2000 State of the County Address

Hennepin County Board Chair Randy Johnson

Harvest Preparatory School, Minneapolis
April 5, 2000


For the past seven years, the chair of the Hennepin County Board has delivered this state of the county message. It's good to see again friends from labor, business, education, community groups, and faith organizations, as well as other government leaders.

Thank you, Eric and Ella, for hosting us. We are very pleased to be at Harvest Preparatory Charter School this afternoon. This is a wonderful example of planting the seeds of success in Hennepin County.

What an inspiring video! Harvest Prep is built on three basic principles: strong basic-skills instruction... knowledge and pride in African culture and heritage... and the in-depth involvement of parents.

Eric and Ella Mahmoud convey a genuine passion for their vision of preparing youngsters to create their own lives.

Since its inception in 1992, Harvest Prep has shown that young people... wherever they have come from... can succeed. Government sometimes needs to lend a hand in people's lives... but this school showcases the importance of self-reliance and self-sufficiency.

In the video we also saw Synergy Residential Academy, which is under construction just to the north of this campus. It will open this fall with 30 students in grades four through six.

Synergy is responding to a community need... one that often involves Hennepin County. Too many children are in the county's out-of-home placement system because they are abused or neglected... or they are caught up in the juvenile justice system. The cost is astronomical -- 70 million dollars a year. That's the dollar cost. The cost to young lives is devastating.

Synergy... which will plant the seeds of hope for such children... is a shining example of what can happen when the community is engaged. We applaud the efforts of Synergy. Thank you, Eric and Ella, for your insight, your vision, and your leadership.

As I look at the basketball hoops and backboards in this gymnasium, I am reminded of the last time I was on a basketball court in North Minneapolis. It was when I played for the South High Tigers in the 1960s, and the last game I played was against North High. I do remember a few things about that game. I was the shortest player on the court... scored no points… made no rebounds… and missed five free throws... and we lost by about 20 points. After the game the coach strongly suggested I try another sport that might be better for somebody my size. He specifically recommended wrestling, but I switched to swimming instead. Bad decision on my part... I didn’t realize that wrestling was going to become the preferred career path to being Governor of Minnesota!

In a little while you are going to see another video featuring my colleagues... the commissioners from Hennepin's six other districts, the county sheriff, the county attorney and the chief judge-- all elected leaders -- and several Harvest Prep students. All will share their ideas and hopes for tomorrow as they place items in a time capsule to be left here at Harvest Prep and opened at a future date.

State of the County… By the Numbers

What is the state of Hennepin County today?

By almost any traditional, standard statistical measurement, Hennepin County in the year 2000 is in great shape!

Just listen to these numbers:

Per capita income is up by 4.8%.

Just five years ago, our low unemployment rate of 1.9% was unimaginable. Serious crime is down by 12%, the lowest level in almost 25 years. Hennepin is financially sound, with a triple-A credit rating. Only 12 of 3,100 counties in the nation have that rating -- the highest possible -- from all three national rating agencies. In fact, we've attained this top rating for 25 straight years . . . reflecting our strong economy, growing property-tax base and solid financial management. The triple-A rating is more than a good report card on our financial health... it translates into substantial savings for taxpayers when Hennepin sells bonds for needed capital projects. Once again, this year's county budget held down property-tax rates below inflation. We trimmed the county workforce by nearly 85 positions... by doing business more efficiently.

Recruiting Quality Management

We continued the tradition of stable, quality leadership at the top of our organization by appointing our acting administrator, Sandy Vargas, as Hennepin's fifth administrator since this form of government was adopted nearly 40 years ago.

Also, we successfully raided talent from the Metropolitan Council, as Sandy appointed former Met Council Associate Regional Administrator Richard Johnson as the county's deputy administrator.

Implementing Digital Technology

And, there is more good news.

Hennepin has moved faster than almost any other county in the nation to implement computer and digital technology. Much of what we do -- sending out property-tax statements, collecting taxes, booking offenders in the jail, recording court sentences, and monitoring county contracts -- depends on computers.

We survived Y2K. In fact, we benefited by using the potential problem to replace some systems and applications and achieving efficiencies earlier than expected.

Since Y2K turned out to be such a yawn, some people think it was no big deal. But it was a big deal for Hennepin -- where we have life-critical responsibilities in so many areas.

