Hennepin County offers citizens' academies

  • Article by: DANIELLE DULLINGER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 26, 2014 - 3:00 PM

At Citizens Academies, residents take field trips to facilities from garages to jails and get an overview of how the county functions.

Although you might not know it from talking to some citizens, Hennepin County does much more than just determine property taxes.

“A lot of the things the county does are not as visible,” said Diana Houston, special projects coordinator with Hennepin County Public Affairs.

In an effort to educate citizens about the county’s multitude of functions, Hennepin is offering citizens’ academies. The free program, which packs educational sessions with information and opportunities for questions about the services the county provides, began in fall 2011.

This fall, the Hennepin County Citizens Academy will take residents on field trips to county facilities each week for presentations and tours.

Such academies are not exclusive to Hennepin County. Minnetonka, Hopkins and Edina all have them, and the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office also has a well-attended program.

Hennepin County’s Citizens academies were the brainchild of County Commissioner Jan Callison.

“When she was out running for county commissioner, she really found that a lot of people don’t know who their commissioner is and what is the role of the commissioner and what is the role of the county,” Houston said. “It’s an opportunity to educate.”

The seven-week session allows 40 citizen students to get a behind-the-scenes look at county facilities, such as the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center in Minneapolis and Hennepin County Medical Center, where attendees meet the medical examiner.

Group favorites? Tours of the Public Works Facility and the Adult Corrections Facility, both in Medina, rank high, Houston said.

At the academy’s second session, participants will tour the county vehicle fleet at the Public Works Facility. And the session at the Adult Corrections Facility is an eye-opener for many, Houston said.

“The Adult Corrections Facility is one of the most unique experiences ... we have,” Houston said. Attendees must pass through screening before entering and are told to leave everything in their car, Houston said. They tour all parts of the facility except its living areas.

“[The tour] is a pretty good understanding of what life is like in that type of facility,” Houston said. For most attendees, it is “the only experience they will ever have [like it].”

Other topics covered in the academy include human services, sustainable development and transit, county government and environmental services.

“In the end, we want to show the value of the tax dollar — how we’re being good stewards of it,” Houston said.

Additionally, she wants people to realize the struggle the county sometimes faces.

“So many things are mandated to us, and we’re not given a budget [for it],” she said. The county has to find a way to fund those services, and many times, it turns to property taxes.

The fall session, which begins Sept. 11 and continues every Wednesday for the next six weeks, is full. Citizens 18 and older who’d like to attend the spring session are encouraged to sign up for the waiting list.

The academy offers the county a great way to illuminate its services, Houston said. “We feel like we’re chipping away at an iceberg” by educating a few people at a time, she said.

Danielle Dullinger is a Twin Cities freelance writer. She can be reached at dulli012@umn.edu.

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