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Five-county public health plan may be short-lived

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

A proposal to create a five-county public health system that would include departments of Stevens-Traverse-Grant, Pope and Douglas counties might be short-lived, at least in the near term.

Earlier this week, Pope County officials indicated that the time frame for a decision might be too tight to allow the proposal to be fleshed out.

Earlier this month, Stevens County Commissioner Larry Sayre, chair of the Stevens-Traverse-Grant Joint Public Health Board, asked officials from Pope and Douglas counties to gauge interest in merging into a five-county operation. He requested an Oct. 29 deadline for a response.

Sandy Tubbs, director of Douglas County Public Health, currently is interim director of STG Public Health, following the resignation of STG director Betty Windom-Kirsch in August.

Before the STG board begins a search for a new director, Sayre wanted to see if there was interest among Pope and Douglas officials about combining services.

Pope County officials expressed reservations about participating in the discussions at a board meeting earlier this week.

Douglas County Coordinator Bill Schalow said Friday that the board as a whole has not had time to discuss the issue and is scheduled to talk about it at its Oct. 28 meeting.

Officials from the counties met in Hoffman last week, but no firm decisions were made. The STG board asked Pope and Douglas officials to respond to the plan by the time the STG joint board meets again in Herman on Oct. 29.

The Stevens County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday reacted optimistically to the proposal. But Pope County's board, which met the same day, expressed reservations.

Pope County Board chairman Larry Kittelson said "we're kind of interested," but that a decision by the end of the month would be premature since two or three new commissioners could be seated following the Nov. 4 elections, according to a Pope County Tribune report.

"(W)e're not ready to make a decision for the long haul," Kittelson said in the Tribune report. "For me, it's going to take a long time to figure out. It can't be done in a few days or a few months."

Commissioners and county officials worried that a merger could compromise the employment longevity of current Pope County Public Health workers, and that a merger might disrupt a public health department that is working well for county residents, the report stated.

"From my perspective, it may not be the right time, but on the same token, we don't want to close the door," Pope County Public Health Director Sharon Braaten stated in the Tribune report.

Schalow, at the meeting in Hoffman, said that with counties suffering financially, forming a multi-county public health system could be a positive step for area counties.

But, he added the Douglas County board has not had enough time to consider the proposal.

"Personally, I think this is the route to go, but I wouldn't know which way the board would go on this one," Schalow said. "I think we could make something of this, but the timing makes it difficult."

Sayre said that the concept could move forward with just one of the two counties involved, but noted that Pope County might have been "a better fit."

"I think four (counties) might be an option," Sayre said. "If all else fails, we'll be hiring a director of our own."

Stevens County Coordinator Jim Thoreen, the human resources consultant for the STG board, said Pope and Stevens both have the Midstate Community Health Services Agency in common, and that STG merging solely with Douglas County would require "a longer conversation. I don't know if that would be a good combo."

The discussions, albeit brief, are a good sign, Thoreen said.

Counties will need to explore more ways to share services as revenues tighten.

"Small counties will be forced into a different model for service delivery," Thoreen said. "We've got to be talking about delivering services differently."

Amy Chaffins, News Editor of the Pope County Tribune, contributed to this story.