1999 State of the County Address

Hennepin County Board Chair Randy Johnson

"Achieving World Class"
Normandale Community College, Bloomington
April 22, 1999


Thank you, Dr. Horak, for hosting us today.

We are very pleased to be at Normandale Community College, an institution that has served our community and met the needs of students of all ages for the past 31 years.

Hennepin is proud of our affiliation with Normandale Community College ... including international trade activities, workfare and workforce development programs, and a friendly, convenient location for many of our conferences and programs.

Normandale and other community colleges are educating a growing pool of quality workers who have the skills that command good wages in today's new global economy.

The Tragedy in Colorado, and Hennepin’s Approach and Resources

As I look at this audience with so many young people and students, it has to remind me ... and all of us ... of how we have all watched in horror as news reports detail what happened in Littleton, Colorado, on Tuesday. We offer our thoughts and prayers to the families and the people of that community.

It is too early to have clear answers about what happened leading up to Tuesday's events in Colorado. But some questions that are in all of our minds include:

  • Why didn't people recognize sooner what was happening in the behavior of the children who committed this act?
  • What can teachers and administrators and parents do when they see signs of trouble in young people?

I would like to talk a little about what Hennepin County has to offer parents and teachers in this critical area.

The Hennepin Children's Mental Health Collaborative was formed in response to an increase in violent behavior among young people. It brings school districts, private agencies, doctors, probation officers, and others together to work, as a team, to provide services to young people who have exhibited behavior that may indicate mental health needs. The collaborative is a place to turn for parents and teachers who have concerns about a young person's behavior.

If you have questions or concerns about someone you know - a member of your family, your child's classmate, or if you want to ensure that your child's school is aware of the help that is out there - we have with us today Dr. Harvey Linder, Hennepin County's chief clinical psychologist. He will be available in the front of the auditorium after today's event to answer your questions. He has information about resources in Hennepin County, including a Parent's Handbook - that will provide some answers.

In Hennepin County, social workers, county attorneys, school districts and local police departments work together to identify and help young people who skip school, show obsessions with violence and hate, have signs of depression, and other behavior problems.

We are committed to intervening and reacting quickly to problems.

The County Attorney's Office has a very successful program that works with delinquents under the age of 10.

They have been able to identify repeated behavior in these very young children that can be corrected, and divert some children from a life of trouble.

Finally, the U.S. Department of Justice recently recognized Hennepin for our promising strategy to reduce juvenile gun violence. "The Gun Program" works with children in our county who have been in trouble with the law - and who have been using or carrying a gun. The program makes very clear to children the risks, dangers and consequences of gun use.

When we see something like what happened in Colorado, we want to look for a simple, easy solution ... but there isn't one. There are no guarantees. It is often difficult to distinguish between misguided bravado and serious threats. I believe that in Hennepin we are using community resources effectively to try to identify these potential problems early and intervene swiftly.

Volunteer Month and National County Government Week

This is National Volunteer Month. In Hennepin, 3,000 people put in more than 240,000 hours last year as volunteers for county programs, including social services, probation, corrections and the Medical Center. It is one of the largest government sponsored volunteer programs in the nation.

This is also National County Government Week, an appropriate time to examine Hennepin County government ... what we do today ... and what we should be planning for the future.

Hennepin Today

First, a little history. As some of you know, I am an amateur Minnesota history buff.

The Territorial Legislature was established in Hennepin in 1852 ... six years before Minnesota became a state. If we look back at the newspapers of the day, we would see that Territorial Legislators were concerned about inadequate public education ... a lousy transportation system ... and a governor who carried a gun.

I guess, in Minnesota, some things don't change!

But a lot has changed in Hennepin County in the past 147 years. Hennepin was largely agricultural until after the Second World War when agricultural jobs moved to the city and our population spread outward. All the land around us at Normandale today was actively farmed until the mid 1960's.

Today, Hennepin County is by far the largest of Minnesota's 87 counties ... with nearly 1.1 million people ... that is about half of the Twin Cities metropolitan area's population, and about one quarter of the state's total population. Hennepin is the 15th most populous of the nation's 3,100 counties ... and larger than 12 states.

Like all Minnesota counties, Hennepin is an arm of the state government ... carrying out programs mandated by the state and federal governments and providing a very wide variety of public services. Hennepin provides many services … including health and social services ... law enforcement ... public safety ... courts and corrections ... licensing ... property tax and record services ... transportation ... suburban libraries ... and solid waste management, and snow plowing.

