1998 State of the County Address

Hennepin County Board Chair Randy Johnson

"Vision for the future… Solutions for Today"

Thank you for joining us at the sixth annual state of the county address by the chair of the Hennepin County Board. On the video, you heard from my six colleagues, as well as the County Attorney, Sheriff, and Chief Judge of the District Court . . . the elected leaders of Hennepin County.

We all appreciate and are excited to see so many people here with so many backgrounds and interests . . . taxpayers, business and labor, government, not-for-profit agencies, faith organizations, the academic community, and concerned citizens.

We also want to recognize those people in our community who run for elected office. Would all of the local elected officials please stand so we can recognize your service and productive contributions to our communities.

I especially want to thank our County staff, guided by the leadership of Administrator Jeff Spartz. They work hard every day to make Hennepin County a better place for all of us to live and work. We are indeed becoming a learning organization, treating our customers right and encouraging our employees to be self directed.

I am very pleased to introduce some very special guests who are visiting us as part of Hennepin’s efforts to promote international understanding and develop our role in the new global economy. We have with us a group of ten Chinese county and city officials who are here as part of a three-week trade and study visit to the United States. Please join me in welcoming Mr. Sun Guizhang, the Vice-Chairman of the Shanghai Municipal People’s Congress, the leader of the delegation; Mr. Teng Juiming, Senior Consultant to the Chongquing Municipal Government; and Mr. Bian Qingzu, the Secretary General of the Chinese People’s Friendship Association with Foreign Countries; and all of our Chinese visitors to Hennepin County.

Mr. Sun and the delegation are from some of the most progressive counties, cities and provinces in China. They are visiting us as part of an international exchange program that the National Association of Counties began with China last year when Commissioner Mark Andrew and I led the first-ever delegation of local elected officials to China as guests of the Chinese government through their Friendship Association.

Now, those of you who have watched the Hennepin County Board for any length of time know that Commissioner Andrew and I tend to disagree on a great many political issues. But we agree that it is important to learn as much as we can about other countries, and we were impressed in China with the exciting changes in the economy and so many other areas. Our countries have many cultural, educational, and political lessons to learn from each other.

By the way, two facts that are little known even here in Minnesota:

First, more students from China study at the University of Minnesota than any other higher education institution in North America.

Second, nearly one-third of all Americans studying Chinese as a foreign language live in Minnesota.

We warmly, warmly welcome our Chinese guests who will be seeing not only Minnesota corporations, but also the Hennepin County Medical Center, our "real time" freeway congestion management system, a high-tech dairy farm, the Mall of America -- and a trip to Byerly’s supermarket!

Thank you also to Robert Gandrud, the President of Lutheran Brotherhood, for allowing us to use this facility today. Lutheran Brotherhood has been a bedrock of downtown Minneapolis for a century, bringing high quality financial products to Lutherans in Minnesota and nationwide. By the way, if you did not take a close look at the 19 ½ foot Norse-style wooden boat in the lobby, take some time during the reception after this address to do it. It is a unique and magnificent example of handmade craftwork and art.

This is National County Government Week, so it is especially appropriate for us to focus community attention on the work of Hennepin County. It is also National Volunteer Week, and we want to thank the 3,000 citizens who help Hennepin expand county services to the public.

My colleagues who have delivered previous State of the County Addresses always have had one basic decision to make. It is tempting to talk about every challenge, opportunity, success, innovation and problem in Hennepin and hope not to forget anything – or, the alternative is to focus attention on a smaller number of issues that are particularly timely or have not received much conventional news media attention.

The unabridged longer speech could last until 6:00 p.m. . . . and the abbreviated version about another 15 minutes. I think I do not need to convene a public relations focus group or conduct a random sample survey to decide to take the abbreviated approach!

The state of Hennepin County overall today is very good . . . perhaps better than any other county in our nation.

During the past four years, I have had the unique opportunity, as a vice-president and now this year’s president of the National Association of Counties, to visit and compare Hennepin to counties in almost every other state. We are not perfect by any means. We make mistakes. But, overall, I have found no county government that is as stable, innovative and well run as Hennepin.

Of the nation’s 3,100 counties, Hennepin is one of only 15 with the top AAA credit rating from both national ratings agencies -- and this is the 21st consecutive year Hennepin has been "AAA." That enables us to finance necessary capital projects at the lowest possible interest rate – and keep taxes down.

