At a sometimes heated meeting Thursday, Hennepin County commissioners debated a measured rollout of services, including restarting in-person court hearings.
The board is expected to vote next week on key policy issues related to reopening services, and also whether to permanently close any of the county’s 121 buildings.
“We are … drinking from the fire hose,” said County Administrator David Hough.
Thursday’s briefing was the second time the board has discussed ways the county might start to offer some services in person. Subjects at the meeting ranged from absentee ballots to ensuring internet access to all communities for educational needs.
Commissioner Irene Fernando said the board is feeling tension over reopening “because there is no playbook for this.”
On Monday, the county will schedule some court hearings in its four largest courtrooms to facilitate social distancing. Several commissioners expressed concern about long lines snaking through the Hennepin County Government Center as people wait to go through security screening.
As a pilot project, the county plans to open service centers at Brookdale and Ridgedale by appointment only for driver’s licenses, vital records and Department of Natural Resources licenses. Centers would then open in south Minneapolis, Maple Grove, Southdale and the downtown Government Center.
The county briefing followed Gov. Tim Walz’s announcement this week to allow some businesses to reopen. Hough said the county should consider requiring masks for all employees and people going to service centers, and added that the county would limit elevators to two people at a time.
Commissioner Jan Callison expressed frustration over the board’s role as policymakers, saying they were now being dragged into administration issues.
County officials also are looking to make up a $50 million budget shortfall next year because of lost revenue.
Hough has asked the county’s 35 departments to keep their 2021 budgets at the same level as this year’s, and has recommended that the board not increase next year’s property tax levy. Commissioner Mike Opat said it was time for the county to consider furloughs and layoffs.
The board discussed absentee voting, which is projected to be used for 75% of ballots this fall. Right now, 76 out of the county’s 400 voting sites aren’t usable because they are in schools.
County officials expect that curbside library pickups will be increased; so far this year, about 23,000 books and other library materials have been checked out. The county plans to restart book drop-offs, virtual programming and printing services.
Library staffers have complained about unsafe working conditions and want hazard pay for being front-line workers. They also say they want a seat at the table to discuss these issues, something Callison said she wouldn’t agree to when leaders are rude and confrontational to commissioners and county staff.
Opat mentioned equity regarding library services because many children don’t have internet access at home. “With parks and programming going to be shut down, it’s going to be a rough summer for kids,” he said.