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Stevens County votes to join five-county public health organization

MORRIS – On Tuesday, the Stevens County Board of Commissioners voted to join a proposed five county public health department that has been under review for the last two years.

“The reason that we began looking at this was to assure we have strong public health services into the future,” said Stevens Traverse Grant Public Health Director Sandy Tubbs. “Integrations, mergers, whatever you want to call them, of public health departments … into some kind of joined entities has become a common practice across the nation.”

In January 2011, five counties merged to form the Horizon Community Health Board. The functions of each agency remained largely independent, but the five counties were recognized as a group by the state of Minnesota because community health boards are the entity for funding under the state’s Local Public Health Act.

In early 2012 the Horizon Community Health Board voted to look more closely at whether full integration of the three different public health departments would result in more effective and efficient service. After two years of work, the recommendation to all five county boards is to move forward with integration.

Before voting in favor of integration, members of the Stevens County Board of Commissioners focused most of the questions on the budget for the integrated public health system.

Tubbs said the budget is still a “moving target.” A preliminary budget developed for 2015 assumes the same amount of funding as 2014 from each county.

For the first three years after integration, county tax levies will be frozen at the 2014 levels, unless they need to increase to cover health insurance costs. Over those three years, a finance committee will negotiate the terms for a population-based formula allocation for the department’s budget, Tubbs said.

Commissioner Ron Staples said that he was concerned about the three year freeze and what might happen if the department doesn’t meet their budget over that time.

Tubbs noted that of the total $7.5 million budget for the integrated organization, only about $1 million comes from tax levy dollars – the rest of the funding comes from grants and other resources.

“Our budget is much more diverse in terms of the revenue sources we have,” said Tubbs.

Grants that make up much of the department’s budget are program specific – if those programs get cut, positions are also cut, said Tubbs.

Commissioner Jeanne Ennen, a member of the restructuring committee, said the organization is well run and provides important services to people.

“I feel that it has been very well researched and very well studied,” said Ennen. “I feel that we should move forward with the integration of the five county public health entity.”

If the integration is approved by Douglas County when they vote on April 1, STG Public Health will need to work with staff on how to transition to the joint organization in January 2015.

County approves payment to Rainbow Rider

Public transportation provider Rainbow Rider is faced with a $100,000 budget shortfall for 2013 and is asking the counties it serves to help cover the deficit.

Rainbow Rider covers Douglas, Grant, Pope, Stevens, Todd and Traverse counties. In a letter addressed to those counties’ social service directors, Harold Jennissen, transit director, reported that Rainbow Rider ended 2013 with a $100,000 deficit “due to increased service that we have provided but have not been reimbursed for by (the Minnesota Department of Transportation) over the last 10 years.”

Stevens County’s portion of the deficit is about $1,681, which the Stevens County Board of Commissioners authorized Human Services Director Joanie Murphy to pay for out of her budget.

Rainbow Rider faces an additional $145,787 shortfall for 2014; Stevens County’s share will be about $2,556.  

Other business

• The Stevens County Board of Commissioners, acting as the county ditch authority, voted to abandon County Ditch 12 following a landowner petition to abandon the system. Kurt Deter, the county’s ditch attorney, said all of the landowners on the system petitioned to abandon the ditch because they plan to replace it with a private system.

• The board approved a new, one year labor agreement with the AFSCME Stevens County Highway unit. Changes in the contract include a 1.5 percent cost of living increase, language changes to sick leave policy, adjustments to the longevity pay schedule, and an increase for time on standby.

• The board voted to work with Dorsey and Whitney as bond consultants for an improvement project on County Ditch 30.

• The board scheduled a first reading of an updated Subsurface Sewage Treatment System Ordinance for Tuesday, April 1 at 9:05 a.m. Environmental Services Director Bill Kleindl said the ordinance was drafted to be similar to regulations in neighboring counties.

Amy Chaffins of the Forum News Service contributed to the reporting on Rainbow Rider in this story.