Our local economy is very strong, perhaps the most vibrant in the entire nation.

Our property tax base is stable and steadily expanding. Property values in the county have increased between six and eight percent every year for the past three years, adding over $8 billion to Hennepin’s estimated market value. Nearly half of that $8 billion came from increases in commercial and industrial properties. And, although some owners of downtown office buildings might disagree, forty percent of the increase in commercial/industrial values came through new construction, not because of increases in the valuation of existing properties.

The property tax rate levied by Hennepin County has been under the rate of inflation – or decreased – for the past four years. As Commissioner Penny Steele frequently reminds us, "for every dollar we levy, we are deciding that government has a better use for that money than the people who earned it – and we have to be very careful when we make that decision."

We have many strong economic engines that drive our regional and Hennepin economy. Hennepin businesses are major economic powerhouses in the world. Last month Commissioner Peter McLaughlin and I participated in a Washington, DC news conference with the U.S. Mayors about the importance of metro economies. We released a study that showed if we listed the economies of all of the world’s nations, states and regions, our region would rank 49th – about the same as the countries of Israel or Singapore. And Hennepin is approximately one-half of our metro region’s economy.

Make no mistake, agriculture is still the number one industry in Minnesota. But valued added job growth is clearly in the Twin Cities region, and Hennepin is the dominant place for that growth.

Unemployment here is at an amazingly record low rate of just 1.6 percent. That results from a combination of the booming local economy, extraordinary job and business growth, and a strong worth ethic. We have the highest workforce participation rate for women of any state -- and the second highest rate for men. It is also the result of demographics . . . jobs are growing faster than the number of people of working age – a trend that has important future implications for our region.

Our local economy is booming. As one corporation’s television advertisements reminds us, "Life’s Better Here." But Hennepin faces many challenges.

The indicators report on the strength of our community issued jointly by Hennepin County and United Way in January confirms that disparities between Minneapolis and the suburbs are persistent. While overall indicators show a healthy community, indicators specifically addressing the well being of poor people and their children are of great concern.

Also, where data was reported by race, the racial disparities are wide and growing. Most people of color in Hennepin County continue to be left out of our prosperity and abundance.

What is Hennepin County doing to create conditions to help people improve their lives?

Let’s start with welfare reform, because not everyone who can work, who is expected to work, is working. There was strong disagreement among our Commissioners about the 1996 Welfare Reform law. But the facts are simple. Congress passed it. The President signed it. We will do our best to implement it.

So far, Minnesota’s Welfare Reform Plan – the Minnesota Family Investment Plan (MFIP) is a solution that is working well in Hennepin County. There is simply nothing wrong in expecting able-bodied people to do something productive in exchange for a welfare check. While we have had great success in helping move able bodied welfare recipients to employment so far, we know that it will become more and more difficult as we deal with people who have multiple barriers to employment.

One simple fact of life is that we have an acute labor shortage in the suburbs, while most people seeking work live in Minneapolis. The solution for now is Hennepin-sponsored Job Fairs that connect people seeking work with employers seeking workers. Our Reverse Commute programs help to get people to work when Metro Transit cannot provide it.

The biggest single item in Hennepin’s budget is health. Our nation, our state, and Hennepin County will face many difficult public policy issues in the next decade as our health care system evolves.

Hennepin is a unique county in that we not only operate the Hennepin County Medical Center, one of the nation’s largest and premier public teaching hospitals, and we also pay part of the non-federal share of Medicaid -- and, we are the only county in the nation to run its own Health Maintenance Organization.

Today, however, I will discuss just one big health public policy issue.

That issue is tobacco. When the so-called "tobacco settlement" was announced last year, Hennepin unanimously objected to it for a number of reasons at the urging of Commissioner Mary Tambornino. One objection was that the "settlement" would have transferred all $368 billion only to the states and essentially precluded local governments who provide health care from filing suit to recover our large expenditures.

The White House understood our position when I had the opportunity to present it in September, and President Clinton gave this as one of the reasons he would not sign the proposed settlement legislation a week later.

That settlement seems to have died when the tobacco companies withdrew their support two weeks ago.

As a result, Hennepin’s position has changed. I have asked Mike Freeman, our County Attorney, to advise the Board on our best legal strategy in promptly filing suit against the tobacco companies to recover the tens of millions of dollars – property tax money – Hennepin has been forced to spend over the years to deal with tobacco induced illnesses.