State of Hennepin County

What is the state of Hennepin County today? In a word, "good." In two words, "very good."

Overall, the quality of life here is among the best in the nation - our economy is thriving; unemployment is so low that we have the "luxury" of an acute labor shortage; our streets are becoming safer.

Having served as president and an officer of the National Association of Counties, I have had the unique opportunity during the past five years to visit and compare Hennepin to counties in more than 40 states.

Overall, I found no county government as stable, as thriving, and as innovative as Hennepin. Most of the statistics from our 1998 Community Indicators Report with The United Way are also positive.

  • Per capita income increased 16 percent over the last six years.
  • Unemployment is at an all-time low - 1.9 percent in 1998.
  • Within Hennepin County, nearly 4,000 building permits are issued each year for new residential housing.
  • The number of welfare cash-assistance cases has decreased by 5,000 since 1994.
  • Thanks to our successful recycling programs and waste-to-energy facilities, only 30 percent of our waste goes to landfills.

But Hennepin County is not Camelot. There are still far too many people who are not sharing in the economic prosperity and educational opportunities of our community.

  • Use of family shelters has increased 87 percent since 1992.
  • Currently, there are about 3,000 families on the waiting list for sliding-fee scale childcare assistance.
  • Reports of child abuse and neglect continue to increase.

Those are the basics of Hennepin County. Before going on to some of the specific issues facing Hennepin in the future, let’s hear from the other elected officials of Hennepin County.


As you can see, elected officials in Hennepin County have a wide range of interests, personalities, and perspectives. But we try to work together to make Hennepin County a "world class" place to work and to live. Also, because they covered so much territory, I can make this the shortest State-of-the-County speech ever!

"Hennepin County … Achieving World Class"

Now, let me be clear, achieving "world class" does not mean bigger government...or a county that is always looking for more ways to extract money from some people to transfer to others.

First of all, "world class" means that what we decide through the elective process that the county should do, we do well ... so well, it is "world class. "Our task is to make sure Hennepin is the best place for businesses to operate and for people to work and live. In some areas we are already remarkably successful.

Let’s see more about Hennepin’s services.


The Challenges Ahead

Hennepin is one of only 12 of 3,100 counties in the nation with a Triple-A credit rating - the highest possible - from all three national rating agencies. Hennepin has had the top rating for 24 straight years. This reflects our strong economy and growing property tax base ... and also the county's sound financial management ... and it translates into substantial savings for taxpayers when Hennepin sells bonds for needed capital projects.


Healthcare has become the single largest program in Hennepin's budget, and the healthcare we provide through the Hennepin County Medical Center is "world class". We are proud that the Hennepin County Medical Center is one of the premier teaching hospitals in the nation ... and the state’s first Level One Trauma Center. "U.S. News & World Report" annual study recently selected HCMC as one of the nation's top hospitals.

"Self Magazine" ranked HCMC as one of the ten best hospitals in the country in which to have a baby.

HCMC received the American Hospital Association's prestigious NOVA award - one of only five such awards in the nation - for the Glenwood-Lyndale Community Clinic Collaboration ... the award specifically cited HCMC's commitment to neighborhoods by "stepping outside the usual bounds with broader visions of what it means to provide quality healthcare."

HCMC and its staff have received many other awards recognizing its high quality care and low mortality rates.

HCMC also teaches 250 residents each year. There are excellent medical teaching programs at the University of Minnesota and Mayo Health System, but HCMC is the largest teaching hospital in our area, training more than half of Minnesota's practicing physicians.

Looking to the future, it is important that the Minnesota Legislature recognizes the need to establish an endowment fund from the tobacco settlement revenues to fund research and education - and that HCMC be included as a partner in using those funds wisely.

What are the prospects for the future of our world class Medical Center? While there are many exciting technological advancements ahead in medical care, I want to focus on the future financial viability of HCMC.

HCMC is one of the premier, quality, teaching and research hospitals in the nation - world class - but healthcare economics are changing rapidly - and almost all of those changes are negative for us.

Traditionally, HCMC has been one of the most soundly financed public hospitals in the nation, requiring one of the smallest property tax subsidies. But now we are seeing the real local consequences of decisions in Washington, D.C. to cut back on federal funding for Medicare. For example, HCMC reimbursements will be reduced by $21 million over the next three years as a result of the 1997 Balanced Budget Act - and two-thirds of that reduction is a direct result of federal decisions to reduce medical education funding.

