1997 State of the County Address

Hennepin County Board Chair Randy Johnson

"Bringing Out the Best"
Mall of America, Bloomington, Minnesota
April 29, 1997

Thank you, Maureen.

And thank you all for being here. It is exciting to see such a broad cross section of people who are interested in . . . and responsible for . . . the smooth-running operation of Hennepin County.

I also want to thank those of you at home who have tuned in for this report -- especially those of you who may have been channel surfing and just happened upon us.

You already met my six colleagues in the introductory video. We are a group with some very sharp political and policy differences, not to mention some strong personalities, yet each of us works very hard and reflects his or her district very well. And I want to thank them for their unanimous vote to give me the opportunity to chair the Hennepin County Board this year.

I also thank the other elected officials who are here today -- all wearing yellow name tags -- the mayors, council members, school board members, and others. Please stand for a moment so we can express our appreciation for your hard work.

Thank you also to John Wheeler, vice president of the Mall of America, and to your staff for your gracious help in making arrangements for all of us today.

Before I go on, our hearts go out to all the residents along the Red River. As a county we are committed to helping flood victims in every way we can -- from employees and workhouse inmates volunteering to sandbag, to mental health workers ready to help victims cope, to the Sheriff's Department sending patrols and dispatchers. Our Public Works Department will delay auctioning used trucks and make them available to assist people in flooded areas get back on their feet. Our hopes and prayers are with you.

Now, how is Hennepin County government doing?

Today, Hennepin County is big ... stable ... renewing ... and financially sound.

While most of us do not eagerly embrace the thought of big government, the fact is that 1.1 million people live in Hennepin County -- one-quarter of our Minnesota population. That makes us larger than nearly a dozen states.

While it is important to remember that Hennepin County is only authorized to act as provided by the State Legislature, our responsibilities are extensive. As former Commissioner John Derus observed, "Hennepin County does literally everything from brain surgery to ditch digging."

Our health care system includes the 910-bed Hennepin County Medical Center. It is a Level 1 Trauma Center and one of the premier teaching hospitals in the United States. And, it operates with the lowest public subsidy of any hospital of its kind in the nation.

We recycle and compost almost 50 percent of our solid waste -- the highest honest percentage of any metropolitan area in the country. Our plan has been under attack by some very clever lawyers, but Commissioners Penny Steele and Mark Stenglein have been ardent and successful advocates.

Our network of 26 suburban libraries celebrated its 75th anniversary by breaking the 10-million mark in circulating books, videos, CDs and books-on-tape.

Our court system handles nearly 100,000 cases a year. That is about 40 percent of the state's judicial workload.

Hennepin County employees maintain and plow snow on 600 miles of roads and bridges -- and now we are trying to patch 20,000 potholes!

When it comes to helping people financially, 18,000 families in Hennepin County receive AFDC -- Aid to Families with Dependent Children. But a larger number, and for more money -- more than 19,000 county residents, many of them elderly or disabled -- receive Medical Assistance.

Talking about Hennepin County's size by using all these numbers, I can see some people's eyes starting to glaze over. My older daughter had a more apt way to describe it. When she started kindergarten each child was asked to explain what his or her mother and father did if they worked outside the home.

Keri said, "My mom's a teacher. We all know what they do. My dad works for the county -- that means he plows snow, burns garbage, and gives away money to everyone who asks for it."

Well, I guess that is one perspective!

But don't believe Hennepin County gives away money to everyone who asks for it. In fact, what the Hennepin County Board has done is provide a lot of services while managing to decrease the county's property tax rate three years in a row.

And for the 20th consecutive year, Hennepin County has received the top triple-A bond rating from both major ratings agencies. Hennepin County is one of only 15 of our nation's 3,100 counties to be rated triple-A. This sound financial management enables us to borrow money when necessary for long-term capital projects at the lowest possible interest rate.

Now, I know that while many people were pleased when I became the first Republican to chair the Hennepin County Board in nearly 25 years, some people looked at the situation with a bit of fear and trepidation.

Let me point out that at the first meeting I chaired, we unanimously appointed as our top staff person, as our County Administrator, Jeff Spartz. Jeff has an MBA from the University of Minnesota and was a Hennepin County Commissioner for 14 years. But perhaps he is best remembered as the architect of the southside DFL machine! Nevertheless, Jeff personifies the Hennepin culture of careful planning, hard work, innovation, and bringing out the best in people.

