By Brian Ojanpa
Free Press Staff Writer
WASECA — An ambitious cost-savings effort to merge human services programs in 12 southeastern Minnesota counties is now down to five counties, including Waseca, casting the project’s future in doubt.
“We’re still moving forward,” Waseca County Administrator Laura Elvebak said. “The five counties will meet in the next few weeks to decide which direction to go.”
The multi-county effort to join forces has been in planning for three years with a goal of combining much of the counties’ human services work into a single regional unit.
But counties have been pulling out of the project as the massive redesign particulars of it become apparent, while the counties of Waseca, Steele, Dodge, Mower and Freeborn are still willing to stay the course.
Elvebak said even though the scope of the original effort has been lessened, it doesn’t diminish the daunting challenges county human services departments face.
“We’re going to have far fewer resources and far more demand for them,” she said, and the need for governments to find ways to cope with that dynamic aren’t going away.
Human services programs represent about one-third of county budgets and involve a complex blend of areas such as health care, income supports, child support, adult protection and adoptions.
The 12-county proposal as originally constructed would reduce staff members from about 850 to 700 through attrition, would conduct more program activities online and would establish smaller service centers offering personalized help to certain clients.
A consultant study funded with $600,000 from the Bush Foundation suggested that when in place the proposed 12-county venture would realize $60 million in savings in the region.
Waseca County Board of Commissioners Member Jim Peterson said he voted for the county to proceed with involvement in the project because he’s bullish on reducing public costs.
“Governments have got to get de-sized, come down a little bit.”
He said he still believes the multicounty human services project is sound in principle, although involving 12 counties may be a bit too unwieldly.
“I think it would be a good thing to involve about three counties, but I’m not sure about 11 or 12.”
Waseca County Human Services serves more than 3,600 clients in the areas of income maintenance, child support and social services.
The project’s impetus came from a Minnesota Legislature mandate to develop a shared human services delivery system in southeastern Minnesota.