BY KATY ZILLMER
Hennepin County Board Chair Mike Opat spoke to the overall picture of government and the county’s budget in the State of the County Address, hosted by the Twin West Chamber May 17 in Plymouth, for the first time since 2009.
After his address three years ago, Opat said county officials have been focused on federal and state budgets and the condition of the economy.
There wasn’t enough progress to warrant another speech, until this year.
During his speech, Opat presented several accomplishments and ongoing projects in Hennepin County’s transit, public safety and schools, using this year’s budget as a backdrop to guide the audience through the government’s work.
"Our expenditures, property tax levy and headcount are all down since 2010," he said. "But given the economic downturn, demand for many services during that same period is up. I think that’s especially important to recognize – the pain of the Great Recession has not been borne equally."
Hennepin County is the largest local unit of government in the state, and the population from the recent Census is 1.15 million people.
"We have a higher population than eight states," Opat said. "The work of the county government can be obscure – the budget shows the magnitude of what we do."
In his coverage of public works and transit, Opat said the county would spend $120 million on public works this year with more than 400 employees in that field alone.
Using the board’s adopted 2030 Comprehensive Transportation Plan, roads will be developed to enhance communities and Opat said the county is promoting cycling as a transportation option.
Two mass transit routes are also in the planning stages, the Southwest and Bottineau Light Rail Lines.
While the bonding bill from the Minnesota Legislature did not include funding for the Southwest Light Rail this year, the process has moved to the Metropolitan Council, Opat said.
"The bonding bill this year left Southwest behind – not because it isn’t needed or isn’t deserving, but because politics won out over policy at the Capitol," Opat said.
The county’s second transit project, Bottineau, is approaching a vote from the county board on an alignment and station locations. The transit line will serve Minneapolis and the northern suburbs.
Opat also provided an update about the county’s most visible public safety projects.
Expenditures for public safety are more than $250 million, mostly funded by property taxes, and there are more than 2,100 employees in the field.
The county has modified the work release program with increased electronic monitoring options to allow most offenders to wear an ankle bracelet and return home after their shifts. As a result, the 162-bed work release building was closed and the county is saving $600,000 each year while continuing to closely supervise the offenders in their homes.
The county board, working with judges, has also changed the placement system for juvenile offenders to increase supervision at their homes rather than moving them to outside facilities, Opat said. The savings is $6 million each year and the program keeps kids in their home and can provide some order to their family life, he said.
While it’s in the early stages, Opat also said the planning for a new 911 Communications building in Plymouth is underway with a selected site and budget of $33 million.
In education, Opat is working on an initiative with each of the 17 school superintendents in Hennepin County. During the last year, the school officials have shared truancy data from their buildings with the county to help keep kids in school.
Human services, one of the county’s largest departments, faces some struggles and is consistently is a target for budget cuts, Opat said.
"Maintaining a safety net is always a challenge," he said. Human Services has more than 2,700 .
"Increased caseloads came amid a significant change in our delivery model for Human Services," Opat said.
The county is working to move staff from downtown Minneapolis into the areas where clients live, he said.
The county is also evaluating the service centers where residents renew their driver’s license or order a passport because many of those tasks can be completed online.
The county closed Eden Prairie’s service center in January and there is a study group to consider more options in the suburban areas.
The board chair concluded his speech commenting more about education and two initiatives for the future.
He said the preventative services need to be broader for education and youth.
"We have is a decent quilt. But what is needed is a fabric woven of a philosophy to assist kids early and consistently," Opat said.
"Hennepin County’s financial responsibility for kids in trouble is clear, and it’s huge." We also have a moral responsibility to prevent as many young people from falling into our social safety net as possible."
Opat has announced he will file for candidacy to retain his district one seat on the county board.
There are four additional commissioners on the ballot this year. District two commissioner Mark Stenglein is stepping down this month to be CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council.
All of the county commissioners were in attendance at Opat’s speech, in addition to many officials from Hennepin County cities and schools.
"I think that many of our challenges – controlling costs, responding to demand, correctly pricing our services and providing value to customers – have a lot in common with those of you here today," Opat concluded. "And like your businesses, the state of Hennepin County is … ever-changing. We’re innovating, and implementing best practices wherever possible. We’ve ended some operations and transformed others. We’re working so that our residents, businesses and visitors enjoy, invest and are prosperous here in Hennepin County."