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AUSTIN EDITION Services settle into mall

By Roxana Orellana

rorellana@postbulletin.com

Other than having to deal with a temperamental thermostat, Mower County Health and Human Services staff have settled just fine at the new Oak Park Mall location.

"It's working out pretty good," Public Health Nurse Margene Gunderson said. "I was a little anxious about coming out here, but it has worked out well."

City of Austin and Mower County Board members toured the health and human services departments, which moved out the former JC Penney store six months ago.

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The county sold the building that formerly housed the services to Hormel Foods Corp., which is expanding its Corporate South offices.

The social services now are housed at the mall under a lease agreement. Although talks continue about the possibility of the services moving downtown if the county builds a justice center there, no proposal exists for it.

It doesn't matter where the services are located, because they would continue to serve the public, Gunderson said.

The temporary location has worked well but not without a few glitches.

Ceilings had to be lowered, so there is a large space between them and the roof. That has cost the county double in utilities, especially in winter months. The county is paying about $5,000 to $7,000 a month for utilities, double the amount compared to the old location.

In terms of space, it's fairly equal to the previous building, Gunderson said.

For some of the clients, it has been a "little hard" to find how to get into the new location. The facility only can be accessed from the back door facing Interstate 90.

County staff has talked about adding signs to direct people to the entrance.

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"Right when we moved, we had a bit of a dip (in number of clients), but now we're back to where we were," Gunderson said.

Public health provides services for all of Mower County. Some of the work includes schools and home visits, clinics, classes, and other activities in the community.

In the human services area, the county launched a telecommuting program at the new location that has helped save some cost. Of the employees, 10 work from home. Each takes on 20 extra cases with the telecommute option. With the change, the county was able to eliminate a contract of about $80,000, according to Bruce Henricks, human services director.

Human services has 2,500 child support cases. Social workers handle cases such as child and adult protection and adults with physical and mental disabilities.

Health and human services account for about 30 percent of the county's budget. That includes state, federal and local funds.

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