And I finally found a way to get him out of partisan politics!

As an officer of the National Association of Counties and as its next president, I have had the opportunity to visit counties in every part of our nation.

Hennepin County stands tall.

No place else that I have seen combines such a strong regional economy, such careful county financial management, and such talented employees who are sensitive to those in need and willing to innovate.

That is the good news.

At this point I have two options: I could list all innovations, challenges and problems, and I could describe all of the programs and ideas that are important -- and finish up in about four hours.

Rest assured, I will try to keep it short.

Today I am going to talk about business . . . employment . . . safety . . .and trade. I selected these issues not because they are the most expensive programs but because they are timely, because they are often overlooked in the conventional commercial news media, and because they deal with our vision for the future while solving the problems of today.

Perhaps it is a coincidence, but the first letters of the words business . . . employment . . . safety . . . and trade . . . also happen to spell out the word BEST, and that is our theme . . . "Bringing Out the Best."


We are in the Playhouse Theater at the Mall of America, a perhaps unexpected but also an appropriate setting for this State of the County report by the chair of the Hennepin County Board.

The Mall of America is a very successful enterprise that exemplifies the powerful potential of government and business working in partnership -- of what can happen when state, county, and local governments cooperate with business in search of a common long-term vision that brings out the best for our local economy.

Historically this property has been a prairie, a farm, and home to a professional sports stadium. Today it is America's largest entertainment and retail complex.

Last year, the Mall of America hosted 40 million visitors. That is more than Disney World, the Grand Canyon and Graceland combined...and it pumped more than 1.5 billion dollars into our economy.

The Mall of America is one of the economic engines that make Hennepin County's economy so strong.

Look around you today, here in this audience. We have invited more members of the business community to this event than ever before -- because we believe the collaboration between Hennepin County and our business community has never been more important.

Our unemployment rate today is an extraordinarily low 2.1 percent.

Last year, our average weekly wage increased more than six percent, to nearly 650 dollars.

Business activity continues to be strong. More than 1,000 new businesses started up last year, a 10 percent increase over the year before.

Even more encouraging is the continued strong business expansion in the county. Two hundred seventy seven businesses completed major employment expansions during the second quarter, creating nearly new 6500 jobs.

Our productive private sector continues to thrive despite a discouraging state tax structure.


President John Kennedy may have been right in saying that a booming economy is like a rising tide that raises all boats. The problem is that in reality some people do not have any economic boat in which to row out and enjoy the rising tide.

Hennepin's greatest social issue challenge during at least the next two years will be welfare reform.

My colleagues on the county board have sharply different views about whether Congress should have passed and President Clinton should have signed the 1996 welfare reform bill. But we all agree that Hennepin has to be ready to do the best we can to make the new rules work.

Hennepin has been on the leading edge of welfare reform for more than a decade. In 1986, the late Rudy Perpich -- Minnesota's governor at the time -- appointed Monsignor Jerome Boxleitner and me to co-chair a blue-ribbon panel to find a better alternative to AFDC-- Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

The panel was composed of five conservatives and five liberals, including my colleague Commissioner Mark Andrew. Few gave us any hope of reaching any kind of consensus. But we did. After six months we reached unanimous agreement for a program that ultimately became The Minnesota Family Investment Plan, that has been tested as a pilot program in Hennepin and in six other Minnesota counties for the past three years.

We concluded that there is nothing wrong in expecting able-bodied people to do something in exchange for a government welfare check. And we recognized that it might cost more in the short run for child care, transportation, and temporary health care benefits.

A guiding principle was that "able bodied people should always be better off working than on welfare."

I believe that the Family Investment Plan is Minnesota's and Hennepin's successful response to welfare reform, and that we can change from a culture of entitlement to self-sufficiency.

Let me show you why by introducing you to Kari Swanson. Kari has agreed to let me share her success story. Kari, would you please stand?

Kari applied for AFDC when she was unable to make ends meet following the birth of her third child. Last year she was one of 3,500 randomly selected welfare applicants to be part of a new pilot project. The project was called the Minnesota Family Investment Plan.

Kate Ellefson, would you please stand? Now, Kate is a Hennepin County caseworker who received special training to help clients like Kari.

Under the old system, ironically, Kate could do little more to help Kari than process a bunch of government paperwork and to crank out the monthly checks as soon as possible.

