Last night's P-B Dialogues meeting regarding the emergency management issue in Rochester/Olmsted was enlightening in many ways. Here's the news story on the event by reporter Matt Russell.
As I summarized last night, it appears that the professionals involved with emergency management -- the city and county emergency management directors (Rochester Fire Chief Greg Martin and Olmsted County Sheriff's Capt. Kevin Torgerson) and Rochester Police Chief Roger Peterson are satisfied with the plans for separate city and county emergency management functions. Not sure what Sheriff Steve Von Wald's latest thinking is on this issue (he was out of town last night) but we'll find out.
As Peterson said, most emergency management programs are set up in this way, with city people responsible for local planning, county or regional programs serving an "umbrella" function to assist and support cities when needed, just as state and federal agencies are available in catastrophic situations. "We would not be 'silos,'" or two independent agencies that would not communicate or cooperate, as some have suggested.
There seemed to be no gap between the city and county professionals on the matter. If public safety is your first concern about this (not money or turf/politics), then you were probably reassured about the discussion last night.
Mike Podulke, county board member, and Mark Bilderback, city council member, also were at the head table and Podulke raised questions primarily of "governance" and redundancy, of going against the goal of more cooperation and convergence of city and county goals.
He said "fuzzy bookkeeping" was involved in the city's assertions that it won't cost significantly more for the city to take over its emergency management functions. But he didn't address my point that the main financial issue seems to be the hole blown in the county's emergency management budget by the city's pullout, and others also said it remains to be seen if there's a significant cost impact for Rochester taxpayers.
Peterson said, "We'e involved in emergency management because we were drafted into the position" as the mission for emergency management changed after 9/11. "In 2001, the focus of emergency management changed -- now it is preparedness -- mitigation -- recovery from disaster that exceeds local capability," not just weather warnings, etc.
"The funding issue is that when the mission changed, our structure did not. We began having problems fulfilling our mission," he said. "The problem is, one organization cannot plan for another organization, cannot prioritize, develop resources, budget and manage another organization." Every city and municipality has that responsibility, he said.
Podulke pointed to the successful merging of city and county functions, especially with public health and the planning department. "People predicted it would be the end of the world" when those departments were consolidated, but he called Olmsted County Public Health a model for the state. It's "strong personalities and personnel issues" that have led to the split in emergency management.
Bilderback, who's in emergency management at Mayo, disagreed and said "it's the responsibility of the city to plan." He and others said that already, preparedness and planning are light years ahead of where they were previously. The Joint Emergency Management function is not going away, but it has taken on a new structure.
John Eckerman of the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce expressed the chamber's concern that two emergency management efforts will cost more than one, and will hit Rochester taxpayers especially hard. "We believe it's not too late and it's in the city's best interests" to resolve any differences outstanding with the county and remain in a consolidated management structure.
But last night, it was hard to see any differences between city and county on how emergency management should be structured locally. There are no personnel issues or personality conflicts, by all accounts; those are historical, apparently. But the professionals on board now seem to be in agreement that the structure now being considered makes great sense.
I'll post more on Monday...