how the merged departments would function, Stehn said the people of Kandiyohi and Renville counties are "at the center of our planning."

Stehn said the merger will ensure that public health services for both counties will be structured to "stay strong" now and into the future.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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