The people who write code, manage systems, and work on our applications around the clock deserve special praise. Bob Hanson and his IT group put in 125,000 hours over the last five years to be ready in case anything went wrong. Thank you again, Bob, ...to you and your entire staff... for a job done so well!

A common thread that runs through the operations of more and more county departments is digital access to services and information, often using the Internet.

Hennepin County was one of the first local governments in the nation with its own website. One interactive tool enables people to search for information on nearly every parcel of property in the county. And it must be popular... last year, the site received more than one million hits!

Hennepin's voter-registration and election-information site provides citizens with detailed information about upcoming elections, where to vote and absentee ballots.

For Election Day itself, we are introducing new election equipment for voters. That means much faster election-night returns on Hennepin's website. Results will be transmitted electronically from each precinct to the county within minutes after the final vote is cast. Our goal is to make complete Hennepin election results available within one hour after the polls close.

(Sorry, Commissioner McLaughlin, there won’t be any long election night parties this year … regardless of who wins the elections!)

We are completing automation of the County Recorder's Office to provide full electronic access to recorded documents.

We are moving quickly to offer payment alternatives to the taxpayers of Hennepin County... such as automated payment of property taxes through authorized bank account debits. And we are looking into accepting credit cards for payment of property taxes, recording fees and license fees.

The county surveyor is completing a second-generation electronic base map that will support mapping applications throughout the county. It will overlay electronic aerial photographs onto electronic maps, substantially improving efficiencies.

This year Hennepin became one of the nation's first local governments to advertise almost all bidding opportunities over our own website and on WorkList.com, a locally produced commercial website that lists opportunities from all over the country. We expect this to encourage competition and further reduce costs.

Finally, in the health-care field, a Community Health Department computerized system integrates case management records, case plans, billing and intake to coordinate home services for the elderly and disabled. The system was spotlighted earlier this year on Microsoft's home page.

These electronic networks and applications are among the early seeds we have planted as we move quickly to the day when most people use the Internet and the World Wide Web to conduct routine business, including transactions with Hennepin County government.

Expanding Suburban Libraries

We celebrated the grand re-opening of the Ridgedale Library in October... the most advanced high-touch, high-tech library in the Midwest... and perhaps the nation. It has more than 100 computer workstations.

Hennepin's suburban library system ranks as one of the five best in the U.S., according to American Librarian magazine. Last year saw more than one million visits to the library's website, which was recognized as Web Page of the Month by LibrarySpot.com.

And we got into the supermarket business when Hennepin County purchased the Lund's grocery store in Eden Prairie. Well, not really. We purchased the building to replace a heavily used library facility in that community. Where you once squeezed the tomatoes, soon you can browse the web or a book.

Hennepin County can hardly keep up with our citizens' voracious appetite for library materials and services. We are moving ahead to remodel and expand the Brookdale Regional Library --- which Commissioner Opat and just about every elected official in northwestern Hennepin county has assured me will result in patronage that exceeds either Ridgedale or Southdale!


Tobacco use is a major health problem. And today is Kick Butts Day in Minnesota!

During the past year Hennepin Commissioners carefully considered whether to initiate litigation against the tobacco companies to recover tobacco-related health care expenditures at the Hennepin County Medical Center and other health care facilities we fund.

We decided to defer litigation for now, in view of the trend of such litigation elsewhere. However, we continue to monitor the situation. County Attorney Amy Klobuchar and her staff have provided us with very competent and thoughtful advice in dealing with this complex issue.

Planting seeds again, Hennepin County and our Community Health Department continue to lead the state in tobacco prevention efforts. The state will soon launch an innovative Minnesota tobacco prevention campaign... the Target Market campaign... and we will dedicate our resources to intensifying the impact of these messages on young people.

Keep LRT on Track

Light rail transit --- 'LRT' --- seems to have become more controversial lately. There is not unanimous agreement on our Board. Commissioner Steele and I have agreed to disagree on this issue.

I have not supported most of the LRT plans that have surfaced over the years, but I support the Hiawatha Corridor plan. Frankly, if it were solely up to me, some engineering and vendor decisions would have been made differently. But the State Legislature decided in 1998 to assign this responsibility to the Minnesota Department of Transportation rather than to counties.

