In the year since Hennepin County Commissioner Debbie Goettel joined the County Board, she has spent $55,000 in public funds to furnish and redecorate her downtown Minneapolis office.
Goettel and other county officials justified the hefty expense, saying she moved into an office with no furniture and exotic wood paneling that hadn’t been maintained since the Hennepin County Government Center was built in the mid-1970s.
Half the amount was spent on replacing broken blinds, restoring the paneling and installing new floor tiles. The rest paid for a desk, tables, chairs and a rug.
Goettel said Friday that she took several months trying to find the cheapest way to refurbish her office, using broken furniture as a temporary fix.
“I have a lot of visitors to my office, and it needs to be comfortable and functional,” she said Friday.
Yet none of the other six Hennepin County commissioners, most of whom have been serving for many years, racked up similar expenses when they took office.
In 2017, the County Board’s other six commissioners spent a total of $3,200 on furnishing and remodeling purchases for their offices. Board Chairwoman Jan Callison, Marion Greene, Jeff Johnson and Peter McLaughlin recorded no expenses; Linda Higgins listed about $2,000 in expenses, and Mike Opat about $1,200.
“The redecorating spending is obviously not appropriate, but I see it as indicative of a bigger problem: Government being extremely careless with taxpayers’ money,” Johnson said.
Each Hennepin County commissioner typically gets an annual budget of $382,000 to cover their $113,566 salary, staff salaries and office expenses. Commissioners may spend their budgets however they want, consistent with state law and county purchasing rules and procedures.
In Ramsey County, each commissioner has a budget of approximately $325,000. Washington County reimburses commissioners for cellphones and mileage, but requires a special request for an expense such as furniture.
At the State Capitol, legislators and staffers are paid through House and Senate budgets, not through allotments to individual members. Lawmakers get a base salary of $45,000 and have access to a per diem and lodging expenses.
Goettel, a former Richfield mayor who has a civil engineering degree, walked into an office with two pieces of abandoned furniture when she started as commissioner in January 2017. Furnishing and redecorating her office was the last thing she wanted to worry about, she said.
As the board’s freshman, she said, she knew she wasn’t going to get the best office. It’s located by the bathroom, and she joked that other commissioners planted there had moved to another office as quickly as possible.
She needed some temporary furniture but didn’t want to spend money on rentals, so she retrieved a few pieces of broken furniture left over from offices being redone on another floor. Nothing was available in storage, she said, and most of the used furniture available was modular and too large.
So Goettel bought a conference table, a desk, a console table, chairs and a rug for a total of $21,607. “Commercial furniture isn’t inexpensive,” she said. “I stayed under my budget. I’m very frugal.”
The office itself was a problem, with broken floor tiles and peeling wallpaper. Moreover, the paneling made of rare Brazilian rosewood was badly chipped and sun bleached. She said she was a preservationist and wanted the paneling restored because “it was the right thing to do.”
County Administrator David Hough said the $20,000 bill was paid for through the county’s facility services budget, not Goettel’s office funds.
“It’s part of the integrity of the building,” Hough said. “We spend money on preservation like you would do at home.”
Johnson, a Republican who ran for governor in 2014 and is a candidate again this year, said he has returned hundreds of thousands of dollars from his office budget over the years rather than spend it on things like furniture or travel.
“I haven’t spent anything on my office in nine years, other than a new office chair when my old one fell apart and was no longer usable,” he said. “And we bargain-shopped for that.”
Other commissioners declined to comment on Goettel’s remodeling, but did talk about their own furnishings.
Opat, who was elected in 1992, foraged for furniture from county storage. McLaughlin said he found a surplus conference room table in the building when he took office in 1991 and replaced his predecessor’s chair when it broke a couple of years ago. His filing cabinets, he said, were 15 years old.
Callison, who was elected in 2008, said she inherited a sofa, easy chairs and a coffee table that didn’t match her style. So she bought a conference table, five conference chairs, a rug and new desk chair. Her office also needed some painting.
“I was able to incorporate existing furniture into the space to keep costs down and reduce waste,” she said. “In total, the transition cost was roughly $5,000.”
Goettel, who represents Richfield, Eden Prairie and Bloomington, said she understood that her office was remodeled courtesy of the taxpayers. But she said she was cost-conscious and had to cut her travel budget to make it work.
“It’s not appropriate for people to sit on broken chairs,” she said. “These are things that will be left for the future.”