In a bad-news year, county sees signs for hope

Like most governmental bodies, Hennepin County is facing many challenges from the recession: less money, less jobs, more demand for services. That wasn’t forgotten during the annual state of the county address, delivered April 23 by county Chairman Mike Opat.

Speaking at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, Opat touched upon the high highs and low lows of the past year. He talked about the county cutting costs through layoffs, hiring freezes and furloughs. He said that although Hennepin County wants to remain a good employer, people cannot expect the standards of the past.

Opat talked about the foreclosure crisis — in just one year, Hennepin County saw an increase from about 1,200 foreclosures to about 7,000.

“As a unit of government that is primarily dependent on property taxes, we are exposed to major shifts in the real estate market, and this has been no small shift,” Opat said.

He spoke about skyrocketing unemployment rates, saying that while Hennepin County has a lower unemployment rate than Minnesota — which in turn is lower than the country’s rate — it is still a major issue.

Through video messages, other commissioners also had a chance to express what they believe to be the major challenges and opportunities facing the county today. Gail Dorfman, who represents the district of the county that includes Southwest, talked about the pressing increase in demand of county services.

“We need to make sure people are getting connected to the services they need to weather this storm,” she said. “But we don’t have enough resources to meet the growing need.”

Still, the presentation wasn’t all negative.

The county is looking at more efficient information technology processes, as well as partnerships with schools and other counties. Commissioners also are considering combining the county’s two crime labs into one to cut costs.

“In many ways, the recession has exposed areas where we can improve and where we must change,” Opat said. “We cannot let this, or any other set of challenges, paralyze our innovate spirit and leadership.”

Much of the address actually focused on the county’s accomplishments over the past year. Opat praised the creation of a hospital board distinct from the county board and extolled Hennepin County Medical Center’s status as the state’s largest teaching hospital.

“With the board in place, HCMC has made great progress and is better-positioned to meet the daunting environment ahead,” Opat said.

He also talked about the library merger, which he said has streamlined access to materials and has allowed for the reopening of formerly closed libraries. Opat called it one of the county’s proudest accomplishments.

“Merging was simply the right thing to do,” he said.

Finally, Opat touted Target Field, to much applause from the audience. He not only mentioned the excitement of getting to again experience outdoor baseball, but also the number of jobs created by the construction process and the ballpark’s eventual opening.

Opat closed his speech by urging residents and commissioners to remain true to the county’s goals and to keep working for efficiency and quality.

“We must act to preserve the most important priorities and continue them. We simply cannot succumb to the attitude of complaining about our plight and recoiling into a local government equivalent of the fetal position,” Opat said.