We cannot pave our way out of metropolitan transportation problems. We should not pretend that something like the "right to drive" alone is a viable option here. There is a lot of bafflegab about "cost-benefit" analysis for LRT, but we have seen very little willingness among light rail critics to put highway and bridge construction in Greater Minnesota through the same analysis.

When some legislators say the Hiawatha Corridor LRT plan needs more study, well, at a certain point we have to put an end to Minnesota's penchant for paralysis by analysis.

Most of you know I grew up in South Minneapolis a few blocks from Governor Jesse Ventura. We both remember when some of our friends at Sanford Junior High School told us their families had to move as soon as school was out for the summer so their homes could be razed for the new Hiawatha freeway.

Well, that was back in 1962... before many of the legislators asking for still more study of the project were born!

LRT does not divert Minnesota state highway money away from Greater Minnesota. In fact, only 25 cents of every dollar of state gas tax paid in the metropolitan area is spent here. The rest is spent in Greater Minnesota. It is time to let the locally elected officials in the metropolitan area decide how the money for transportation that is raised here should be spent.

And the best way to begin building the commuter rail lines to Mankato, St. Cloud and Rochester --- for those Hiawatha LRT critics who support those commuter lines --- is to get the Hiawatha Corridor up and operating as our first rail success story.

Public opinion surveys have been very consistent over the last 10 years -- despite the barrage of recent attacks on LRT -- a majority of Minnesotans and an even larger percentage of people in the metropolitan area support light rail.

Hennepin's LRT plan connects downtown Minneapolis, the University of Minnesota, the Veterans Administration Hospital, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, and the Mall of America. It moves people where they want to go. It already has stimulated economic development.

We need to keep light rail on track!

Safe, Warm and Decent Housing

Hennepin has been responsible for housing people with special needs and we have taken responsibility for emergency, temporary shelter. General housing is a relatively new issue for the county.

Contrary to the beliefs of many, Hennepin County --- even though we are by far the largest local government in Minnesota --- has only the powers explicitly authorized by the State Legislature. Our authority in housing is strictly limited by state statute.

While there probably always has been a shortage of housing at rates people wanted to pay, today there is an acute shortage of housing available at rates that lower-income people can be reasonably expected to pay.

Hennepin has earmarked $2 million in an Affordable Housing Incentive Fund. The McKnight Foundation has offered another $1 million.

In the short term, I agree with the Citizens League and those housing advocates who say that some of the housing shortage could most quickly be alleviated by amending city ordinances to allow additional housing options, such as accessory apartments, rooming houses, and quality manufactured homes.

In the long term, restoring federal tax incentives for affordable housing -- as supported unanimously by the County Board -- is one of the most promising public policy alternatives.

Meanwhile, we will see how best to work with the private sector and all others to leverage the limited... very limited... money available in the Affordable Housing Incentive Fund to deal with this problem.

As Commissioner Dorfman has said, especially in a cold weather climate like ours, everyone should have a safe, warm, and decent place to live.

Reforming Welfare

By most measurements so far, Minnesota's welfare reform efforts have been successful. Six years ago, 20,500 families were on the old AFDC Program. The rolls have been reduced by nearly one-third-- to fewer than 14,000 families.

While the decline in numbers has been larger in some other states, the Minnesota approach has been to train able-bodied people so they can hold jobs that pay household supporting wages. Time will tell whether that is a better approach than sending recipients out to take the first job that comes along. In the meantime, we are just three years away from the date when up to 5,000 Hennepin clients may reach the federally mandated time limit for benefits.

A major challenge for Hennepin County and the State of Minnesota is to continue encouraging all able-bodied recipients to achieve self-sufficiency before their time limits run out.

African-American Men’s Project

I also want to mention the African-American Men's Project, which was recently initiated by Commissioner Mark Stenglein. The focus is the nearly 8,500 African-American men ages 19 to 29 living in Hennepin County . . . many of whom have not enjoyed the benefits of the booming economy. The project is analyzing the men's education levels, employment histories, dealings with the criminal justice system, housing and family backgrounds. This sensitive project also is looking at the positives . . . with recommendations due this summer.

Health Care and the Hennepin County Medical Center

Health care has become the single largest program in Hennepin's budget, and Commissioner Mary Tambornino chairs our Board’s Health Committee.

