GRAETTINGER For the third time in as many years, the Palo Alto and Emmet County Boards of Supervisors met for a joint session Tuesday afternoon to talk about government, kick around ideas and just compare notes. The meeting was held in Graettinger with all supervisors, along with other county officials in attendance. Present from Emmet County were Supervisors Alan Madden, Bev Jull, Ron Smith, Tim Schumacher and Jon Martyr, along with Conservation Director Eric Anderson and County Engineer Roger Patoka. Present from Palo Alto County were Supervisors Ed Noonan, Keith Wirt, Lines Solberg, Craig Merrill and Ron Graettinger, along with Conservation Director Art Hamper. Also present were County Auditors Mike Erickson of Emmet County and Carmen Moser of Palo Alto County.
Palo Alto County Board Chair Ed Noonan was named chairman of the meeting and opened the discussion by asking what had become of an idea raised a year earlier concerning the possibility of sharing public safety dispatching services between the two entities.
Palo Alto Supervisor Ron Graettinger and Emmet Supervisor Jon Martyr had met on the question and discussed some of the things they had learned.
"We looked into communications, and we think there may be some ways that sharing could be done," Graettinger noted. "It might be something we could share during the week in one location, and then both operated on the weekends when it was busier."
"There is a good possibility that we could have a joint, or even a regional communications center," Martyr agreed. "But, this would be something that our sheriffs need to discuss. There is the capability and the technology to make something like this happen just by throwing a switch or two."
"So what would be the next step?" Noonan asked.
"We need to involve the sheriff's, as well as the E-911 boards and Emergency Management and see what is in their five-year plans," Martyr said. "But, this is a good opportunity and it would be very doable to share communications. Actually, it's a fairly common thing."
As the group began to question costs and savings, Emmet County Supervisor Alan Madden noted that the biggest savings would be in duplication of efforts. "You'd have two people sitting at a console overnight, and you could downsize that to one person. In any merger or consolidation, the savings is in the personnel."
That discussion turned towards a question about discussing shared law enforcement between municipalities and the county's sheriff.
"We're doing that right now," Emmet County Supervisor Tim Schumacher said.
"How will those talks go?" Noonan asked.
"I think it will be a good talk," Schumacher said, noting that the talks were coming about due to a retirement.
Madden noted that the county had initiated talks about the subject 10 years earlier, but they had gone nowhere. But in the past few months, a feasibility study commissioned by the City of Estherville had shown that shared law enforcement could conceivably work out.
However, Madden noted that as their board had looked at the prospect, they had visited with officials from Rock County and Laverne, Minnesota, who had such an arrangement. The one factor mentioned was an obscure law that even if municipal law enforcement and county law enforcement were combined, there could be no less money spent on the joint effort than had been spent by the separate entities.
"Something like that would take the dollar rewards for merging the two out of it," Madden said.
"But, another way to look at it is in the cost savings," Schumacher said.
"You can't go into it thinking you're going to cut your costs by 40-50 percent," Martyr added. "That's just not realistic."
The discussion then turned to the approaching regionalization of Mental Health in the state. Emmet County recently chose to affiliate with the County Services Organization, a regional group of 22 counties in northeastern and northern Iowa, while Palo Alto County is one of six counties in the Northwest Care Consortium region.
Noting that Palo Alto County had a surplus in their Mental Health budget of $800,000, Noonan asked if there was any reason why the county couldn't pay the state-mandated levy of $47.28 from that surplus, rather than to ask the taxpayers for it.
No one had a definitive answer for the question.
"I don't think a lot of the people who wrote the regionalization law know what's in it," Noonan said.
"And that's a shock?" quipped Schumacher, drawing chuckles from the group.
Madden explained one of the reasons that Emmet County decided to ally with the larger region. "I guess I figured that once this regionalization is going, in four or five years, I think the state will say regions need to be 20-25 counties in size, so we're there right now. You guys will probably be told you have to merge with Woodbury County, and we didn't want to be down there."
Madden continued, "I went to their last meeting, and we will maintain a lot of flexibility to take care of our people in Emmet County. They act as the clearinghouse and let the counties take care of their residents."
While agreeing that much remains to be seen in terms of the reorganization, the two boards agreed that being able to sit down and just talk was useful.
"I think its good for us just to get together and see how each other do things," Schumacher said.
"There's a lot of value in hearing how you guys do things and how we do things," agreed Martyr.
"I know we're still not near ready to pursue a full-blown merger," Madden said. "Last year when I said that, this room was dead silent. But now, we just need to get to the raw bones that's where this needs to go."
"I agree, discussion is good between us, because we all learn from each other," agreed Palo Alto County Supervisor Keith Wirt as the meeting drew to a close.
Before adjourning, the board voted to set Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015, at 1 p.m. as the time and date for their next annual joint meeting.