Hennepin County prepares for ripples from shutdown

Layoff notices have been sent, but road projects continue for now, depending on funding decisions.

Seven days into the state government shutdown, Hennepin County is ready for anything while at the same time hoping that nothing will happen.

Notices of possible layoffs have been sent to 1,200 county employees, nearly all of them in the Human Services and Public Health Department. Road projects will continue for now, and service centers are still open for vehicle tabs and the like.

What happens next in the state's largest county largely depends on recommendations on funding requests expected as soon as Thursday from Special Master Kathleen Blatz. The former state chief justice was assigned by Ramsey Chief District Judge Kathleen Gearin to decide which state services should continue during the shutdown.

The board on Wednesday directed County Administrator Richard Johnson to have County Attorney Mike Freeman represent the county before Blatz. The only dissenter was Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who abstained because he said it's unconstitutional for judges to order appropriations.

Freeman had planned to go before Blatz on Thursday morning to make the case for funding requests. But just as the County Board gave him the green light, Freeman told commissioners that he would stand down for the time being since Hennepin's major concerns already were being brought to Blatz by other parties.

Those parties include the Association of Minnesota Counties, the Minnesota Inter-County Association, Ramsey County and Gov. Mark Dayton. They're concerned that services for the vulnerable, such as child care and mental health programs, will go unfunded.

Pending Blatz and Gearin's next rulings, Freeman said, there's no good reason for Hennepin County to add its 2 cents. In fact, it could be counterproductive.

"Judges don't like to hear an argument a second time," he said.

Should a ruling go against the county or a funding gap appear, Freeman said, the county would reserve its right to appeal to Blatz. The county also could send a letter to Blatz to underscore the effect of suspended funding, he said.

How many county employees get laid off will depend largely on how much social service funding Blatz and Gearin decide isn't essential, Richard Johnson said. No social services have been affected yet, but contractors have been put on notice that could change soon.

"Right now we're not intending to lay off anyone, and we're telling them to report to work on Monday," Johnson said.

Layoffs could happen as soon as next week, although because of bumping rights that favor senior employees, it's more likely the number would be 400 to 500, he said.

County officials have authorized road projects to continue at least through the end of the month. But if the shutdown continues, workers at some point will run out of construction supplies that have been approved by state inspectors, Johnson said.

Not all the news has been bad. Layoff notices to about 100 service center workers last week were rescinded once it became clear that two computer systems provided by the state would remain available.

And service center lines are shorter this week than they were last week. That's probably because either people expect the service centers to be closed due to the shutdown or because many people are on vacation this time of year, Johnson said.

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455

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