County board lines up priorities to take to the Capitol

Tax reform, health care and bonding bill requests are on the docket

Mike Opat
Mike Opat

Hennepin County’s Board of Commissioners is taking its 2013 legislative platform to the Capitol with a focus on several bonding bill requests, reinstating an environmental clean-up fund and tax reform.
Most of the priorities are approved by the board and the commissioners are already active at the Capitol hearings as the legislative session in St. Paul proceeds. District two commissioner Linda Higgins and district four commissioner Peter McLaughlin are leading the county’s intergovernmental committee and will testify, along with the rest of the board, during the legislative session.
Higgins and McLaughlin are both former legislators, as well as district seven commissioner Jeff Johnson.
Several of the commissioners said bringing back the county’s Environmental Response Fund, which provides for grants to developers that clean up and build on contaminated property, is a top priority.
“We do some great stuff with that and enabled a lot of businesses to go forward,” Higgins said.

Higgins mug shot
Linda Higgins

The fund was not renewed by the legislature during the last session and expired in January. If the fund is reinstated, the county can return to collecting a mortgage registry and deed tax to support cleaning up and developing contaminated properties. The request for the fund includes renewing it without a sunset date.
The board’s priorities for taxes this year focus on enacting reform of the system that will lessen the county’s reliance on property taxes.
“It’s talking about tax reform and as part of that we would hope we could not depend so much on property tax,” said district six commissioner Jan Callison.
Overall, the board is seeking action from the legislature that would reduce state mandates and protect existing state funding that supports county services.
Health care access at Hennepin County Medical Center is also on the board’s docket.

Jan Callison
Jan Callison

“We’re always looking for increased access,” said Callison, who serves on the HCMC and Hennepin Health Care System boards, . The focus with health care is the cost to the county taxpayers for uncompensated care at the medical center.
“Another of our priorities is creating a mechanism to reduce uncompensated care that our taxpayers pay for when people present to the emergency rooms without insurance,” Higgins said. She said the county board allocated approximately $24 million in the budget for uncompensated care.
“I am hoping when the Affordable Care Act gets implemented that should help us with uncompensated care, but in the meantime our taxpayers pay the gap,” Higgins said.
Testimony about uncompensated care and other health care issues is underway by the board representatives at the legislature, she said.

Bonding bill requests
The county board is requesting funding to support three of its projects as well as several others led by outside agencies.
• $1 million is requested for the proposed Bottineau Corridor transit line that is 13 miles northwest from downtown Minneapolis, through North Minneapolis, Golden Valley, Robbinsdale, Crystal and Brooklyn Park. District one commissioner and county board chair Mike Opat said the funding, if approved, would help support land use planning around the potential transit station sites. Callison added that the funding would help the project be considered for federal funding as well.
• $6.75 million is requested for access to Interstate 35W from Lake Street in Minneapolis. There is not currently access from south Interstate 35W at Lake Street, Callison said. The funding would help upgrade the transportation access for buses, she said.
• $10.3 million for the 911 Emergency Communications Facility in Plymouth.
“The 911 building is important,” Opat said. “It’s a broader public safety service.”
The total budget for the facility, which will have the capacity for all of the sheriff’s office communication divisions and widespread dispatch services, is $33.7 million. The sheriff’s office current communications center in Golden Valley is one of the largest consolidated dispatch facilities in the Upper Midwest. However the aging facility, built in 1948, does not have the space to accommodate new communications technologies.
There will be the capacity for more dispatch consoles at the new facility. The Golden Valley center is planned to stay in operation during the transition of services to Plymouth in 2014.
“This is a facility that not only serves Hennepin County residents, but across the state so we’re hoping that the state will help,” Callison said.
The groundbreaking ceremony at the Plymouth facility is scheduled for 11 a.m. Monday, Feb. 25, at 1145 Shenandoah Lane.
Other projects the county is supporting in the bonding bill include:
• $37 million for the Southwest Corridor light rail line
Metro Transit is the lead agency for the project and has support from Hennepin County and cities located in the corridor. It is an important project in Callison’s district, she said, as is the funding request for an expansion at St. David’s Center for Child and Family Development. The Minnetonka-based center is requesting $3.75 million for a renovation and expansion, Callison said.
• Other bonding bill requests with county support include $11.75 million for the Franklin Avenue Bridge and approximately $1.8 million for the Emerge Workforce Training Center in Minneapolis.
“This is not a traditional bonding year,” Higgins said, but she added, “the interest rate is fairly small and so it’s a good time to work on these projects.
The legislative session will conclude in May, meaning it is still early and the county could modify its legislative platform.
“As the session goes, it’s possible another issue will bubble up, so we could add to this at any time,” Higgins said.

Contact Katy Zillmer at [email protected]