Emmet, Palo Alto Supervisors Talk Sharing
GRAETTINGER The idea has been around for a long time a couple of years, to be exact. After some casual chit-chat over time, the Emmet and Palo Alto County Boards of Supervisors sat down around a table Tuesday afternoon to start the ball rolling. The ball, as it were, is the idea of looking at the possibilities of sharing services and personnel between the neighboring counties at some point in the future.
With all members of both boards on hand, along with several Emmet County elected officials and employees, the group met at the River Valley Telecommunications board room in Graettinger to throw some ideas out for discussion and see what each other is thinking.
The group organized with Palo Alto Board Chair Keith Wirtz and Emmet County Board Chair Bev Juhl being elected to lead the meeting.
“My thought about this meeting is to see in the future what possibilities there might be to save some money and share some things between our two counties,” Juhl said.
“A couple of years ago at a supervisor’s school in Des Moines, we were warned that we needed to start looking at sharing things between counties,” Wirtz said.
The floor was opened for ideas, and the ideas flowed freely.
“We were notified today by our Emergency Management director that his funding could be cut by 30 percent,” Palo Alto Supervisor Ron Graettinger said. “Maybe that’s something to think about, we could see if sharing that position were a possibility.”
“We do know that by law, we can’t share an Assessor,” Juhl noted, explaining that a few years earlier, a vacancy in Emmet County prompted a request for an Attorney General’s Opinion, which came back to the negative on the idea.
“How about a Conservation Director?” asked Palo Alto Supervisor Jerry Hofstad. “Our director is retiring later this year.”
“I think we’re all here to get some ideas like these and to think outside the box,” noted Emmet Supervisor Ron Smith.
“How about sharing a Communications Center?” asked Palo Alto Supervisor Ed Noonan.
“Communications would be a possibility,” responded Emmet Supervisor Jon Martyr. “I think the best thing we could do here is form some kind of a think group of a couple of members from each board, and have them look at things and ideas as they present themselves. I do agree, sharing Communications could be a huge savings.”
“I think a study group is a good idea,” agreed Smith. “That way, you wouldn’t need to have two quorums of board members to talk about things.”
“We would have to find ways to save money through this, with the goal of keeping our counties viable,” Martyr said. “We all want to do what we can to keep our counties viable and yet, retain our identities.”
The group suggested that the study group be comprised as Martyr had suggested, with two members from each board. “The idea would be to study what we can and can’t do,” Juhl said. “We’re not here to take anything away from one or the other county we’re just looking at ways to save taxpayer money.”
“I think the way to study is to look at things and ideas as they come up,” agreed Emmet Supervisor Tim Schumacher.
“It sounds to me like the consensus is to go the committee route,” Emmet Supervisor Alan Madden said. “But, this committee is going to be powerless and it will take a lot of commitment on their part to make this work.”
“Congress sends things to a committee to die,” quipped Noonan, prompting a laugh from the group.
“In the 10 minutes or so we’ve been talking, I’ve picked up on six things we could look at sharing,” Madden said, repeating the ideas of sharing Emergency Management, Conservation, Communications, Engineer, Contact Point Coordinator and a suggestion of his own, an Information Technology position. “Our costs are associated with our population and as we both lose population, our costs rise.”
Madden continued, “It’s my thought that we combine everything that we can. The ultimate would be the ‘M’ word, merger. That would be the death knell for this if we’d shoot for that right away, but I believe that should be a long, long range goal.”
“Merger is a thought,” Smith agreed. “The state is already talking about regionalization of services, and why not county government? That would be my fear if the state came in and did it for us.”
“I just would like to have the merge idea on the table, and see what the taxpayers think,” Madden said. “Let it be known that it could be a possibility.”
“We need to have a committee to see just what things we could share,” Graettinger said.
“Yes, a smaller group to find out what things could be shared and what couldn’t,” Juhl agreed.
“I’d suggest we have this joint meeting quarterly,” Smith said, “The first thing we should do is assign a date for another meeting like this.”
The group agreed that quarterly meetings were a good idea, and planned to gather again on June 7 at 1 p.m. for another joint session.
Several questions were raised by the audience, including asking about early retirement programs, the possibility of ordering supplies cooperatively, and getting the two county’s Conservation Boards to meet jointly to discuss the ideas of sharing as well.
But the biggest question was answered firmly. “Are you planning on eliminating jobs if there are retirements? The answer from both boards was a resounding “No.”
“There are a whole lot of ideas out there and we don’t want to discourage any of them,” Smith said. “This is all in the concept stage and we have to think about scope and scale.”
“Sharing takes imagination and cooperation from everyone,” Madden said. “If people get territorial, it won’t work.”
“I think the taxpayers want to see some small steps from us,” Smith said. “We don’t want to jump off the cliff.”
With that, Wirtz asked for volunteers to serve on the study group. Jon Martyr and Bev Juhl volunteered to represent Emmet County, while Wirtz and Ron Graettinger agreed to represent Palo Alto County.