LE MARS, Iowa -- Woodbury County can't form its own group to deliver mental health services to the low-income and disabled, Iowa Department of Human Services Director Jerry Foxhoven said Friday.

Foxhaven said Woodbury County, for the 2019 budget year, must remain in the three-county Sioux Rivers Regional Mental Health and Disability Services, which also includes Plymouth and Sioux counties.

The DHS head spoke to the Journal after traveling to Northwest Iowa to visit with officials from the three counties.

"Woodbury County can't stand alone. The law doesn't even give me the power to give them a waiver right now," Foxhoven told the Journal. "I have visited with the (Iowa) Attorney General (Tom Miller) on whether I even have the right to allow (Woodbury County) to be a standalone. The answer is no."

The state changed from a county-based to a regional method of delivering mental health services in 2014. Last year, Woodbury County supervisors voted to exit Sioux Rivers, effective July 1, citing dissatisfaction with how the agency is governed and managed.

The seven-county Rolling Hills Community Service Region recently agreed to accept Woodbury County as a member but delayed its entry until July 1, 2019. As a stopgap measure, the Woodbury County supervisors in March voted to apply to the IDHS for an exemption from the requirement that regional mental health groups to consist of more than two counties.

Before Woodbury County can legally leave Sioux Rivers, there must be a plan to replace Woodbury with another county, Foxhhoven said. Otherwise, a region with just Plymouth and Sioux would not be viable.

"There needs to be compliance with the law," he said.

The DHS oversees the division of counties into regions. Only Polk County, the state's largest, is currently allowed to have its own region.

Foxhoven met with at least one person from each county Friday morning in Le Mars to get the lay of the land. The director said he was well aware of the troubled working relationship between the threee counties.

Asked if part of his message to the counties was that they need to move beyond past difficulties, Foxhoven replied, "They need to. Clearly, there is some animosity with them. But I think they also are committed to providing good mental health services to people."

Foxhoven said there is a bill pending in the state Legislature that could allow Sioux Rivers to function as a two-county group, but he's heard from a Republican leader that final passage of the measure this session is unlikely.

Woodbury County Supervisor Jeremy Taylor has been instrumental in pushing the county to move to Rolling Hills.

"Woodbury County had a troubled relationship in Sioux Rivers because of poor governance and management...and a culture of negativity, as reported by (service) providers," he said.

Mark Loutsch, chairman of the Sioux Rivers board, in March told the Journal that Taylor has overlooked ways Plymouth, Sioux and Woodbury could have cooperated.

"The things Jeremy wanted to get rid of or change were programs that Woodbury County had in place before becoming a region," Loutsch said. "We had plans last fall to evaluate each provider and their services, and Jeremy didn’t want to wait for the process to begin.

In a Friday statement to the Journal, Taylor said, "Woodbury County has learned that the Iowa Department of Human Services’ current position is that it does not have the authority to accept an exemption application from Woodbury County at this time. We are evaluating our options in light of this information but Woodbury County is committed to providing uninterrupted access to mental health and disability services to Woodbury County citizens."

It's not certain Woodbury County will transition to Rolling Hills on July 1, 2019, with a series of additional votes required in order for it to take effect. A majority of the supervisors in each of the seven counties would have to vote to accept Woodbury as a new member over the next few weeks. Then, the Rolling Hills governing board would have to take a final vote.

Rolling Hills includes Buena Vista, Sac, Calhoun, Carroll, Cherokee, Crawford and Ida counties.

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