Steele County is moving forward with hiring a new emergency management director and bumping the position up to full time.

Owatonna Fire Chief Mike Johnson currently serves as Steele County’s part-time emergency management director. But with Johnson’s upcoming retirement in May, the city of Owatonna has notified the county that it won’t be providing its fire chief to fill the position after the retirement. The city wants to focus its fire chief position on the fire service and the city’s emergency management work, Johnson told the Steele County Board Tuesday. The city fire chief/county emergency management director combination has been in place for several decades.

State law requires counties to have an emergency management director and deputy director on staff. Johnson noted that the state recommends counties have a full-time director because of the workload.

“I agree with that. I know the last five years have been really difficult trying to balance the two jobs, but I was able to do it because we had a collaborative effort,” he said. “But I think the concern of the city at this point is it seems like the job has grown and the responsibilities have grown and the demands of the job have grown.”

The Sept. 11 attacks added responsibilities to the position related to potential terrorism and the increasing number of severe weather events every year adds to the workload, Johnson said. The job responsibilities include ensuring the county has an emergency response plan and serving as the liaison to the state during disaster recovery, in addition to mitigating future disasters. The position oversees volunteer programs such as weather spotters and the Community Emergency Response Team that has 200 people trained in first aid and disaster preparedness in Steele County. In the past year, the job has also included working with public health officials to address the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

County Administrator Scott Golberg said counties of similar size to Steele County have one to three full-time positions dedicated to emergency management. Johnson noted that the counties surrounding Steele County have a full-time emergency management director.

In addition to the emergency management director, Steele County has two part-time deputy directors and Johnson said he supports Steele County having two deputy directors instead of one.

“When you have a disaster, you can rotate and give people a break if you’re running 24 hours a day. It’s really important to have that extra help,” he said.

Each city in Steele County also has its own emergency management director.

A full-time position

The Steele County Board approved advertising an “emergency management and risk director” position as a full-time job, although some commissioners wanted it advertised as both a full-time and part-time job to see who would apply for each.

Human Resources Director Julie Johnson responded that she expects the applicant pool for the job to be small and it’s hard to know what they’ll get for candidates because it’s a “niche” profession. Golberg told the commissioners that emergency management is an area where the county needs to have adequate resources because disaster response and recovery is when the county needs all hands on deck.

The budget impact from moving the position from a half-time position to a full-time position will be $51,000 annually, Golberg said. He told the People’s Press that that’s an average estimate and the final budget amount will be determined once the person is hired. The additional cost will be covered through several mechanisms, including savings elsewhere in the budget and the reduction of a consultant contract the county has for some safety work. The county also receives a $25,000 matching emergency management program grant to assist in covering the costs.

Commissioner Jim Abbe was the sole opposition in the board’s 4-1 vote to move ahead with a full-time position. He said the decision felt “rushed” and he wasn’t comfortable moving forward yet until the position gets more “flushed out.”

As part of bumping the position up to full time, the safety program for county employees and overseeing the county’s insurance will be moved to the emergency management director’s responsibilities. That work is currently done by human resources staff and Golberg pointed out that that will free up human resources staff to focus on other projects that have been lagging. But Abbe said the county hired human resources staff to handle that work and now it’s going to hire an emergency management director to handle it.

“We’re just moving stuff around and we’re hiring more staff,” Abbe said. “We’re trying to do everything we can in our power to keep (full-time equivalent positions) under control because every time we hire someone, that’s a long-term commitment to the taxpayers. The city is hiring someone and now we’re going to be hiring someone and the taxpayers are going to get a double whammy.”

Commissioner John Glynn noted that other counties have a full-time emergency management director and he’s supporting the full-time position because the work is important.

In terms of the hiring timeframe, Julie Johnson said the deputy directors are staying put in their positions and that will cover the county if the director position isn’t filled by the time Mike Johnson retires. But she cautioned commissioners that if they wait too long to make a decision, it’ll be summer and the county could find itself not fully staffed during tornado and flood season.

Reach Associate Editor Lisa Kaczke at 507-444-2371. ©Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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