At the state level, medical financing is hurting HCMC too. One of the reasons that the state is awash in surpluses is that Minnesota has ignored increased medical costs for a decade - and shifted costs to property taxpayers in counties like Hennepin.

Uncompensated care that Hennepin is mandated to provide at HCMC reached $31 million dollars last year, and has been increasing at the rate of nearly 15 percent per year.

Unless the state legislature adopts our recommendations to require other hospitals to accept their fair share of indigent cases in order to keep their nonprofit, tax-exempt status; and unless other Minnesota counties are required to pay for the costs of their indigent residents at HCMC, I will reluctantly introduce a resolution directing HCMC staff to refuse care to non-Hennepin residents except for acute emergencies.

In another area, HCMC and Regions Hospital in Ramsey County operate a joint Poison Control Center. Each dollar spent on the Poison Center saves $6.50 in medical spending by eliminating the need for emergency department care. The State of Minnesota has not increased Poison Center funding for ten years.

Last year, the Center received 53,000 calls and nearly 60 percent were from outside Hennepin and Ramsey Counties. It is possible Regions Hospital will drop this program. If so, and if the state fails to fund a fair share of the costs, we will be forced to limit Poison Control Center calls to Hennepin County, or close the center altogether. It's not exactly "world class" thinking for the Legislature to force such actions and raise total healthcare costs as well. The free ride at HCMC for residents of other counties will end this year unless the State Legislature acts.

There is another health policy issue that I want to address ... that is tobacco.

Last year, I asked our County Attorney's Office to advise the County Board of our best legal strategy in filing suit against the tobacco companies to recover millions of dollars of property tax money that Hennepin taxpayers have been forced to spend over the years to deal with tobacco-induced illnesses. Much has changed since then.

The State of Minnesota's lawsuit against the big tobacco companies resulted in a $6.5 billion settlement last year. Hennepin County taxpayers also must be compensated for tobacco-related medical expenditures and other actions of the tobacco companies.

The legal issues are complicated. The national tobacco settlement may effectively preclude local governments in 46 other states from separate recovery of their costs. The Minnesota settlement is different - and it now appears that Minnesota may be one state where a local government that has had substantial healthcare costs can still recover in court.

County Attorney Amy Klobuchar and her staff have been diligent in developing our best strategy ... and have met at length with Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner. The commissioners will be briefed in depth on April 27. I expect that the Board will soon join with our colleagues in Ramsey County to sue jointly through using outside counsel.

If so, I expect the litigation to be contentious, and protracted, based on the Big Tobacco Companies track record of ... recalcitrance. But I expect the settlement or verdict to be substantial and just - and in favor of Hennepin County taxpayers.

On another tobacco issue, nicotine patches to help smokers quit are available at no charge as a result of the donation of 1.5 million patches to the Minnesota Partnership for Action Against Tobacco.

At our first education and direct distribution meeting at the Hennepin County Government, over 350 people attended - the only problem - our auditorium seated only 145. We will continue to distribute the patches until they are gone. Check the yellow sheet (available at the doors) for dates, times and places.

The World Class Library of the Future

Hennepin County's suburban library system ranks as one of the five best in the nation according to "American Libraries" magazine. That's world class.

But what will the world-class library of the future look like?

I expect a transition period where we will still see books on shelves in bricks and mortar buildings, but the digital revolution and the Internet will fundamentally alter the library's business.

Home computers soon will be as common as television sets.

As copyright laws evolve to reflect the realities of digital duplication, it will be faster and actually less costly to download a book and print it out in the familiar bound paper book format on a home computer.

If you agree to have various advertisements appear on the screen - much like "free television" commercials today, some companies will lease you a home computer for free.

As home computers become faster, people will routinely browse more books and other material on related subjects on a web site than any bricks and mortar library could ever physically stock - something you already can do today by clicking to sites such as amazon.com.

As all this happens faster and faster, as access has less and less to do with physical location or place, we need to re-define the "library", to re-think how we spend tax money, and to re-engineer how information resources should be provided by public libraries in a world-class community.

On August 10, the Library Board will brief Hennepin commissioners on the strategic changes the library will make to deliver library service in the digital era.

Investments in Technology: Y2K

Technology is an obvious priority at Hennepin County. We have moved faster than almost any other county in the nation to implement digital technology and use the Internet.

