Counties explore cooperation in social services

GRANITE FALLS -- Big Stone, Swift and Yellow Medicine counties are looking at ways that their social services departments can work together, although no one is quite ready to say whether it should lead to merging the three."These are really hard ...

Counties social services
This map shows the three counties considering combining social services: Big Stone, Swift and Yellow Medicine.

GRANITE FALLS - Big Stone, Swift and Yellow Medicine counties are looking at ways that their social services departments can work together, although no one is quite ready to say whether it should lead to merging the three.
“These are really hard discussions to have,’’ said Swift County Administrator Mike Pogge-Weaver as representatives of the three counties did just that. Meeting Thursday in Granite Falls, members of the county boards, county administrators and directors and staff with the social services departments of the counties opened talks on ways they might work together.
At meeting’s end, the counties informally agreed to retain the Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission to help them move forward with a long-term process.
Swift County initiated the discussion. Human services director Deanna Steckman is nearing retirement, and the possibility of sharing a director position with a neighboring county was raised.
But as Thursday’s discussions made clear, the social services departments in all three counties are under stress. Workloads placed on staff are increasing and becoming more complex due to societal issues and accountability demands. There is more demand for specialized abilities on the department’s staff, but the counties’ populations are declining as are their resources.
“The balloon just keeps getting pushed and eventually it is going to pop,’’ said Yellow Medicine County Administrator Peg Heglund, who began her career in the county’s social services department.
County commissioners and social services directors said they do not expect any staff reductions or economic savings to result from working together, although efficiencies would likely be improved.
They do not expect nor want to see any offices reduced or closed: “We need to be where the services are needed,’’ said Pete Peterson, a Swift County Commissioner.
“My biggest fear is that we do nothing,’’ said Peterson in support of moving ahead with some type of collaborative effort. He and others noted that the three counties are only going to see more demands placed on them and, ultimately, could be forced by state and federal governments to work on a regional basis.
Taking the initiative on their own gives the counties the ability to control their own destinies, Pogge-Weaver said.
“I just think that if we stand still, we lose. And so we always need to be thinking about how do we move forward,’’ said Steckman, Swift County’s human services director.
Staff from the three counties said that there is currently a variety of ways they work together informally. And, the three have already seen benefits by working together formally. Jointly, they contract for the services of an investigator that helps them ferret out financial abuses against vulnerable adults.
The social services departments have approximately 91 workers in the three counties. There are different pay scales, union and nonunion employees, and a variety of other issues that could complicate an actual merger, it was noted.
The next step in the process will be for the individual county boards to approve a contract with the Regional Development Commission to help guide the process, and to establish goals and a possible timeline for them.
Participants said they expect the first steps to be small. Eric Rudningen, a Swift County Commissioner and a pilot and airplane mechanic, described it this way: There are 10,000 rivets on an airplane wing.
“If you think about how hard it is to drive 10,000 rivets, then you just start working on something else. It’s too big a task so you just gotta start bucking one rivet at a time and pretty soon they’re all done,’’ he said.

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