We will invite other Minnesota counties that have had major health care expenditures to join us.

I believe the tobacco companies are greedy, cynical corporate merchants of death. Now is the time for Hennepin County to sue them to recover our taxpayers’ costs for their ill-gotten gains.

Public Safety is Job One for government

Hennepin’s responsibility, working with Sheriff Pat McGowan and Commissioner Mark Stenglein who chairs our Public Safety Committee, is to build the new jail we need to keep violent criminals off the streets until they can be promptly and fairly tried and sentenced.

"Not enough beds in the jail" should never be an excuse to release dangerous predators to the streets.

But more jail beds for accused violent offenders is only one part of the public safety solution.

With strong advocacy by law enforcement, the Statewide Gang Strike Task Force was created and funded by the Minnesota Legislature. Four Hennepin Sheriff’s deputies have been assigned full-time to this unique, pre-emptive strike against violent street gangs in our county.

Hennepin County residents want safe, secure communities. That means targeting enforcement to prevent "livability crimes" – crimes which are misdemeanors, but negatively impact our quality of life and neighborhoods. We must continue to support Zero Tolerance initiatives, Safe Streets and community action programs. We must say "no" to serial misdemeanants who offend time after time with no serious consequence. Petty crime is an indicator of future felony offenses.

Hennepin is planning a new community court for low-level offenses. Community court will impose sanctions swiftly, hold offenders accountable for their actions, and connect them with needed services.

Most Commissioners have seen the dramatic improvement on the streets of New York City in the past four years and the important role community court plays there. If it works in New York City, we can make it work as a solution here in Hennepin County.

We cannot wait to respond until after criminal activity occurs. One effort in this direction is the Delinquents Under 10 program.

Each year, we now receive more than 150 referrals from police departments describing children under the age of 10 who are already committing delinquent acts. These children are reported for offenses including arson, burglary, assault, damage to property, theft, shoplifting and criminal sexual conduct. Most come from families where there has been abuse and neglect, problems with school behavior and attendance, and criminal activity by parents and older siblings.

Rather than just waiting until these children offend again, Hennepin’s solution is a continuum of intervention. One program is Targeted Early Intervention. It attempts to steer these children away from delinquent behavior by getting them into activities to develop their own unique skills and talents so that they begin to experience success with positive activity. At the same time, the program holds both the child and parents accountable for their actions.

Protecting vulnerable children, the victims of abuse and neglect, is one of Hennepin’s most important, complex and difficult responsibilities.

A safe reunification with the family is always the preferred result. Too often that turns out not to be possible, but children have lingered in temporary foster care far too long . . . sometimes for most of their entire childhood. To comply with recent state laws requiring a permanency court hearing for all children who had been in court-ordered or court-approved out-of-home placement for 12 months or longer, the solution for County Attorney Mike Freeman and Hennepin’s Children and Family Services was to concentrate on a backlog of over 700 children.

It was a complex project that included cooperation from the District Court and the Public Defender. When the project was completed, only 31 children remained without either reunification or a permanency determination, and the number of such children continues to be reduced.

Because of the project, the County avoided having to spend a projected $4.6 million in for foster care and child protection case management . . . and the children can look forward to stable lives in loving families.

Now, the next step is to speed up the adoption process and find good adoptive homes for the sharply increased number of children where parental rights have been terminated. If you are interested in providing a home and adopting these children, please call Hennepin at 348-KIDS (348-5437).

Transportation is critical to economic vitality and livability in Hennepin County. It is difficult to be productive when you are sitting in your car in a traffic jam.

One part of Hennepin’s solution is developing the first new Light Rail Transit line in the Twin Cities. The state recently approved funding for construction of LRT along the Hiawatha Corridor -- from downtown Minneapolis, past the University of Minnesota, to the Airport, and the Mall of America in Bloomington.

Commissioner Peter McLaughlin has led efforts to secure the state funding, as well as the nearly $200 million designated for the Hiawatha Corridor Project in the pending federal ISTEA bill – (that’s Interstate Transportation and Efficiency Act).

Two Hennepin Community Works projects are well underway to build the amenities that make this an attractive, comfortable place to live. The Humboldt Greenway in far north Minneapolis will continue during 1998 under Commissioner Mike Opat’s leadership. Construction of the Midtown Greenway across South Minneapolis will begin next month.

