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STG Public Health to gauge interest in five-county service

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

The chairman of the Stevens Traverse Grant Public Health Board is asking county commissioners in Pope and Douglas counties to explore the possibility of merging to create a five-county public health network.

In a Sept. 26 letter, Stevens County Commissioner and STG chairman Larry Sayre invited the commissioners of the five county boards to attend the STG board's meeting this month to discuss the proposal.

The STG board meets at 9 a.m., Oct 17, at the Hoffman Community Center.

The board doesn't expect a decision at that meeting but does want to identify pros and cons of the plan and "know if the model is worth pursuing," Sayre said.

There is precedent for the five-county proposal, Sayre said, pointing to Countryside Public Health, which serves Big Stone, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Swift and Yellow Medicine counties.

Stevens County shares services with neighboring counties, such as its Veterans Services Officer with Pope County, and the Rainbow Rider transportation service with Traverse, Pope, Douglas and Todd counties.

Sayre said that when Stevens merged public health services with Traverse County and, four years ago, with Grant County, the consolidation presented challenges. However, the benefits are evident, as well. Public health services often take advantage of grants available to them, and the size of the service has a bearing, Sayre said.

"Sometimes, if you're a little bigger, they'll take a closer look at you," he said.

Discussions of a merger arose last week, Sayre said.

STG Director Betty Windom-Kirsch resigned in late August, and Douglas County Public Health Director Sandy Tubbs was hired in early September as interim administer of the service.

Sayre said that before STG begins reviewing the job description, soliciting applications and interviewing candidates for the director's job, "we concluded that another model for supervision, oversight of operations and financing of public health services at least merits discussion."

If Douglas or Pope show no interest in pursuing the five-county option, STG would begin its recruitment and hiring process. If there is interest, STG would like the five-county discussions to move quickly before Tubbs' interim position, estimated at 90 to 120 days, expires, Sayre said.

Regardless how the public health proposal plays out, counties with smaller populations will continue to explore ways to share services, Sayre said.

"Down the road, there are a lot of other areas we'll want to look at, too," Sayre said. "Combining services is really nothing new on our end."