But the family investment plan made Kate and Kari a team. Kari and her children received assistance, but with Kate's active help Kari also worked to get off the system.

Kari enrolled in a technical college, started a part-time job and kept a 3.0 grade point average.

She also received a monthly grant that corresponded to the number of hours she worked and she received child care for those three children, help with transportation, car repairs, and school.

Kari graduated last month. And she will get help from us in preparing her resume and looking for work.

Given the current labor market, we expect Kari will soon earn enough income to leave public assistance and support her family. Congratulations!

I am not here to tell you that Kari's success will become happen every time in the new system, but that it is our goal. The fact is, the Family Investment Plan has graduated more than one-third of its clients into the workforce. That may not seem spectacular, but it is a whole lot better than ever occurred under the old AFDC program.

A new Diversionary Assistance Program enables our staff to provide short-term assistance to folks who only have short-term problems. This gives crucial assistance to people in need, but keeps them off of the welfare rolls.

For clients who are not serious about their efforts to find and hold a job, our staff will have the discretionary authority to discontinue cash benefits and instead pay it directly to vendors for rent or utilities.

I said I was optimistic about the prospects for welfare reform. Any new program will have growing pains and as this new system evolves, the Law of Unintended Consequences will no doubt come into play. We must be alert to and concerned about these because we are dealing with people's lives.


None of us escaped the gruesome media countdown in 1995 as the Minneapolis homicide rate approached 100 for the first time in history. That statistic seemed so startlingly incongruous with our otherwise well-regarded quality of life that even the New York Times published it on the front page.

It forced us to face the reality that we are indeed confronted with a growing problem of crime, particularly in our core, Minneapolis.

The overall rate of violent crime in Minneapolis is eight times greater than in our suburbs.

So, some people claim that serious crime is pretty much just a Minneapolis problem. They are wrong! While it is true that Minneapolis is no longer Lake Wobegon on the Prairie . . . neither is the rest of Hennepin County. Violence anywhere in Hennepin County affects everyone in Hennepin County.

I live here in Bloomington, but I grew up in the inner city of Minneapolis. My parents still live in they home they bought in Minneapolis 56 years ago. Of course, I am concerned about crime in Minneapolis.

Commissioner Peter McLaughlin is the only commissioner to represent an entirely Minneapolis district. He understand this crime problem.

No matter where we live, crime restricts our freedom of movement -- where we choose to work, to shop, to worship and to have fun.

So what is Hennepin County doing about crime? Well, within the authority we have from the State Legislature, the county is actively working to fight crime.

First, we are building a second jail, with more beds and a more efficient booking facility that will get police back on the street faster. I am not thrilled about spending in the neighborhood of 110 million dollars on this building and another roughly 30 million dollars per year to operate it. But it needs to be done. A shortage of jail space should not force judges to decide which accused dangerous criminals should be released to commit more mischief and mayhem -- and worse on our streets. And I know that Commissioners Mike Opat and Mark Stenglein will make sure that we build the jail facility we need.

Our new Drug Court opened the first of the year, and under Judge Kevin Burke it has moved individuals charged with low-level drug possession offenses through the system and into drug treatment programs literally in hours instead of months. This aggressive approach means far less government spending on attorneys, courts and the jail -- and a much better outcome for the drug offender.

Today I am challenging Chief Judge Dan Mabley and Judge Burke, along with the Hennepin County District Court bench and other county officials, to prepare a similar "quick to judgment, quick to treatment" program. This one must deal with women offenders who have minor children. Many of these women have a history of chemical abuse. Some have been repeatedly charged with misdemeanors such as forgery, credit-card fraud and theft. All of them have one thing in common -- unless they change, they are poor or ineffective parents. Unless we provide the incentive to change, we are doomed to deal with their children. My challenge is to implement this before school starts in September.

Here is another example of how we're fighting crime: Sheriff Pat McGowan's warrants division upgraded its protection of victims of domestic abuse with a 600,000-dollar Violence Against Women Act grant. This assigns more police personnel whose responsibility is to protect women.

And, we must continue to support the violence prevention programs that Commissioner Mary Tambornino so correctly reminds us can stop a lot of these problems in the first place.

Technology & Thinking

New technology also plays an increasingly important role in law enforcement. The new digitized state-of-the-art 800 mHZ radio system will provide a platform for speed, accuracy and rapid information for faster responses to emergencies.

