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Stevens FORWARD! -- Getting together to work even better

By Tom Larson, Sun Tribune

A few years ago, officials from several local governments got together to discuss ways they could make their efforts more cohesive and efficient while also forming a closer-knit, communicative partnership to keep the cost-savings and good will going on into the future.

Unfortunately, that meeting was pretty much the last of its kind since then, and it's easy to see why. Good intentions aside, the informal nature of the talks, scheduling conflicts and turf protection made it almost impossible to sustain.

The cities of Alberta, Chokio, Donnelly, Hancock and Morris, Stevens County, school districts in Chokio-Alberta, Hancock and Morris, and the University of Minnesota, Morris work together at various times, in various configurations and for various purposes. But a formal structure is necessary to keep those groups on an overall task and working on ways to surmount the many obstacles that the promising prospect of partnering can lay in front of them.

The Stevens Forward stewards recognized that potential and those problems when it made this one of its 14 Destiny Drivers:

By 2010 an Intergovernmental Council will ratify a Statement of Interdependence that will guide us toward greater efficiencies among our public institutions and services.

Stevens County Coordinator Jim Thoreen has taken the lead on the Destiny Driver and said the idea is in its infancy, and its charge is daunting, considering there are 16 townships, five cities and three school districts in the county.

What might make these efforts different than those in the past are a strong impetus from a faltering economy and blunt directives from State of Minnesota leaders.

"Gov. (Tim) Pawlenty gives us strong direction here when he announced his plans for his way of doing things," Thoreen said.

Recently, the governor announced his budget for the 2010-2011 biennium, and one proposal was to reduce cuts for counties that make the effort to regionalize services. First and foremost on Pawlenty's list was a proposal for county human services departments to "regionalize" to streamline services. Counties that make the effort would be cut less, simple as that.

It's incentives like that that could make the area's Intergovernmental Council a more plausible reality, and there are examples for the council to follow.

Morris Area Superintendent Scott Monson points to a collaborative in-service program that began a few years ago. Teachers, staff and administrators from a good number of area schools gather before the school year to share ideas and develop goals common to them all.

"It's not a council, but it's an informal group of schools that get together to do staff development," Monson said. "It saves a lot of money, and we would be able to have that high quality staff development if it was just Morris alone."

The examples of how this could work well extend beyond the school districts. Monson talked about inter-school transportation, which would save fuel and create more oversight of how each district was operating, he said.

"This economy is challenging all of us," Monson said. "We have to look at things like this. Are there ways we can work together to stretch our dollars out and be as efficient as possible?"

At the local level, that might mean cities, the county and the state getting together to determine if there is a better way to plow roads in the winter, or provide law enforcement or fire protection, said Morris City Manager Blaine Hill.

But he also understands the problems that are inevitable, the "turf wars" that any effort to partner can invariably spark when trying to change ways that are ingrained.

"One roadblock is authority," Hill said. "I'm not convinced the way we are set-up as governments is the way we want to move into the future: Why does UMM have its own law enforcement? Why does the county do maintenance for townships? When you ask questions about these kinds of things, the response you hear all the time is, 'Well, that's kind of the way it always was.' "

All units of government have experience in collaboration and trying to break out of the mold. The Morris Area School District is one of about 30 school districts in the Lakes Country Service Cooperative, which bands districts together to get better prices and services for food, office supplies and equipment, Monson said.

"Maybe some of these things can happen more between the school district, the cities and counties," he said.

Thoreen said the work is just beginning about formulating a plan of action but that the initial step is "getting local units of government talking about things."

Familiarity was the basis for the staff development in-service among school districts that is proving more popular every year, Monson said.

"You want to try to get to the table ahead of time and take those baby steps so that when the time comes when you really have to get something done everyone is familiar with each other," he said. "Challenges create opportunities, and I think all of us are looking for those opportunities in these economic times."

Are you a 'Champion'?

Stevens FORWARD! stewards are seeking "Champions" -- people who want to get involved in the initiative and spearhead a Destiny Driver. For more information, visit the Stevens FORWARD! Web site at, or contact Coordinator Roger McCannon via email at:, or by phone at (320) 287-0882