"It's a momentous decision that is before you," Dean Tharp told the Houston County board on April 3. Tharp, who serves as director of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 5, appeared with union staffer Leanne Kunze.

The issue is a 12-county regional redesign of Human Services, which Houston County is participating in.

Chairman Jack Miller serves on the redesign steering committee, but was not present at the April 3 meeting.

By cooperating on services, member counties hope to save $30 million in "cost avoidance" over five years.

Kunze said union reps had met with Houston County employees last week. "We were very impressed," she told commissioners.

"Their concerns were not about themselves... they were worried about what is going to happen to this community, and what will happen to the people they represent?"

Several county employees from the Human Services Department attended the meeting, but none of them addressed the board.

"The overall theme that we'd like to present today is caution," Tharp said. "You're about to make a big decision, and there's some facts that we don't know... As the process went forward, there were stakeholder meetings, and two of the stakeholders weren't there.

"One was the front-line employees who typically know what's going on in their communities, and the other was the clients."

Kunze said the redesign consulting firm (Accenture) is relying on new technology to help deliver services. The problem with that is that Human Services clientele typically don't have cell phone service and Internet hookups to connect to distant providers.

"You already have client access issues," she said, "just based on geography and the fact that you are a rural county."

Kunze said that AFSCME supports collaboration to provide services, but, "We believe it needs to be on a smaller scale."

Tharp recommended a "service delivery authority" of Winona, Houston and Fillmore counties, rather than a 12-county group. The minimum population requirement for an SDA will be 55,000, he said.

"Looking at a 12-county area, there is definitely something about it that is 'too big to fail,'" Kunze said.

"I think to create something that is too big to fail when the people holding the ball are the taxpayers, and the people that are going to lose are the taxpayers and the clients that are getting services, is pretty significant."

Also, "population center" based services would probably bypass Houston County, Kunze said.

"How does that factor into access for your residents?" she asked. "Your buy-in or chance of participating in something like this is supposed to be on behalf of your residents."

Local control could also become an issue, Kunze added.

"Accenture is a global corporate consultant, so they're about providing something that's going to have you buy something,' Kunze said.

"They are a for-profit business. That $19 million that they cite for up-front cost, who's going to pay for that?" She added that the three-quarters of a million dollars that the private Bush Foundation used to retain Accenture is also expected to be paid back.

"That $19 million would go to Accenture; it would not go towards providing services in your communities," Tharp said.

"What would they do for that $19 million?" Commissioner Tom Bjerke asked.

"It's kind of a fuzzy plan to begin with, so the implementation is part of that $19 million," Tharp replied.

"They're asking you to make this decision on sort of scant facts, so the $19 million would get you more facts. The question is, 'Are you going to be too far into this process to back out?'"

Joint powers agreements can fall apart, he added.

"We're under the gun," Bjerke said. "This redesign is a great idea in theory; but after hearing the costs on it and the payback, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

"It's easy to tear something down and say 'this is a bad plan,' but we need someone to make a suggestion as to a better idea... do you guys have any type of recommendation?"

Kunze repeated the idea of a joint powers agreement between Winona, Fillmore and Houston counties.

"Do we have a solution in search of a problem?" Tharp asked. "Personally, I don't think the problem is as big as they say it is. If you talk to your employees, they would have a lot to tell you...

"Right now you have a community-based service model. It's about your people knowing their clients, knowing their family, knowing their history. That's what you're giving up."

"Ask them (Accenture) what those three counties (collaborating) would look like," Kunze said. "They've got the data, and my understanding is it's paid for."

Contacted after the meeting, Tharp added some additional background.

"Accenture has estimated start-up costs of $19 million, and they have proposed themselves as the consulting contractor," he stated via email.

"This includes $4-5 million in technology investments that Accenture obviously would want to control as a future revenue source.

"This was Accenture's business plan in their ill-fated State of Texas Human Services contract - a massive, $560 million failure," Tharp alleged.

"You must remember that Accenture's former parent company, Arthur Andersen, was found guilty in its role as Enron's Accounting firm.

"Extrapolating potential savings and potential earnings was their particular specialty.

"Looking at it another way, we're spending a hard $19 million today in order to save a soft $11 million in the future (30 minus 19 equals 11)."

Tharp said Houston County can take "as long as it wants" to decide on the redesign plan. "This is Accenture's timetable," he said. "The clock is ticking on their consulting contract. That's why there is a big rush."

Editor's note: To read more about Accenture's proposal when they appeared before the county board on Feb. 14, read the Feb. 22 edition of the Herald or check out online at www.hometown-pages.com/main.asp?Search=1&ArticleID=41960&SectionID=26&SubSectionID=137&S=1.