One reason for our economic prosperity is that we have recognized that we live in an economy and culture that has become truly global.

International trade is an important part of our local economy. In 1996 Twin Cities export sales growth went up by $1.3 billion. Only two other metropolitan areas in America exceeded our export growth. Trade and exports provide the high value-added jobs that pay wages that allow workers to support households.

As one example of trade and investment opportunities, growth in China’s economy is expected at 10 percent per year. Combined with continued trade liberalization, that makes China a good market for Minnesota and Hennepin exports and mutual trade.

One of my priorities is for Hennepin County to make sure people understand the value of world trade and encourage our local businesses to think in terms of global markets.

Last year I discussed concerns that we were falling behind other communities. We will never have a seaport like New York, Miami, Seattle, or San& Francisco, but even here in the middle of the prairie, we have the 12th busiest airport in the world. We have the ability to create high value-added technology jobs when we set our minds to it. My concern is that we have been falling behind our regional competitors, such as Cincinnati, Kansas City and . . . Cleveland.

Last year, I announced that we would study establishing an International Roundtable to develop a marketing and growth strategy for Hennepin and our region to meet the challenges and opportunities of competing in the global economy.

Some people were skeptical of this economic development initiative. Frankly, some thought it might be a threat to our Republican Governor’s Department of Trade and Economic Development. Some Democrats may have suspected it was a personal political effort to marshal business interests.

We have moved beyond that.

First, the McKnight Foundation has awarded us a grant to study how best to improve our region’s international economic competitive position.

Second, Jay Novak, the Minnesota Commissioner of Trade and Economic Development, is supportive of our efforts.

Third, I am pleased to announce that the first chair of the International Roundtable has accepted this challenge. He can not be with us today, but I thank him for accepting the responsibility, to help lead Hennepin and our region into the global economy of the next century the president of Key Investments. . . . Vance Opperman .

Now, just to assuage anyone’s concerns about partisan politics, although Hennepin County Commissioners are elected on a non-partisan ballot and I think that is very important, it is no secret that I am a Republican. And it is no secret that Vance Opperman is… well… he’s not a Republican!

That is why the International Roundtable can succeed. We will bring together business and labor, liberals and conservatives, academia, and everyone who understands that being prepared to complete in the global economy is our economic future.

Every day we hear exciting predictions for the future because of digital technology. There will be smart homes wired so that your car will hear from your refrigerator when you are low on milk . . . we will all have electronic butlers to screen our calls. . . instead of our local daily monopoly newspaper telling us what they think we need to know and dropping it off at our doorstep in the morning, we can specify from many sources the issues and people and sports and entertainment in which we are interested and have it delivered for free or at almost no cost, once a day or as often as we want, wherever we happen to be.

I especially like that option!

The transistors and semi-conductor technology revolution has changed how we live, how we do business, and how government works. There are many colorful illustrations. Let me give just one.

How many people here remember vacuum tubes? If you are my age . . . about 50 . . . you remember them as those things that always blew out on the TV set when you were in junior high school. They look like this. Just so we understand how technology has changed in less than one generation, if this cellular phone depended upon vacuum tubes instead of transistors and semi-conductors today, it could still work. The only problem is that the cell phone would be taller than the Washington Monument . . . and I think that would somewhat limit its portability!

The growth of information technology has dramatically affected our economy nationally and locally. Last week, Secretary of Commerce William Daley acknowledged that it is the digital economy and growth of information technology companies that fueled the economic boom that allowed the federal government finally to begin operating in the black again. Locally, Information Technology businesses offer the value-added, household-supporting jobs we seek.

We need to strongly support University of Minnesota President Mark Yudof’s efforts to accelerate the cellular and molecular biology departments at the University of Minnesota. The University of Minnesota is an economic engine in itself, and it can also help entrepreneurs create even more high valued-added jobs by using our research resources wisely.

I am going to ask a question. How many people here have ever looked at Hennepin’s World Wide Web page? Raise your hands, please. In 1990 there were only four Web sites in the entire world. Today there are an estimated 25 million web sites worldwide. Hennepin was one of the first local governments in the world with a web site

The Internet and Web will soon be how most people will learn about and transact business with government -- as well as with banks, insurance companies, and most businesses. Let’s take a very brief tour of Hennepin’s web site.