We are very proud of our world-class hospital, Hennepin County Medical Center. It is one of the premier teaching and research hospitals in the nation . . . and the first Level One Trauma Center in the state.

Only two hospitals in Minnesota made U.S. News & World Report's annual listing of best hospitals in the nation last year: the Mayo Clinic . . . "that obscure hospital in Rochester," as HCMC Administrator Jeff Spartz calls it... and Hennepin County Medical Center.

In January, Minneapolis St. Paul magazine published its annual survey of registered physicians and nurses from the Twin Cities area, asking which specialists they would go to if they or their loved ones became ill. Thirty-one physicians from HCMC were named "Top Docs" in 26 specialty areas.

In addition, HCMC has maintained its position as a statewide medical resource with more than half of all physicians practicing in Minnesota having received some or all of their training at the Medical Center.

HCMC also has received honors for its role in the collaboration that resulted in the Glenwood-Lyndale Community Clinic, which is located close to us here. An award given by SmithKline Beecham, the global health care company, states, "Hennepin County's Glenwood-Lyndale Community Clinic demonstrates the types of community partnerships that can provide high-quality, readily accessible health care in inner-city neighborhoods."

Another highlight, another real "seed of success" in the health care field, is the Community Health Department's award-winning BabyTracks program. The program enrolls newborns living in certain zip codes and works to make sure those infants are properly immunized. So far we have seen immunization rates for these children increase from 45 percent to 94 percent.

But there are also some major financial challenges for health care Hennepin County.

In last year's State of the County Address, I stressed the fact that Hennepin County Medical Center's annual uncompensated care bill had reached more than $30 million a year. Uncompensated care includes 'charity care' for persons unable to pay for health care, plus the unpaid obligations for care provided to uninsured patients.

You may have read about plans by the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service to send a number of HIV-positive refugees to Hennepin County.

Hennepin County and Minnesota are willing, more than willing, to do our share in dealing with the difficult plight of refugees. But immigration is clearly an exclusively federal responsibility. Costs should be shared nationally, not disproportionately by Hennepin County property-tax payers. This may be the only issue in the entire time I have been on the County Board where nearly every member of the State Legislature representing Hennepin County signed a letter to Congress agreeing on federal action to ensure that these costs not be imposed on Hennepin taxpayers.

Federal funding cuts have placed a serious strain on almost every safety net and teaching hospital in the nation. The federal Balanced Budget Act is expected to cost HCMC $40 million between 1997 and 2002.

Last year, I said that we would have to direct HCMC staff to refuse all but acute emergency care to non-Hennepin County residents... unless the State Legislature recognized HCMC as a statewide resource by increasing funding for uncompensated care for Minnesota residents from outside the county... or unless the law was changed to require other hospitals to accept their fair share of indigent cases in order to keep their nonprofit, tax-exempt status.

The Legislature responded by appropriating an additional $10 million to be provided to large safety-net hospitals in Minnesota... $3.9 million of which came to HCMC. But it also reduced the county's property tax levy limit by the same amount --- which left the hospital with exactly the same deficit.

HCMC responded by continuing to cut costs... and reduce services. For example, we have reduced full-time positions at HCMC, reduced selected services such as Occupational Medicine, and devoted more resources to billing, collections and enrolling uninsured persons in medical assistance programs.

We are hopeful that the Minnesota Legislature this year will provide a biennial appropriation of $20 million statewide to address the problem... with about half of that amount going to HCMC. Nevertheless, like almost every public teaching hospital in the nation, HCMC's long-term financial problems remain.

I also spoke last year of the need to close HCMC's Poison Control Center, or limit calls to county residents only, unless the state funded a fair share of the program. More than 60 percent of the calls to the poison center come from Minnesota residents outside of Hennepin County.

Working with the state Department of Health, and by cutting some services, we were able to keep the Poison Center open for another year. I am pleased that Governor Ventura's budget contains an emergency appropriation for poison control. Again, however, the problem is long-term funding.

Public Safety, Courts and the Jail

Public safety is "Job One" for government.

Hennepin County has many public-safety responsibilities... but one of the most important is providing the jail beds we need to keep accused violent criminals off the streets until they can be promptly and fairly tried... and sentenced if convicted.

