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Kandiyohi County, Minn., opens the door to restructured local government

A directional sign points out the different offices in the Kandiyohi County Office Building at 400 Benson Ave. S.W. in downtown Willmar. The county's tax and land use departments are housed there together at what a consultant describes as the "county's retail business." The consultant studying the county's operations and organization says members of the public simply want to do their business and are not concerned about who is managing which department. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)1 / 2
The Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services building located north of Willmar at 2200 23rd St. N.E. houses county administration and several other county departments, and also serves as the location for the meetings of the County Board. A consultant studying the county's organization and operation has been asked to take special look at three departments in the building -- family services, public health and community corrections -- and how they could possibly be combined and work together under one umb...2 / 2

WILLMAR -- David Unmacht has spent a couple days in Kandiyohi County so far, reviewing documents, collecting data, interviewing employees and getting a general feel for how work flows from one department to another and how services are delivered to the public.

During the next month he will also spend time talking to members of the public who "do business" with the county to get their input as customers of county services.

Being an objective "set of eyes" is part of the process Unmacht is using to develop potential options for shaking up the invisible walls of the county government's structure to create a more efficient internal system.

Any changes and end results would likely be unnoticeable to the public.

The Kandiyohi County Board hired Unmacht, senior vice president of Springsted -- a company that specializes in advising public sector entities -- to give the county a hard look.

It's not that anything is broken, said County Administrator Larry Kleindl, who is quick to say the county has excellent employees who do good work.

But with tighter budgets and changes in key county staff, including next month's retirement of Auditor/Treasurer Sam Modderman, Kleindl said it's prudent to find out if the county is as efficient as it can be.

"We're trying to be the best for the citizens of Kandiyohi County," Kleindl said.

Unmacht, who is conducting a similar process at the same time for the Willmar Municipal Utilities, can give a fresh, independent analysis, Kleindl said.

"You don't know what you don't know until you get into it," said Unmacht in a recent interview conducted in the County Office Building in downtown Willmar.

With 25 years in county and city government administration in the metro area, and three years as a consultant to help governments fine-tune their operations, Unmacht said helping improve government is his "passion."

Because he has no personal attachment to Kandiyohi County, Unmacht said he will be able to look at what the county is doing now and what they can do to make it better.

"This is about opportunity," he said. "It's not about correcting problems."

The county has asked Unmacht to take a special look at how the family services, public health and community corrections departments could be combined and work together under one umbrella.

After all, said Kleindl, each of those three departments often serves the same individuals.

Streamlining the system could eliminate duplication of paperwork and overlapping services that could reduce the county workload while providing the same, or better, services to clients.

Because of the unexpected resignation of Family Services Director Jay Kieft this winter, the county's Public Health Director Ann Stehn has been overseeing both departments on an interim basis.

Unmacht will also explore combining the work of the auditor, assessor and records departments.

It's a trend that other counties are following with good success, he said.

In Kandiyohi County, all the tax and land use departments are housed in one building already. While the county staff may see a clear wall between the different departments, the public does not really care which department head oversees which area, Unmacht said.

When the public walks into the building, they just want to do their business, he said. "This is the county's retail business here," said Unmacht, gesturing toward the different front-desk counters in the County Office Building.

Although unrelated to this study, the county has also started the process of exploring the pros and cons of appointing, rather than electing, people to the auditor/treasurer and recorder offices.

After Unmacht gathers his data, he will present a report with "good solid information" that could lead the county commissioners to review restructuring options.

Although making decisions to implement changes can be relatively easy for local governments, actually implementing the changes after the decision is made can be challenging, he said.

"You can't wish yourself to be efficient," said Unmacht, adding that Kandiyohi County has "opened the door" and started the process.

The review isn't without risks as it will put the spotlight on the county and could draw attention to inefficiencies. But Kleindl said he wants the public to know the county isn't just giving "lip service" to the challenge to be more efficient.

"I'm very excited about it," said Kleindl. "We're not afraid to look at ourselves."

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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