Hennepin County-U partnership pays dividends

On Tuesday, the County Board is expected to renew a multimillion-dollar agreement with the University of Minnesota that makes it easier to work on joint projects involving research, technical and professional services.

It's the flip side of the stereotypically rocky town-and-gown relationship.

On Tuesday, the Hennepin County Board is expected to renew a multimillion-dollar agreement with the University of Minnesota that makes it easier to work on joint projects involving research, technical and professional services.

It's a framework that delivers the goods for the Hennepin-University Partnership -- a unique arrangement whereby county officials can draw on the U's vast reserves of brainpower for help in tackling real-world problems, and U academics and students can get some boots-on-the-ground experience working with the county.

The projects tackled cover a wide spectrum, ranging from graduate design students brainstorming ways to dress up the county garbage burner to a workshop on organizational leadership, to research on the number of homeless refugees in Minnesota.

Hennepin and U partnerships are conducting research on foster kids, high school graduation rates and the effect of aging baby boomers on county services. Another project explores the impact of transitways on the communities they go through.

Although it's not unusual for a university and local government to team up on something, an ongoing partnership of this type is rare.

"I haven't found another collaboration like this one," said Kathie Doty, the partnership's program director.

"The idea behind it is smart use of resources -- how do you marry the skills and attributes of these two institutions," Commissioner Jan Callison said.

"At Hennepin County, we're looking for outcomes. If we tap into the university's base, we can make smart decisions. For the university, we're this practicum where they can send students for real-life experience."

The total cost for potential projects during the five-year period of the new agreement can't exceed $7.5 million, although history suggests the final cost to the county will fall short of that mark.

The first agreement, which ran from 2007 until this year, was budgeted for $10 million; the county wound up spending $3.3 million.

"The agreement was created to break down barriers, and it has worked very well for the last three years," said Doty, who is paid by both the county and the university.

Cut the red tape

Since 2007, 53 different projects have been launched under the agreement. It doesn't direct what the county and university will work on but cuts the red tape so that county departments can directly negotiate work orders with the U, as needed, for various services.

The department involved is responsible for funding the work. If a project costs more than $50,000, or if it has policy or budget implications, it must be approved by the board.

The state's largest university and largest county interact in many ways. County officials may speak to classes, as Finance Director Dave Lawless did in a recent lecture on sales taxes. Brown bag talks open to the public are given every few weeks by U professors at the county's Government Center.

Hennepin County keeps a service center at the U's Coffman Union, where students can pick up a variety of documents including car registrations, marriage licenses and birth certificates.

Kristine Martin, who directs the county's Research, Planning and Development Department, said that the partnership undoubtedly saves Hennepin County money. University evaluations, she said, can stop the county from heading down costly dead ends by pointing out what works in a program and what doesn't.

Martin's department has an annual budget of $3 million and employs nine researchers, who handle most county inquiries for data and program information. The U, however, can tackle bigger and more complex tasks that cross a number of policy areas, she said.

For instance, Martin's department evaluated a truancy reform pilot project in Minneapolis at the request of County Attorney Mike Freeman. But a countywide study demanded more resources, and the job went to the U's Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare.

Most county funding, Martin said, goes to providing services. There isn't a lot left over to determine just how effective those services are.

"Sometimes we're spinning our wheels in old operational methodologies," she said. "What the university can provide to us is the opportunity to look inside the operations to determine their efficiency."

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455

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