County Update from Jeff Johnson

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August 3, 2015

Some things government does are very important. These are things that deliver both private and public benefits, and add value to our neighborhoods, our region and our economy. Then, there are times when government gets carried away and loses its focus confusing the purpose of a public service with its provision. Here's a little bit of both. I hope you enjoy this update and I always enjoy your feedback.



Big (and Positive) Changes in Child Protection

Protecting children from abuse and neglect is about as basic a function of government as exists. My last update briefly introduced the new child-centered Infant Court to help young children in foster-care.

Infant Court is just one of the recommendations from our Comprehensive Review of Children and Youth Services. Other recommendations included drastic improvements for child protection screening and changes in how child protection investigations are conducted. Hennepin County Children and Family Service staff are well educated, dedicated and have extensive experience, but current policies and practices have compromised child safety.

Several reports on the State of Minnesota’s Child Protection System precipitated significant review of current practices at all levels of government resulting in the Minnesota legislature implementing many of the initial recommendations from the Governor’s task force on the Protection of Children. The new state requirements increase the number of cases and rightfully demand more staff time for each case.

We have a long way to go but have a roadmap for improvement here in Hennepin. Additional staff have been added in both Children and Family services and the County Attorney’s office to better serve the children and families in the child protection system.

Far too many of our children, however have been re-entering the child protection system and simply adding staff will not solve the problem. It will take strong leadership, real-time data analytics, substantial operational changes and an unrelenting demand to measure the outcomes. I’ll be sure to keep you apprised of our progress.


Is this really Affordable Housing?

The board recently voted to authorize federal affordable housing tax credits to a developer of the A-Mill Artist Loft apartment project in Minneapolis.  I did not support this latest authorization.

As background, the county is given the authority by the federal government to issue federal tax credits for affordable housing projects.  There is no direct cost to the Hennepin County budget (only to the federal budget), but we are only authorized to issue a certain number of credits, so when we use them for one project it means they won’t be available for a different project.

My issue with the A-Mill project: The development cost for each of the 251 units in the building is $693,000 … for affordable housing units.  Some of that cost is based on the historic nature of the building, but the reason for the extravagant cost is irrelevant.  Bottom line: These credits are very valuable to developers and when we issue them to this project at $693,000 per unit, we can’t issue them to other, more logically priced, affordable housing units.  I found no common sense in this one.


What's up with SWLRT?

I also was the sole dissenter on a vote by the board to dedicate even more Hennepin County taxpayer money to the Southwest Light Rail Transit (SWLRT) project.  A couple months ago, the price of the project jumped from $1.65 billion to $2 billion and supporters of the project were tasked with finding savings to bring the cost back down.  They did find some savings, but not quite enough, and Hennepin County has now pledged to cover much of the difference.

I believe this project was overpriced even before the recent cost hike.  Only a couple years ago, the cost of SWLRT was supposed to be $1.25 billion.  Then it jumped to $1.55 billion.  And then $1.65 billion.  No one batted an eyelash with those increases.  But when it increased to $2 billion, suddenly people said the cost was “unreasonable.”

I actually asked several SWLRT supporters why $2 billion was unreasonable while $1.65 billion had been just fine; I never received an answer.  It certainly wasn’t based on some sort of cost/benefit analysis between cost and congestion relief, because no such analysis exists.  And no such analysis exists because there will be little or no noticeable congestion relief due to SWLRT.  Meanwhile, we’ll have spent upwards of $2 billion (yes, the price will increase again) AND will be stuck with an annual operating subsidy that starts at $23 million and matures to $31 million per year.  Forever.

It’s a terrible deal for the taxpayers and the commuters of Hennepin County.


Hennepin and Ramsey work together

Almost a year ago, Hennepin and Ramsey counties agreed to explore creating a joint residential treatment facility for at-risk youth. The current facilities used to house youth and programming are aging and require significant on-going preservation or complete renovation. The overall need for these buildings has also declined due to our focus on implementing robust risk/needs-based services delivered in a community setting.

Less out-of-home placement, more fidelity in the way we deliver youth programs and lower costs. These are all good outcomes. We have some very hard decisions to make in order to finalize a joint facility, but all early indicators seem to point to a joint facility that could benefit youth and families in both Ramsey and Hennepin counties.


Another publicly financed stadium?

Recently, one of my colleagues suggested that the county should take a more active role in a proposed major league soccer stadium through public subsidies. I disagree. Here's a link with my response to the MinnPost article.