The new Hennepin County Public Safety Facility, with 270 detention beds, a large booking facility and arraignment courtrooms, will open in June 2001. Sheriff Pat McGowan and his transition team will be ready to fill all those beds as soon as the jail opens!

We also recognize that adopting next year's county budget will be a more difficult task because of the additional operating costs and additional staff for this new facility.

The Juvenile Justice Center will be expanded by 36 detention beds to handle increased juvenile bookings and chronic overcrowding. The expansion will be completed next year.

In another area, the County Board recently voted to convert the former Federal Courts Building in downtown Minneapolis into a Family Justice Center that will serve as a one- stop shop for family-court matters.

The Sheriff's new crime lab opened in December. This facility greatly improves DNA and computerized ballistics analysis.

The County Attorney is aggressively prosecuting burglary, theft and forgery cases, with a focus on career offenders. Drug dealers and felons with guns also are targeted for aggressive prosecution.

Finally, District Court is experimenting with a weekly Community Court for crimes that may not be physically violent but cause decay in the community ... such as auto thefts, burglaries and prostitution. At this time, it handles only cases in the Third Precinct of Minneapolis. The county's successful work-squad program -- Sentence to Service -- is used extensively as a sanction in Community Court.

Hennepin is working with the cities and all law enforcement agencies to make our streets safer . . . while we build the public safety facilities we need to keep offenders off the streets.

The Census and Immigration: Looking Back and Looking Ahead

I hope each of you received one of these census forms --- or one of these longer forms --- in the mail in the past few weeks. And I hope you filled it out and returned it. We have been working with the Census Bureau for three years to make sure that, "In Hennepin County, everyone counts."

A complete count means that you are represented fairly in Congress, the state legislature, and even on the Hennepin County Board! It also means that we will receive a fair return of the federal and state taxes we pay in government programs that are based on population.

But the 2000 census is more than just counting. It provides us with the opportunity to reflect on what has changed in Hennepin County and Minnesota... and, at the same time, to anticipate some of the challenges and opportunities of the future.

According to the census 100 years ago, Hennepin was a dynamic, fast-growing, urban county with a large immigrant population. There were 228,000 people living in Hennepin County a century ago, compared with nearly 1.1 million today... and 203,000 of those 228,000 residents lived in the City of Minneapolis.

The 1900 census reported that Hennepin was very racially homogenous. More than 99 percent of the population was classified as white. The foreign-born population was overwhelmingly from three countries: Germany, Sweden and Norway.

Today, we know that the 2000 census will show that Hennepin's recently arrived immigrants come from many more countries. Our newcomers today include Somalis, other East Africans, West Africans, Hmong, other Southeast Asians, Hispanics, Russians, Tibetans, and others.

In fact, last year the three countries with the largest number of naturalized citizens in Minnesota were Laos, Vietnam and China with a total of more than 1400 new citizens. (By the way, last year, the number of new citizens from Germany, Sweden and Norway --- the top three countries of origin 100 years ago --- was 16). Although today's immigrants are from different parts of the world and different cultures than my great-grandparents and the other immigrants of 100 years ago, all have shared the dream of achieving success in a new land.

Some citizens today, as I am sure some citizens did 100 years ago, fear that the new arrivals will take away jobs, strain public services, and fail to become 'real' Americans by not learning English.

Instead, I believe that legal immigration "increases the economic pie." It creates new industries, new jobs, new opportunities, and it benefits the community as a whole. This is the only nation in the world that has been built by legal immigrants from every other nation in the world.

But there are challenges as Hennepin County seeks to serve newcomers who speak a wide variety of languages and come from very different cultures.

Hennepin has responded positively by changing the way we serve immigrants and refugees. We implemented a more culturally appropriate strategy that includes more interpreters, a universal office for assisting immigrants and refugees, and programs to assist our employees in better understanding cultural differences.

The current wave of immigration is smaller in absolute numbers than a century ago, but I believe it will have just as big and just as positive effect on our county. Today's immigrants are choosing to plant their own seeds of success in Hennepin County.

These are the people whose children will be Minnesota's next generation of doctors, entrepreneurs, teachers --- even lawyers or county commissioners! This has always been a community that values the work ethic --- and the people who come here... who decide to stay here --- from whatever country --- overwhelmingly share that work ethic.

