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Kandiyohi County, Minn., commissioners hear ideas for phase two of county redesign

WILLMAR -- David Unmacht reiterated Tuesday that there is nothing wrong with how Kandiyohi County currently operates.

Based on surveys, interviews and analysis of data that the Springsted Inc. consultant conducted this summer, employees and consumers are happy with the way services are delivered and received.

A draft report on the second phase of the redesign study by Springsted Inc. was presented by Unmacht during a special Kandiyohi County Board meeting on Tuesday.

Unmacht said there are "opportunities to enhance and improve coordination, communication and customer service" and that the current county culture would support a change.

Given that, Unmacht recommended that the county consider combining the family services, public health and community corrections into one department that would be overseen by one individual that he called a community service director.

Under the plan, the identities of the three departments would be retained but supervisors would report to one common director.

He recommended a phased-in approach that would start by combining Public Health and Family Services and putting one director in charge of those two departments.

The Community Corrections department could be added later, he said.

Some of that is already happening.

Since Jay Kieft resigned as Family Services director earlier this year, Public Health Director Ann Stehn has been serving as interim director of both the public health and family services departments.

In his report, Unmacht specifically cited Stehn's leadership and positive impact on employees for calming concerns about a potential change and said naming Stehn as the permanent director would be another reason why combining the two departments could work in Kandiyohi County.

The shared location of all three departments in the Health and Human Services building was cited as another positive factor for making a change.

Unmacht did offer another option that would keep community corrections out of the combined department but said he could find no compelling reason to keep it separate.

Along with showing graphs that showed county employees believe there is a good working relationship between the three departments and have an understanding of opportunities to improve that through a combined department, Unmacht reported that some employees do have concerns.

He said some employees are concerned that their department would be "swallowed up" in a combined department and that bigger would not necessarily be better. Some said they fear that combined departments would mean job losses and there is also concern about loss of history and past practices. Others could not picture what a combined department would look like.

"It's hard to change," said Unmacht.

Unmacht also recommended that County Administrator Larry Kleindl be authorized to explore centralization of financial services within the county. Some counties that use a more centralized process handle accounting, payroll, budgeting and similar tasks more centrally rather than department by department, for example.

A final part of the recommendation is to keep the Veteran Service Office at its current location but to consider including it with the other three departments to provide additional services.

After hearing the report, Commissioner Dennis Peterson said he is more enthused now than when the study started. "This isn't the time to stop. It's the time to keep going."

If some kind of merger does take place, Commissioner Harlan Madsen said taxpayers should not expect big savings and lower taxes. He said there would be efficiencies by combining departments as growth is limited, but that does not mean direct reductions in expenditures.

In his report, Unmacht said counties that make structural changes with the goal of saving money are usually disappointed.

The commissioners are expected to hold retreats this fall to discuss the phase one and phase two plans before taking action. Phase one addressed departments located in the downtown county office building, including the auditor, assessor and recorder.

"We'll be having many more discussions on this," said Kleindl.

Unmacht said his reports are a "work in progress" and that ideas and recommendations are not set in stone.

"This is not a script for a process," he said.

Carolyn Lange

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

(320) 894-9750