Even after quarantine restrictions are lifted, the COVID-19 pandemic will dramatically change the way Hennepin County employees work and how residential services are delivered.
Commissioners debated the first phase of the county’s reopening strategies during a two-hour board briefing Thursday. Potential plans include shuttering buildings left vacant from thousands of employees continuing to work from home, more virtual meetings with clients and permanent social distancing rules.
The virus will also force the county to make up an expected loss of $66 million in revenue and investment income through the end of 2021. County Administrator David Hough said he told departments they can’t grow budgets for next year and recommended the board vote no increase in the property tax levy for 2021.
“We are building the plane as we are flying it,” he said.
The county can use about $20 million in recent federal funding to fill the revenue shortfall in next year’s budget. Other options include hiring freezes, employee attrition and savings from employees working at home and more efficient service methods, said Hough.
Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order has allowed temporary waivers for the county to do more work and offer services online. Hough cited telemedicine appointments, getting licenses and the ability to have documents signed virtually.
The county’s human services department could see the biggest shift in employees working from home. They are now successfully using less face-to-face time to help clients with mental health issues, public assistance applications and targeted case management, said Assistant County Human Services Administrator Jodi Wentland.
Several commissioners wanted to make sure child protection workers are still able to use as much face-to-face time as needed to do their jobs effectively.
The public works department has been able to keep 45% of its staff at home and still proceed with bridge and road projects, inspections and natural resource programs.
Commissioner Mike Opat said Thursday’s first briefing was a “good opening salvo” and complimented Hough for the county not requiring furloughs or layoffs. At some point, the county will have to take a hard look at personnel numbers, said Opat.
The board will have two more reopening briefings. Hough will make possible recommendations for building closures and a timeline when other buildings may open for county services. The board votes on the property tax levy for 2021 in December.
If the board agrees to Hough’s recommendation of no increase in the levy, county residents will be assessed this year’s levy of 4.75%.
Freezing the levy is a way to prevent departments from using the tax to fund their budgets and help the financial situations of residents, said Hough.
“Crisis is a catalyst for innovation, and that’s what you are seeing,” he said.