Hennepin County officials approved their largest ever budget Thursday, citing mounting financial pressures to deal with homelessness, drug addiction and an array of costly services for the neediest residents.
“The truth is this budget will not meet all the needs in Hennepin County,” Commissioner Jan Callison said recently.
To pay for those services, county officials bumped up the property tax levy for next year by 4.75%, an increase of $39 million from this year. The budget will reach $2.5 billion in 2020, about $66 million more than this year.
Before casting his vote against the budget, Commissioner Jeff Johnson denounced the county’s repeated willingness to increase the levy annually by more than 4%, saying that the amount is more than double the 1.9% rate of inflation.
“I don’t think that’s fair and I don’t think that’s reasonable,” he said, adding that he believes the county can meet its significant needs without such an increase.
The board approved the 2020 budget on a 6-1 vote, with Johnson the lone dissenter.
Commissioner Mike Opat acknowledged Johnson’s concerns, adding that he was troubled as well by the increase and that property owners were feeling “stressed.”
Even as Opat said that and voted yes, he pointed to looming costly issues in coming years, such as the opioid epidemic.
Commissioners touted the budget as focused on reducing disparities in education, employment, health, housing, justice and transportation. But they also bemoaned cost-shifting from the state.
The county, the state’s most populous, provides a growing range of services from issuing driver’s and marriage licenses to child protection, probation, recycling, roads and transit. Many of the most costly services are mandated by state law, which limits county officials’ ability to impose dramatic cuts or changes.
In his budget message, County Administrator David Hough said the demands for county services are intensifying but that money remains scarce.
“We live in extremely challenging times,” he wrote. “There are significant pressures internally and externally, with expectations around what government should be doing or isn’t doing.”
Hough said many clients rely on county services in times of crisis, sometimes repeatedly. He challenged county leaders to find ways to help disrupt the expensive “churn” of people who return for services over and over.
“We cannot continue to do what we have always done and expect things to change,” he said. “To do what we have always done is not financially sustainable, fiscally responsible, or operationally valid.”
Callison and Opat talked about how the budget helps with affordable housing needs, adding capacity at homeless shelters, and workforce retention at the county through cost-of-living adjustments.
The 2020 budget will have $14.3 million for affordable housing, up from $6.5 million in 2019. Most of that money comes from the levy increase.
The county levy increase came the day after Minneapolis increased its levy by 6.95%, the city’s biggest increase in a decade. The 2020 county levy means the owner of a median-valued $298,400 home will pay about $55 more next year for the county portion of their tax bill, and the owner of a home valued at $1 million will pay about $160 more.
Hough said the budget authorized the full-time equivalent of 8,462 county employees, which he said was “down markedly” from previous years. His budget message cited a total of 9,100 people working for the county.
The budget also included money for election security and the 2020 U.S. Census as well as 2.5% raises for Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and Sheriff David Hutchinson, effective immediately and through 2020. The two will receive additional 2% raises in 2021. By 2021, Freeman will make $195,065 a year, and Hutchinson $188,775.