GARNER | Hancock, Winnebago and Worth counties are not satisfied with the mental health and disability services provided to their residents through County Social Services, and they’re looking to do something about it.
Nearly 20 supervisors and staff from the 22-county service region met with Jan Heikes of the Iowa Department of Human Services and area legislators Thursday, Sept. 28, in Garner to discuss options counties have to withdraw from County Social Services, or CSS, and establish a new region.
“I hope you state legislators and state employees understand the frustration we have as local officials. We’re very concerned,” said Mike Strensrud, Winnebago County supervisor. “It all comes back to home rule in my opinion, and we feel like we’re losing that more and more every day.”
During the hour-and-a-half meeting, supervisors and staff from Winnebago, Worth and Kossuth counties voiced concerns about the region’s staffing, funding and delivery of mental health and disability services. Many emphasized dissatisfaction due to the loss of local control.
“My concern is its too big,” said Terry Durby, Winnebago County supervisor. “We are the largest, I believe, in Iowa. I think it’s spread too far, and I don’t think it’s beneficial to our people we are serving.”
CSS is one of 14 regions established in 2014 as part of Iowa’s Mental Health and Disability Redesign to “efficiently and effectively” provide mental health services mandated under state law, according to the region’s joint agreement.
With 22 counties spanning North Iowa, Heikes said it’s the largest region in the state, but all regions operate differently based on the joint agreements the counties approved during the redesign.
Supervisors in Hancock, Winnebago and Worth believe that can be improved if a smaller region is established,
“We believe, and I’m saying corporately now, we believe we could provide the same services at a more cost-effective rate and a much more local touch,” said Merlin Bartz, Worth County supervisor.
Durby added, “I would have to embellish on that, same or better services.”
Heikes suggested the counties present their concerns to the CSS Board of Directors, which has representation from each county, and if they’re not resolved, then CSS, under the joint agreement, CSS and the counties can settle the dispute through mediation and then arbitration.
It was also mentioned the counties — at least those contiguously located to another service region — could request to join a different region.
Bartz said Hancock, Winnebago and Worth counties intend to send a letter to withdraw from the service region to CSS as an official notice that they’re not pleased with how it’s currently working.
According to the joint agreement, a county may not withdraw unless written notice is received by CSS from the county board before Nov. 15 for effective withdrawal by June 30 of the following year.
Bartz said if the counties sent a letter today, it’d likely be two calendar years before a new region was established because of the criteria a region must meet. The initial criteria outlines the core services, providers and financing required to create a mental health and disability service region no matter the size.
But Heikes said there isn’t anything in state law that outlines the process for establishing a new region after the redesign, which is why area legislators were invited to participate in the conversation.
Sen. Waylon Brown, R-St. Ansgar, said that is his understanding, as well.
“You are able to leave with the agreement; however, under state code, it doesn’t say anything about forming a new one,” he said.
Brown was one of three legislators present. Others were Rep. Terry Baxter, R-Garner, and Sen. Dennis Guth, R-Klemme.
When Strensrud asked the legislators how willing they’d be to champion a bill in the Legislature that’d allow the counties to establish smaller service regions, Brown, Baxter and Guth said they’d support it but not all agreed to author a bill.
“I have to be a lot more astute than what I am, which will probably take me five whole days and there are only so many things I can take on to that magnitude,” Guth said, adding he’d be willing to work with legislators on the committee to address the issue.
Brown and Baxter said they’d present a bill.
“We’re facing something ugly,” Baxter said, while adding some of the challenges that the rural legislators may face at the Legislature.
Brown, a former emergency medical technician, said, “If we think we can do this, I’m willing to step out and help you guys.”
However, establishing a new region with three rural counties can be “real difficult,” Heikes said, referring to one in Central Iowa that dissolved into three different regions.
“I want to give you fair warning of what’s out there,” she said. “A region would be treated like any other region.”
To allow other counties time to determine whether they wish to withdraw from CSS and Heikes to receive answers to their questions, the supervisors scheduled a follow-up meeting for 10 a.m. Oct. 18 at the Hancock County Boardroom in Garner.