Much of what we do - sending out property tax statements and collecting taxes, booking offenders in the jail, recording court sentences, and monitoring county contracts - is contingent on properly functioning computers.

And yes, we are dealing with the Y2K problem.

The county first started preparing for Y2K in 1995, and county staff to date has put in about 85,000 hours to ensure that Hennepin's 120 "mission critical" systems are prepared. The price tag for work so far is more than $6 million.

Updating county systems is now 90 percent tested and complete.

Last year Hennepin co-sponsored with The City of Plymouth a day-long meeting where cities, utilities, community organizations such as the Red Cross, and emergency preparedness officials shared information on how to deal with even the most negative possible consequences of Y2K problems. We will continue to prepare and plan, working with the agencies with whom the county contracts for business.

Investment in Technology: Internet

Another example of Hennepin's leadership in the digital revolution is our web page. Hennepin was one of the first local governments in the world with a web site. Our web page already provides an enormous amount of information about Hennepin's programs and services.

For instance, Hennepin's web site includes a search tool for information on nearly every parcel of property in the county. Last month there were 149,000 searches to find current property values, recent sales, or how much property taxes are going to be next year.

One practical use has been for people who need duplicate tax statements for the state rebate. And last year Hennepin's web site received more than 100,000 "hits" to get necessary receipts - and that saves a lot of money over manual processing!

Similarly, the county's voter registration and election information site provides citizens with detailed information about upcoming elections, where to vote and absentee voting.

For next year's general elections, we plan to provide complete election results 30 minutes after the polls close.

In 1998, Hennepin placed more children in adoption than were placed with us. The first time in many years. One reason is the 30 placements that were the direct result of information in Hennepin's web site. Interested? Search "services" or "adoption" in our web site (www.co.hennepin.mn.us).

But that is just the beginning. The Internet and web should be the means by which most people transact most routine business with government. The State Legislature must reform Minnesota's antiquated deputy registrar system that requires people to waste time to physically travel to offices - and even county service centers - and then too often stand in line to complete very routine transactions such as renewing license plates. Residents who desire to save time and money should be allowed and encouraged to complete these transactions on the web.

If Minnesota changes the law properly, Hennepin will be ready within 30 days to handle these transactions on the web.

Demise of the Sales Tax?

The exciting possibilities of the Internet also raise some public policy issues that have received little attention from most elected officials or the news media. While a lot of state legislators are trying to outdo each other right now in "rebating" taxes to Minnesotans, they are looking at the future through a rear-view mirror. One of the reasons the state has "surpluses" is that our booming economy has enabled consumers to buy lots of "stuff" - and pay the state's 6.5 percent sales tax on that "stuff".

But the amount of Minnesota's sales tax collections - now 31 percent of all state revenue - will drop precipitously as more Minnesotans buy retail goods from non-Minnesota Internet retailers who cannot be required to collect Minnesota sales tax.

The powerful Internet merchants almost succeeded last year in duping Congress with the idea of a "tax-free Internet" and declaring them a special elite class of merchants who by federal law could never be required to collect state sales taxes. They wanted a government-conferred competitive advantage over the main street merchants.

Now, the idea of a "tax-free Internet" sounds great, but it is a seductively simplistic slogan. It may well be that most sales over the Internet will be undetectable, therefore untaxable. But we should make that decision as part of a reasoned policy process, not in a stampede started by merchants who want to make their fortune by weaving tales that the Internet is so mystical that the laws that apply to other merchants should not apply to them.

I predict this will become the most important tax issue facing Minnesota and local governments in the next four years as sales-tax revenue drops. It will likely force draconian cuts in state and local services, or a dramatic increase in income and property taxes - the only other significant sources of government revenue.

While Hennepin does not levy a separate sales tax, we receive money collected by the state to help pay the costs of state mandated programs. Minnesota should begin planning now for an era of sharply reduced sales tax collections.

Safe Streets

Public safety is "Job One" for government. Hennepin County has many public safety responsibilities. Our first responsibility now is to build the additional jail beds we need to keep accused 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.

The jail we need will be completed in June 2001.

Now, I hesitate to call a jail "world class" because it conjures up images of something plush and relaxing like a resort or a cruise. And let’s remember Sheriff Pat McGowan is hardly Captain Steuben of the Love Boat! The new jail will be world class in its efficiency in enabling law enforcement to keep people off the streets when they do not belong there.

