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Merging of Kandiyohi County, Minn., depts. suggested in study

WILLMAR -- A study commissioned by the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners recommends the eventual merger of three county departments as a way to increase efficiencies and improve customer service.

"You have opportunities to do something greater than what you're doing today," said David Unmacht, senior vice president with consultant Springsted Inc., who presented his report to the board Tuesday.

Unmacht said consolidating the offices of the auditor, assessor and recorder into one office with one department head is a vision the commissioners should establish as a mid-to-long-term goal.

The timing of the consolidation is linked to the "ultimate appointment" of the two elected officers -- the auditor and recorder, he said. The assessor is already an appointed position.

Because of the retirement this year of longtime Auditor Sam Modderman, the county appointed an interim auditor and sought legislation that would have allowed the county to pursue making the two offices appointed rather than elected.

Despite the support of Willmar lawmakers, Sen. Joe Gimse and Rep. Bruce Vogel, the bill did not make it to the House or Senate floor for a vote.

If the legislation had been approved, Unmacht said "the script to the next step would be different."

But even though the legislation was not approved, Unmacht said that should not stop the commissioners from making methodical and deliberate changes now.

In his written report, Unmacht said the study shows "efficiencies, workplace enhancements and customer service improvements can and should begin now without the need to wait for structural changes."

While working toward consolidation of all three departments into one office, Unmacht said the county can implement a "merger of cultures" to help improve teamwork and internal relationships between the separate departments.

An employee survey indicated 56 percent of respondents think cooperation and coordination with the county is very good or good. Unmacht said that result is a "lower percentage than what is desired."

He said county leaders need to "set aside history and past practices to collectively move forward within a new era of cooperation."

Creating a merged culture will require an open mind and a willingness to take risks and make change. Action could include simple steps, like learning about the jobs different employees do, said Unmacht, adding that the study shows employees have a "genuine desire to be part of a successful team."

Although the auditor, assessor and recorder all share the same downtown Willmar building -- along with the county planning and zoning office and the license bureau -- Unmacht said there is a degree of competition between the departments and differences in how departments operate under their department heads.

Unmacht said customers who use the county services don't care which department head supervises the various employees, they just want good service.

He said moving the recorder's office to the first floor -- where the auditor and assessor are located, establishing a one-stop customer counter where all customers can begin their business transaction and cross-training employees across departments, would be good first steps to consider.

County Board Chairman Richard Larson said this report will be used and "won't go up on a shelf and collect dust."

The board will likely hold working sessions to look at ways to implement the recommendations.

Unmacht said the county has no option but to work toward an organizational change because it's "simply impractical" to keep delivering services with limited resources.

Redesigning the county system is a "healthy, natural and progressive step" that will position the county for the next 25 years, he said.

County leadership plays an important role in the process. Unmacht said the county currently provides "good services" and county leaders have established the foundation to "set an example to strive to provide great service."

He warned that making the changes will take courage. "This is hard work. This isn't easy," he said, adding that there is a potential for "great rewards."

County Administrator Larry Kleindl said the county is taking a risk because it was "willing to hang out our laundry," but said embracing the report sends the message that the county "wants to be great."

As part of the study Unmacht conducted an analysis of the existing workplace culture, structure, workflow and working relationships. On top of reviewing numerous county documents and budgets, he conducted an online confidential survey, interviewed more than 30 county employees as well as seven community members.

Unmacht will now begin the second phase of the county's organizational review that will include the public health, family services and community corrections departments.

Carolyn Lange

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

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