Technology, Education and Seizing our Place in the Global Economy

Technology, world class education, seizing our place in the global economy --- I think you all know how strongly I believe in those keys to keeping this a sought after place to live and work. Sometimes we can best learn about what may be ahead by looking at our past.

Have you ever looked at those huge concrete grain bins along the River and around town and wondered how it was that Minnesota-- one of coldest and northernmost states-- and Hennepin County, in particular-- became the world's flour milling leader?

This was not a particularly hospitable agricultural climate... It was downright lousy...with one of the shortest growing seasons in the nation. How did Hennepin County emerge as home to the world class grain millers?

The power source of the Mississippi River was important, but many communities had rivers.

What was the rest of the answer?... technology ...innovation ... a different way of thinking… and hard work.

The development of new milling technologies in the late 1800’s made it much easier to process the spring wheat grown by farmers locally.

In the Pillsbury 'A' Mill along the Mississippi River, Charles A. Pillsbury took an entirely new approach. He introduced the world -- on a massive scale -- to the "middlings purifier" and the "gradual reduction" process. With these technologies, the spring wheat of the Midwestern plains... which contained a harder husk and more flour matter than the fall-sown wheat of more southern latitudes... became the premium grade of grain.

Minneapolis millers were thus able to produce the finest and most commercially desirable flour in the world from spring wheat grown close to home. The flour was given the superlative names 'Pillsbury's Best' and 'Gold Medal'.

By the turn of the century, Minneapolis had become the major flour-milling center of the United States... and the world... and the great Minneapolis mills led the way with world class milling technology for the next half century. Much of the rest of our region's prosperity for the next hundred years grew from those wheat seeds and the technology developed to use that product.

Times change. We are no longer the world's milling center. But in this new competitive global economy, technology offers us even greater opportunities for prosperity for all ...if we seize the opportunities.

We tend to think of ourselves as already "world class," but there are signs that our competitors in other regions of the nation and the world are moving ahead of us.

David Kidwell, dean of the Carlson School of Management at the University, sounded the most recent warning last month when he said, "Minnesota is not a major player in the new high-tech economy."

Our exports are growing more slowly than other regions. We have lost some of the high value-added industries that grew out of technology innovations that were originally developed here, such as supercomputers, genetic engineering, and Internet search engines. Our share of the nation's venture capital investments has fallen by half since 1995. We were barely mentioned in any of last year's Milkin Institute rankings of the top 25 regions in various technologies. All too often our young engineers and technology entrepreneurs decide to start or expand their businesses outside of Minnesota.

But we can turn this around. A group of leaders from business and labor, from the University, our technical schools, community and private colleges, government leaders, and other civic stalwarts, led by Vance Opperman, have joined together to provide us with some accurate measurement, some annual benchmarks, of where we really stand in the New Economy.

Next month, on May 24, the Alliance for Global Competitiveness will be making some specific and bold recommendations on rebuilding the University of Minnesota and our higher education system, establishing the research and development base we need, and making our workforce well-educated and truly competitive in the new economy.

Just as this region became the milling center of the world, we can become the world class center for technology and education.

And one excellent place to start this renaissance is by learning from the seeds of success being planted right here at Harvest Prep.

As the Harvest Prep philosophy states: "Being smart is important, but it is not enough. We want all our students to make a contribution."

Many generations of people here in Hennepin County made contributions and wise decisions in building a community where people choose to work and live.

The Harvest Prep philosophy, as Eric said in the video and as it applies to all of us, is an excellent formulation for making our community successful.

Planting the seeds of success... it is about dreams and believing in a future together... and it is up us to develop vision like what we have seen here at Harvest Prep. Now, let's watch and listen to the wisdom of the leaders of today, and the hopes of the leaders of tomorrow.

And here is my contribution to the time capsule: A copy of each of the two videos we saw today. They eloquently capture the earnest hopes and dreams of a bright future for Harvest Prep and for Hennepin County.

Eric Mahmoud, I am excited to present to you this time capsule. Inside are Hennepin County's contributions, along with the reflections of the Harvest Prep students. Our hope for you and our community is that when it is opened in the future, the dreams expressed inside will have become reality in all our lives.