I’ve Never Skewered Anyone Before

Written by Jeff Johnson on June 8, 2009. Posted in General

Friday’s Star Tribune carried a story by Mary Jane Smetanka regarding this blog and its effect on the Hennepin County Board:

New member skewers Hennepin County Board

After being on the losing side of budget votes more often than he expected, new Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson has started a blog that takes some light-hearted pokes at projects that he considers wasteful.

Johnson’s blog features the same image of a surly looking bulldog that was on the “Taxpayer Watchdog” campaign literature that helped him win the Seventh District board seat last fall. On the blog, Johnson awards “Golden Hydrant” awards that figuratively lift a leg on projects he dislikes.

So far, hydrant winners include the county’s funding of two half-time sex-education positions in Richfield and Brooklyn Center schools and the county’s $900,000 investment in solar panels for its Medina public works building.

Johnson views the funding of the two sex-ed positions in public schools as something outside the county’s responsibilities. The solar installation saves about $15,000 a year in energy costs, but on the blog, Johnson writes that that means the county will recoup its investment in the year 2070. He notes that by that time, he’ll be dead, his fifth-grade son will be 71 and the public works building may no longer be standing.

His intent, he said, is to “shine light on how we spend money in the county, because it’s complicated.”

“I’ve seen some spending that I did not agree with, that’s wasteful and duplicative,” he said. “At the same time, we’re hearing frequent comments that we’re not providing basic county services because of cuts at the state level. That may be true, but … we could fill that hole if we didn’t spend money on some of these other things.”

The primary reason I started this blog was not my frustration with wasteful spending, but with the continual complaint at the Board that cuts in state aid were devastating Hennepin County and that we did not have enough money to provide even some of the basic county services to our constituents. 

In reality, if we did a better job of setting priorities and cutting back a bit on those things that either aren’t on that priority list (sex ed teachers) or don’t make any fiscal sense whatsoever (solar panels that never pay for themselves), we would have much less difficulty in funding those things that are most important.

Johnson, a Plymouth Republican who is a former assistant majority leader in the state House of Representatives, said he did not plan to start a blog when he joined the board in January. But after repeatedly being the lone dissenter — in one memorable meeting, board Chairman Mike Opat jokingly called Johnson “Dr. No” after he cast a series of “no” votes — he decided a blog was one way to keep constituents informed about what goes into the county’s $1.7 billion budget.

“I’m not just here to vote ‘no’ and lose over things,” Johnson said. “I’d like to reform things.”

Johnson used campaign funds to pay to have the Web page set up, but he said he’s done the blogging himself. He notified campaign supporters and acquaintances about the blog by e-mail. Most of the feedback has been positive, he said.

“Most people say ‘thank you, I never paid attention to how the county spends money,'” he said. “And a few people disagree with me.”

Reaction among his board colleagues has been mixed. “Not all of them are happy,” Johnson said. He said he tried to talk to them about it and has kept the tone on the blog light.

“I knew this would ruffle some feathers, but I’ve been careful not to criticize anyone on the staff or on the board,” he said. “I don’t want to get petty.”

Opat said Johnson’s blog is a first for the board. He doesn’t object to the blog itself — “All forms of communication are in play these days,” he said — but he disagrees about whether the projects Johnson has targeted are wasteful.

While the payback period on the solar panel project “is debatable,” Opat said, he said government sometimes has to take the lead and set an innovative example so others follow.

From the many e-mails and calls I received about my solar panel post, the 60-year payback assertion does indeed appear debatable – it’s possibly longer than that.  Several people pointed out the opportunity costs of money, the high price of hail insurance and the lifespan of solar panels (well under 60 years in almost every case) to argue that I was much too generous in my calculation.

I should point out that I have seen examples in the past of solar energy projects that made sense.  If we could have found a way to invest taxpayer dollars on such a project, we would have been leading by example effectively and encouraging others in the private sector to follow suit.  Choosing to lead with an example that provides no ROI whatsoever to the taxpayers, however, is not going to convince anyone in the private sector to follow.

He said he “absolutely disagrees” with Johnson on the sex-education spending. With 1,200 Hennepin County teenagers having babies each year, the teaching positions are an attempt at pregnancy prevention, he said. Teenage moms and their babies often end up needing expensive county services later.

“Don’t you care about teen pregnancy?”  That’s the most common rebuttal I have heard regarding my Golden Fire Hydrant for the sex education teachers.  The question, however, is not whether teen pregnancy is a real problem in society.  I certainly recognize that teen pregnancy is a serious problem, but do not believe that the county should therefore start paying for teachers in public schools to attempt to address the problem. 

School districts pay for teachers in Minnesota, not counties.  Again, if Hennepin County can’t afford to provide those basic services that counties are supposed to provide, maybe we shouldn’t be paying for those services that we are NOT supposed to provide.

While Johnson said he hopes the blog doesn’t erode his relationships with other board members, he believes he already has experienced “a little retribution” in a board vote. On Tuesday, an administrative recommendation to devote $100,000 in federal stimulus money to a Maple Plain sewer project in Johnson’s district was removed by other commissioners who subbed a project in St. Louis Park instead.

“Maybe it was a shot across the bow,” Johnson said. “I think we’ll work through that.”

Opat said the board “had a number of worthy projects to do. We do deviate from… administrative recommendations.”

Johnson’s blog “in and of itself will not hurt relations up here,” Opat said. “It depends on how he chooses to communicate. If he targets projects that others overwhelmingly support, and repeats [that criticism], other folks will remember that.”

Opat said he had no plans now to start his own blog. “It’s time-consuming, but I guess I wouldn’t rule it out,” he said.
Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380

I’ll have the newest Golden Fire Hydrant award posted Wednesday night.

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