Angela Conley finds value in ‘lived experience’

Hennepin County commissioner reflects on her first year

Angela Conley
Angela Conley

When Angela Conley was elected to represent Hennepin County’s 4th District in 2018, she brought new perspectives to the county board. She was the first African American elected to the group and she had received county benefits as a young woman before making a career in human services. 

“When we talk about change, there’s value in the lived experience,” she said. “There’s value in that personal testimony. And I think I’ve been able to shed light on a lot of things to my colleagues that they may not have been aware of, because they haven’t been that close to the work.”

Conley sat down with the Southwest Journal to discuss her first year on the board and the issues that motivate her work. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.  

How does your experience as a county staff member influence your work now as a decision maker? 

It’s a huge shift. In this role now, a lot of people think that I already know certain things because I worked in it, but I tell people, “Maybe I don’t. Present information to me as if I don’t know anything.”

But I think spending the last 20 years working within human services at both the county and the state has given me a unique, inside view of how policies and decisions made up here affect direct-line workers, how they affect people who are impacted by our services. 

In recent 2020 budget talks, you pushed for a higher maximum tax levy with more funding toward human services. Why was that important for you and what shortcomings do you see within the county’s current human services? 

Over the last several years I’ve seen a disinvestment in human services and our programming. Over the last five years, human services in general has lost over $100 million. The fact that we haven’t filled vacant positions has resulted in increased workloads for our staff. 

There’re a lot more people entering our systems because we haven’t invested in shelter like we should have or should be. The numbers of people who are sleeping outside — unsheltered homelessness — has skyrocketed over the past two years. It just keeps going up. We’re on pace to see at most 2,000 people counted sleeping outside in January. Unacceptable. This is a crisis.

And then we’re seeing these massive numbers of people who are addicted to various different substances. From January to September there were about 1,100 overdoses in the metro area. And most of them were concentrated in the district I represent, around the Phillips community. Fifty-one of those were fatal, and they’re hitting women the hardest, the majority of whom are Native American women.

To me, we need revenue. [The property tax hike] was proposed at 4.75% and I talked to our CFO, our county administrator and asked, “What does 5.75% look like? What does that do to someone’s property tax bill?” I was satisfied that the administrator’s proposal was a $56 increase on [the median value home’s] bills, and my proposal would add $13 on top of that. This would bring in an additional $8 million to human services that is desperately needed.

Nobody wants to touch property taxes at all, so being able to take that risk and bring about from that a conversation — that was desperately needed. But it failed 5-2.

How do you think the county should continue to address the concentration of encampments on the Midtown Greenway? 

Fund human services. I’m just going to be very clear about that. 

We need to also think about repurposing dollars. Where are we spending money now that we could be spending to get people into housing, to protect vulnerable women, to get people places to sleep at night, to get more treatment out to folks? 

Treatment sometimes is a touchy subject, because not everybody’s ready for treatment. So, we need to be thinking about things like harm reduction — let’s help people who are addicted at least do whatever it is they are doing safely. 

What we did recently was approve $72,000 to get more street outreach workers from St. Stephen’s out to the Greenway. I don’t want to see a continued police response where we’re arresting our way out of addiction or arresting our way out of homelessness, because that doesn’t work, it never works. And that means we’re spending resources at the jail that we could be spending on human services.

What’s been the effort you’re most proud of or excited about in your first year? 

I’m really proud that I’ve gone out and taken risks and been really firm about the things I believe in. Being firm about, “I do think we should raise your tax levy 1%.” That’s risky. 

I think also there are employees who see me and think there’s hope. There are people who live in our communities, who hear the passion in my voice when I talk about certain issues, who feel hopeful. We’ve had young interns in this office who see the way three black women in the District 4 office move and operate, and they’re inspired by that, inspired to enter into this realm themselves.