Bringing out the best in our county in this new era of government that is closer to the people will require new, innovative, and nontraditional efforts.

Some call it reinventing government. Or re-engineering, or restructuring. Here in Hennepin County we have used all those phrases and a lot more. Now we call it RCS -- the Results and Community-Oriented System. Under any name, what we are doing is asking over and over two very basic questions: One, What are we really trying to accomplish here? And, two, how can we measure the results?

The McKnight Foundation is helping our welfare reform effort by investing up to 20 million dollars over the next two years -- its biggest single-issue grant ever -- to explore creative ways to use existing resources in the community to help Minnesota families move from welfare to work. Hennepin County will get a significant portion of those funds.

Another new idea is with volunteers, certainly a timely subject with the President's summit on volunteer service being held in Philadelphia right now. We have a great program with volunteers at Hennepin County. Last year more than 2700 of our fellow citizens contributed 324,000 hours of service in more than 100 different roles through volunteer programs operated by the county.

Now we are testing a new, creative, non-traditional approach to encourage and reward even more volunteers in the community. It is called the Commonweal HeroCard. It is a system that rewards volunteer community work with a new type of money called Commonweal Service Dollars.

Volunteers receive a Commonweal HeroCard like this. They will get 10 service dollars for each hour they volunteer. These service dollars are entered into their accounts kept at National City Bank.

Commonweal, Inc. is a local company with a patented system for these dual-currency transactions. It contracts with merchants, restaurants, and other businesses to accept service dollars along with cash for very substantial discounts.

It is being tested at six sites in the Lyndale neighborhood of South Minneapolis with a variety of local stores and attractions including Camp Snoopy here at the Mall. I am very enthusiastic with this non-traditional, socially responsible kind of thinking. It brings out the best -- in our business community, non-profits and service organizations -- with only a modest investment by government.

The kick-off for the HeroCard is this afternoon between 4 and 7 p.m. at the Parks Gallery at Lake Street and Lyndale Avenue in South Minneapolis. We invite you to join us for the kick-off.

Much of the innovation at Hennepin County has and will involve new technologies.

For example, one project, long a favorite of mine, will enable our social workers to help more people, more efficiently through technology.

I have often looked at the work-day of our social workers. They drive to work in the morning, they pick up their work-load for the day, get back in their cars and make their visits. Then they get back in their cars again, come back to the office and write up and file their reports that are essential to good case management.

We are working with Unisys right now to develop a child protection software package in which social workers can download needed files on laptop computers at home and drive directly to their first appointments. They can write and file electronically on lap-top computers. They will spend more time with their clients and less time in their cars or dealing with paperwork.

It is a system that will enable our social workers to spend more time being social workers and helping families.

Sometimes quality thinking outshines technology. Let me tell you about a particularly good example that is helping people to do their jobs and provide better customer service at the Hennepin County Library. The technical services division has evolved from a hierarchical work system to a more holistic, problem-solving model. This team has made a number of process improvements, eliminated duplication, out-sourced some work and found new ways to use volunteers. This effort has reduced the time needed to prepare an item for library shelves from 12 weeks to 12 days. That is significant progress.


I have talked about some of the ways Hennepin County can address the challenges of community safety and welfare reform, how we can analyze how we do business, build partnerships, innovate, and bring out the best in our community.

Earlier I talked about the strong performance of our local economy with new and growing businesses and increasing wages and productivity.

No single factor outside of faith and family can improve people's lives faster or more completely than a booming, sustainable economy with good-paying jobs with wages that support households -- jobs with security and benefits, and opportunities for advancement.

Now we have to look to how we encourage those businesses and create those jobs in the future.

In the audience today we have Kris Wyrobek, CEO of Sigma Seven Incorporated. Sigma Seven is a 24-year old company, based in Minneapolis, that manufactures precision components for the office machine industry. Customers include IBM and major computer printer manufacturers. Over the last five years Kris's company has grown 62 percent. In the last two years his workforce has grown 14 percent -- to 94 employees.

We also have with us Wendell Maddox, CEO of Ion Electronics Incorporated. Ion Electronics is a 12 year-old Hopkins-based company that makes advanced technology components for satellite guidance systems and commercial aviation control systems. It currently is designing the life support systems for a NASA space station. The company is revenues have grown 75 percent over the past five years, and its workforce has grown to 75, a 25-percent increase just over the last two years.

