Every Hennepin County kid in the Land of 10,000 Lakes ought to learn how to swim.
That was the sentiment of a majority of county commissioners Thursday during a briefing on how $2 million in youth sports grants is doled out annually. The grants come from the 0.15 percent countywide sales tax used to pay for Target Field.
Chairwoman Jan Callison was one of four board members who voiced support for spending money to teach children to swim. "I think it's a practical idea," she said. "I think it's a necessity. Kids drown because they don't know how to swim."
A fifth commissioner said he wants a thorough assessment of existing programs before the county wades in to pay for lessons.
The Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission (MASC) has administered the youth sports grants program for the county since the board began doling out the money in 2009. Since then, more than $15 million has been distributed. About 474 grant applications have been received, and 258 grants have been awarded. Of the money, $14 million has gone for facilities and $1 million for equipment.
The overwhelming majority of the money, 74 percent, has gone to baseball, softball and field sport facilities.
As the grant program matures, board members are looking at raising its profile by refreshing its branding and potentially giving grants for operating costs in addition to construction and equipment.
The board met casually and didn't take formal action. County Administrator David Hough said MASC and county staff will develop official proposals for the board to consider.
MASC, whose representatives summarized how the grants have been used so far, proposed some changes. Those included establishing a maximum award per project of $300,000, down from the current $325,000. MASC also suggested that facility grants be given to projects of $2 million or less. Currently, there is no cap, so a county grant could become the insignificant final increment on a multimillion-dollar facility.
Those proposals were well received, as was a request from MASC to disallow grants for scoreboards and public address systems. Items such as bats, helmets and balls already are ineligible. The idea is for the money to go toward hard-core sports equipment like backboards and pitching machines.
The swimming idea came from the board, especially Callison and Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, who wasn't at the briefing but e-mailed comments for consideration. Commissioners Linda Higgins and Randy Johnson also expressed support.
McLaughlin proposed establishing a Hennepin Swims program to award scholarships for poorer kids to existing swim programs.
Others lamented the lack of pools in city schools. Pools cost about $1 million annually to operate and rarely break even, according to county staff.
Commissioner Mike Opat said he's not opposed to the idea, but called for an assessment of existing programs first. "The needs really vary by where you are in the county," Opat said, adding that kids in middle school in Robbinsdale swim weekly as part of physical education classes.
Opat, who coaches youth sports in Robbinsdale for his own three children's teams, said he believes there are plenty of scholarships to help poorer kids participate in sports programs. He also questioned whether some fields the county has built are getting much use, specifically new baseball diamonds in north Minneapolis. "If we're going to throw that kind of money out there, then they've got to get used more," he said.
Commissioners Jeff Johnson and Marion Greene weren't at the meeting.