As I said earlier, the first part of "achieving world class" is doing what we are required to do as a local government so well, better than almost anyone else, that we perform at world class levels.

But there is more.

Becoming world class means joining the world class. Success in the global economy comes from strong relationships, networks that link to global markets, and networks that build collective local strength.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter spoke to the Greater Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce a year ago about these concepts ... she also wrote a book titled "WORLD CLASS ... THRIVING LOCALLY IN THE GLOBAL ECONOMY." And I think we should liberally "appropriate" some of her ideas.

To thrive in the new economy, we must become a center of globally relevant skills.

Usually, when we think of economic development, we think of "buildings" rather than "skills."

But I think the time has passed when government subsidies should go to build more and bigger retail stores … especially around here when it is getting hard to leave a retail check register without getting a pitch to fill out an employment application!

Instead, we need to put our limited public subsidies into developing skills of people who agree to stay in this "place," and into industry clusters that will make this "place" a center for industry and innovation.

We arranged this State of the County presentation here at Normandale for the specific purpose of highlighting how our community and technical college system is changing to educate and train people for real jobs in the new global economy.

Let's face it ... our community and technical college system in Minnesota probably deserves some of the past criticism for having done an excellent job of training people well … for jobs in fading industries.

But here is just one example of change.

Normandale has teamed with high-tech companies like Seagate Technology, VTC, Cypress Semi-Conductor and Honeywell to train the high vacuum technology technicians needed to run and maintain the expensive equipment used to make semi-conductors and other electronic components.

Normandale adapted its applied engineering curriculum, and the resulting consortium, with corporate support and funding through a state job skills program, created additional courses in vacuum technology.

Today, Normandale's Applied Science Degree is one of the few in the country devoted to semi-conductor manufacturing.

A state of the art teaching lab is located at Seagate's facility in Bloomington.

This is indeed a public-private partnership that makes sense today.

We need to recognize President Horak and his staff for their initiative – their world class leadership – in making this partnership happen.

The challenge for the future at Normandale, for Hennepin, and for our region, is to recognize that building the best computer chips in the world will someday - perhaps soon - become the equivalent of building the best buggy whips in the world.

The new communications architecture will be based on broad bandwidth rather than microchips because bandwidth is a far superior substitute for computer power, memory and switching.

How soon our community and technical colleges move to the technologies of fiber optics, wireless, and cable modems all connected to the Internet will in large part determine whether Hennepin County and our region will achieve and maintain "world class."

I am confident that Normandale is on the right track to take advantage of the new technologies.

International Roundtable

Responding to quiet and sometimes whispered concerns that Hennepin and our region were slipping quickly as a globally competitive region, last year I asked Vance Opperman to chair an international roundtable to assess the situation.

(By the way, if any thing I said earlier about the Minnesota Territorial Legislature was inaccurate, talk to Vance – I stole the story from him!)

Vance organized a group of business, civic and academic leaders and, with the help of the Grant Thornton Consultancy, interviewed a broad range of people from labor, large and small business, nonprofit groups - and others.

The conclusion they presented at a breakfast meeting last month was: "Yes, indeed, we had become complacent and were losing our place in the new global economy; ... we were not building on the strengths of the university of Minnesota and our community college system; ... there was an absence of even simple communication that could enable smaller businesses to take advantage of the expertise of larger international firms that are willing to share experiences and provide advice ... and there is a need for an organization - with very minimal government assistance - to coordinate our region's efforts to be globally competitive."

Ramsey County Board Chair Rafael Ortega has pledged support for this regional effort.

Ted Mondale, the newly appointed Chair of the Metropolitan Council, understands these issues implicitly. I have confidence in his leadership to move forward the global agenda we need for our region.

By the way, it sure helps that we have the support of Governor Ventura and his administration on this one!


Hennepin County is a pretty good place to work and to live today.

People who lived here before us made wise decisions, recognized the opportunities of their time, and helped build, and I stress, build, a desirable community where people choose to work and to live.

Otherwise, this would be another drab, gray, cold, small place on the prairie.

It is up to those of us who care about this "place", those of us who believe it is a special "place" to work and raise our families, to make sure that this "place" survives and thrives in the future.

We need to seize the opportunities of technology, just as those before us seized the opportunities of building on a new continent.

We too will make wise decisions, so that the "place" we leave for our children and grandchildren will indeed be "world class."