I have introduced these people to you today because each has added jobs, quality jobs, to the economy of Hennepin County. And...this is the important point... they did it by capitalizing on opportunities in the global marketplace.

Plainly, the global marketplace is growing. While the U.S. market grows at two percent per year, the fastest-growing markets are abroad, with some countries experiencing double-digit growth.

Global businesses create good jobs:

Exporting manufacturers pay blue-collar workers 15 percent higher wages and 27 percent higher benefits than non-exporting employers.

They grow jobs, sales and investment 20 percent faster.

And they have up to 40 percent higher productivity.

We have all the ingredients to be a major global competitor:

Our workforce is well educated, technically proficient, and highly productive.

We have a good start. Our exports in 1995 totaled more than 11 billion dollars. That's more than Miami or San Francisco or Boston or Dallas. It is twice that of Atlanta.

Fully one-third of all jobs in Hennepin County -- and 60 percent of new jobs -- depend on international business.

We have a collaborative business base that includes 17 Fortune 500 industrial firms, 16 Fortune 500 Service firms and 10 of the nation's largest private companies.

In a story called Money-apolis, Fortune magazine said that Minneapolis has more money chasing more good ideas than anywhere in the country.

So if everything is so rosy, why do I bring this up?

Because we are slipping. We are falling behind.

The growth in our exports lags behind Minnesota's and the nation's -- even in those high-tech industries that drive our local economic growth.

Former Atlanta Mayor and Ambassador Andrew Young came to Minneapolis and Hennepin County and told us that Atlanta would surpass us by strategically positioning itself to become a world-class city. He said that Atlanta is "more consciously international and that's what gives us the edge on you."

The Stanley Foundation said there was an almost complete absence of vision and leadership in the Twin Cities on globalization issues.

A few months ago, the Citizens League recently came to the same conclusion in its "Compete Globally, Thrive Locally" report. They said "we are overconfident, and we have no strategy. That is a potentially lethal combination."

We are like a basketball team that has great players, but is not very competitive without a coach or a game plan.

What we lack, perhaps desperately, is a coordinated, regional strategy that will focus our strengths for the global marketplace of the future.

Our future prosperity in the global economy is not guaranteed, especially if complacency and a lack of will keep us from strengthening the fundamentals of our global advantage.

Last year, Hennepin County commissioners appointed a 15-member International Competitiveness Task Force to examine our position in the global marketplace.

This week the task force will submit its conclusion that the absence of regional leadership is the critical factor that limits our strategic global competitiveness.

The task force recommends, with some urgency, that Hennepin County assume leadership and create a region-wide International Roundtable, including the area's business and government leaders to focus on what we need to do to compete globally.

Today, to you, I commit to creating this International Roundtable as a top priority of Hennepin County.

This will not be just another group that meets and whose recommendations subsequently gather dust. And it will certainly not be a government bureaucracy that consumes money while purporting to help business.

This will be an inclusive group, with labor, our academic community, and other business interests.

At times, it might act like a foundation. it might help broker financing packages or even provide financing. It might initiate programs or it might partner with existing organizations.

At all times, the Roundtable will set goals, measure progress, and constantly emphasize the importance of globalization to our entire region.

Bringing out the Best

I will conclude by setting out several guiding principles that I believe will bring out the best in our county every day.

Bringing out the best means maximizing the full potential of everyone in our county. Everyone.

Bringing out the best means that everyone in our community is safe -- all the time.

Bringing out the best means re-thinking how we can better use existing resources and organizations and inspire volunteers.

Bringing out the best means that we infuse new technology with purpose.

It means that we build a world-class community, with an abundance of opportunity and high value-added jobs that support households.

It means that this we make this a place where people want to live, to raise families, to work, to start and to grow productive businesses.

Bringing out of the best in policy requires "20-20 vision."

I am not talking about eyesight, but the kind of selfless scrutiny that asks, how will this affect our citizens in the year 2020?

Perhaps a better way of asking this is, how will this affect our children? How will the decisions we contemplate today affect their world?

I hope someday people in Hennepin County will look back and say, "You know, mom and dad, grandma and grandpa, they did OK. They handled the daily problems of their time, used the power of government pretty wisely, and helped folks who needed it. They had some vision and laid the groundwork for our opportunities and our place in the world. They always tried to bring out the best in people. I like living here."

If that is what people in the year 2020 think when they look back, we know our work has been done well.

Thank you.