Here is our Homepage…our index…these are links to other websites…here is information about Commissioners and every county department. Now you can even look up the property tax levied on any parcel in Hennepin County – and see if it’s been paid.

Hennepin aggressively uses technology, especially digital technology, in other operations as a solution to provide services cost-effectively.

The Hennepin County Medical Center was the second hospital and health clinic system in this country to invest in a radiology system that allows us to take x-rays using digital technology, instead of the old fashioned method of "take a picture and hold the film up to a light box." This solution allows specialists to zoom in and out on a computer screen to get different views, or immediately transmit x-rays to specialists located elsewhere. It has also allowed us to reduce our storage space for x-rays by 95 percent!

A traditional county responsibility is to keep land records. We have 325,000 parcels in Hennepin. If you have ever purchased a house and watched the tortured process of closing, you know that these records are kept with voluminous papers and documents for mortgages and liens and ownership transfers. Hennepin’s solution is to take that paper and electronically scan it. We make it available to title insurance companies who can dial into our system electronically. We have freed up staff for more productive activities, cut down on paper, and actually created a profit center while providing better service.

Last year, our suburban Hennepin County library system mailed 2,000 notices every day. Hennepin’s solution is an automated telephone notification system that has reduced the number of mail notices from 2,000 per day to 2,000 per month.

Only 75 percent of the children living in Hennepin County are properly immunized against disease. The number is less than 45 percent in Minneapolis.

There are many reasons: people move or for other reasons change health care providers; complexity of the health care system and immunizations schedules; and no computerized information database.

Hennepin’s solution is to arrange a centralized voluntary community immunization registry called "ImmuLink." Providers can query a patient’s immunization history by voice, fax, or directly online from a computer with a modem. Over 25 clinics and health plans are already participating, covering more than 44,000 children. ImmuLink is a simple, inexpensive use of technology that reduces expensive inefficiencies in delivering health care . . . and protects children.

One of our greatest challenges is to enable our highly trained, thoughtful and competent employees whose primary work is "in the field" to spend their time "in the field." Hennepin’s solution is to enable remote access by county employees to files and databases through laptop computers. It is much better to pay social workers and other field workers to do the jobs for which they were hired, instead of paying them to drive back and forth to County offices.

We have many Hennepin employees who are well known in their fields in this state, and nationally, and even internationally, for their professional knowledge and prescience -- the ability to look into the future. In this entire area of technology, an area that will allow us to serve people better while reducing costs if we do it right, I want to recognize and thank Hennepin’s Chief Information Officer who has helped us to use these new technologies as a solution-- Bob Hanson.

Now, with Hennepin having moved faster than almost any other county to digital technology and the Internet, there are some problems. The biggest is the year 2000 or Y2K problem. The big question is what will happen at 12:01 a.m. in the year 2000, just 616 days from now, when so many computer programs could well start to close down because they will read the year as 1900 instead of 2000.

Here is Hennepin’s solution. First, we are spending $6.3 million to rewrite computer codes and fix the year 2000 problems in "embedded" applications such as elevators, heating and air conditioning and electrical systems.

Second, we are testing. As the tax collector for all 47 municipalities and other taxing agencies, we know Hennepin’s system will work because it is 100 percent remedied, completed, and certified. Last month, we took this system to an off-site testing facility in Chicago, to do a payroll and tax collection run in real time. The system worked.

Third, while we think that all of our internal systems will be year 2000 compliant, we are still concerned about the private businesses, government agencies, and not-for-profit vendors with whom we deal. What happens if their systems may crash on us? The question we keep asking them is, "how will you make it work when it doesn’t work?" And we are insisting that they upgrade their systems in all of our contracts.

Let me conclude by summarizing what I mean by "vision for the future, solutions for today."

Hennepin will create conditions to bring out the best – the full potential – of everyone in our county.

We will continue to build a world class community, with an abundance of opportunity and high value-added jobs that support households.

Everyone who is willing to work will share in our prosperity.

Everyone in our community will feel safe . . . and be safe . . . all the time.

Hennepin will continue to be a place where people choose to live, to raise families, to work, to start and grow productive businesses.

Last year I set forth this simple standard for measuring the success of our vision.

If in the future, people in Hennepin County look back and say, "you know mom and dad, grandma and grandpa, they did OK. They solved the daily problems of their time, used the power of government pretty wisely, and helped folks who needed it. They had 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 our children and grandchildren say in the future, then our work and our vision will have succeeded.