Recent news reports about the cost of a Hennepin County commissioner’s office remodeling likely left many average consumers thinking, “I could have furnished an office for a lot less than that.” Count this Editorial Board among them.
In the year since Debbie Goettel joined the County Board, she spent $55,000 in public funds to furnish and renovate her downtown Minneapolis office. Roughly half that amount was spent on replacing broken blinds, restoring wood paneling and installing new flooring, and it was paid for with county building maintenance funds. The remaining amount was spent by Goettel for a desk, tables, chairs and a rug.
Let’s be clear: We’ve seen far worse examples of government spending run amok. But this is Minnesota, where taxpayers expect their elected officials to be frugal with public dollars.
Each of the seven Hennepin County commissioners typically has an annual budget of $382,000. From that amount they must pay their own $113,566 salaries, staff salaries, travel and office expenses. Commissioners may spend those funds however they choose, consistent with state law and county purchasing rules and procedures. Some of those rules should be changed.
Goettel and other county officials defended the purchases, saying she moved into an office with no furniture and exotic wood paneling that hadn’t been maintained since the county Government Center was built in the mid-1970s.
Goettel told the Star Tribune that as a freshman commissioner she inherited the office that was in the worst shape and that she took several months to try to find the best deals to fix it. She added that county guidelines required her to buy “commercial-grade” furniture — no, she couldn’t have shopped at Ikea — and that her quarters need to be “comfortable and functional” for those who visit her office.
No argument on the last point. Still, like many constituents, we believe that could have been accomplished for less than $55,000. Although they declined to comment specifically on Goettel’s situation, several of her County Board peers said they spent no more than a few thousand dollars on office furnishings when they took office.
Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who is a Republican candidate for governor, didn’t hesitate to provide his opinion.
“The redecorating spending is obviously not appropriate, but I see it as indicative of a bigger problem: Government being extremely careless with taxpayers’ money,” he said.
Johnson has a point. Goettel, a former mayor of Richfield who now represents that city, Eden Prairie and Bloomington on the County Board, didn’t violate any rules. And $55,000 is a relatively small expenditure relative to the county’s $2 billion annual budget. At the same time, decisions about smaller expenditures add up, and county officials should limit discretionary spending.
Goettel would have an easier time defending her spending if there had been stricter guidelines and a process for approval of office furniture purchases. Hennepin County should look to Washington County, which reimburses commissioners for cellphones and mileage but requires a special request for an expense such as furniture.
Taxpayers foot the bills for government spending, and they expect those who control the county purse strings to use judgment on small and large expenditures alike.