Goodhue County's Social Services and Public Health departments began a facelift in 2010 that was years in the making.

County commissioners approved a plan in July that officially merged the departments Aug. 1. Staff, facilities and programs from both departments will now be managed jointly by a new Health and Human Services Board.

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The merger will take five years and will be spearheaded by Nina Arneson, who this fall stepped into the newly created role of Goodhue County Health and Human Services Department deputy director.

Public Health Service Director Karen Main and Social Services Director Greg Schoener will assist Arneson and add dozens of years of experience to the process.

Upon Main and Schoener's retirement next year, Arneson would be in a position to impart her knowledge of the departments onto the incoming department director.

Officials say the merger will bolster the effectiveness of both departments.

"The county residents can expect enhanced service integration of health and human services and a continued commitment to high quality of service and finding service efficiencies," Arneson said. "The county is committed in continuing the integration progress with focus on service integration and quality of service to all Goodhue County residents."

Social Services' 74 employees managed health and welfare programs for low-income and other individuals countywide. Public Health's 36 employees worked to promote health on a broad scale.

Main said the process of combining the two departments has been going smoothly so far.

"From my perspective, we are doing better than I had hoped," Main said. "We continue to focus on really integrating our functions rather than Public Health being merged as another silo in the Human Service farm. Quite a number of other counties and agencies are watching us closely."

More counties statewide are integrating social service and public health programs. According to officials at the Association of Minnesota Counties, more than 20 Minnesota counties have combined health and human services boards -- and the list is growing.

AMC officials say mergers can be a great way to increase the efficiency of county programs.

While many existing health and social services programs have been mergers in name only, Goodhue County's plan will involve an overhaul of both departments. As part of the merger, staff from both departments will work together, forming new joint programs and working to integrate services on all levels.

Public Health operates on a broad scale, working to prevent health problems from occurring through immunizations, educational programs and by assuring food and water safety.

Social Services provides services to people who already face physical and mental health problems.

Arneson said a lot of work has been done since August to merge the two departments, including the creation of a Health and Human Services Leadership Team.

The two department budgets have been combined and countless hours have been spent bringing teams, staff and programs under one department with numerous state, federal and county policies and directives.

Arneson said the county is also "continuing its work of thoughtful planning with space and facilities related opportunities while keeping its eyes on the future in order to ensure the best long term decisions are made for the county."