Pulitzer Prize Material (in my humble opinion)

Written by Jeff Johnson on June 3, 2009. Posted in General

Minnesota Finance & Commerce published a front-page story about this blog and our first two Golden Hydrant awards yesterday, including a response from Hennepin County Board Chairman Mike Opat.  It was a balanced and fair assessment:

Hennepin County Commissioner Johnson takes his budget scrutiny online

by Bob Geiger Staff Writer

After being on the short end of many 6-1 votes, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson has launched an Internet weblog to help police fiscal spending by the seven-member board governing Minnesota’s most populous county.

Johnson, a former Republican House member who in 2008 succeeded Penny Steele election in the county’s sprawling Seventh District, is criticizing excessive or wasteful spending in his Hennepin County Taxpayer Watchdog blog.

Quietly launched earlier this month, Johnson’s blog – with a tough-looking bulldog on the website, www.taxpayerwatchdog.org – is an extension of a direct mail campaign ad designed to convince voters to elect a budget watchdog to the Hennepin County board.

Since its launch, Johnson has singled out funding part-time sex education teachers in Richfield and Brooklyn Park schools and a solar energy panel array at the county’s Medina public works building for Golden Fire Hydrant awards.

Golden Fire Hydrants are bestowed on programs or projects that Johnson believes block the county’s ability to fund basic government services.

“When I was elected, my intent was not to start a blog,” said Johnson. “But I was on the short end of too many 6-to-1 votes.” So he decided to let the public know about the workings of the board, which controls a budget of more than $1 billion.

Most recently, Johnson penned an entry critical of Hennepin County spending $900,000 to install solar panels in Medina, headlining the piece “New solar panels will save taxpayers $15,000 in energy costs – starting in 2070.”

Johnson multiplied the annual cost savings of the solar array, which was commissioned in April, by the 60 years it would take to pay off $900,000. The solar array provides 5 percent of the power at the two-story building.

“In 2009, when we supposedly don’t have enough money to even provide the basic services of county government, spending a nice chunk of change on a project that might (at the very best) provide a small savings to my great-great grandchildren is just plain crazy,” opined Johnson, who characterized the project as “Solar Silliness.”

Sex ed gets first ‘hydrant’

The freshman commissioner’s first Golden Fire Hydrant award singled out county funding of the sex education teachers in Brooklyn Center and Richfield schools.

“Simply put, public school teachers in Minnesota are paid by school districts, not counties,” Johnson blogged. “If we in Hennepin County followed that simple rule, we’d have a little more money available for those basic county services that I’m told we can no longer afford.”

There are two sides to the sex ed issue, however: Those who believe in strict adherence to established funding channels, and county government officials who oversee taxpayer-funded health programs that often finance teen pregnancy.

Among those elected officials is Mike Opat, Hennepin County board chairman, a supporter of the sex education program.

“I would adamantly disagree with (Johnson) on the pregnancy issue,” said Opat. “I think that should be the county’s first priority.”

Opat cited the 1,200 teen pregnancies per year in Hennepin County, and said the heath care costs for a single prematurely born infant would exceed the cost of the two part-time teaching positions the county funds.

“Blogs are quick to point out a problem, and tend to run away from actually engaging in a solution to the problem,” he said.

Budget numbers reflect the cost of teen pregnancies.

According to Hennepin County studies, just 13 percent of families in the county begin with a teen giving birth. However, those families make up 55 per cent of long-term social service users.

Additionally, the studies indicate that children born to teen mothers have higher risks of infant death, childhood death, health problems, cognitive and emotional delays, problems in school and prolonged poverty.

Bottom line? In 2004, teen pregnancy cost Hennepin County taxpayers $32 million, even though the county’s teen birth rate fell 12 percent between 1996 and 2004.

Opat characterized Johnson’s blog critiques of the board he serves on as “a brand of partisanship that has not carried a majority in the county for a long time, and I doubt it ever will.”

But he did say Johnson’s return-on-investment criticism of the Medina solar array had merit, even though the county has committed to energy saving initiatives and technologies through its “Cool County Initiative” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Johnson’s blog site was designed by Minneapolis-based P2B Strategies Inc., which has worked for Republican candidates such as former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman for presidential candidate U.S. Sen. John McCain.

While I’m a bit confused as to how stating my disagreement with certain spending programs in a blog is somehow unacceptably partisan (especially since I have stated these same objections in previous Board meetings), I appreciate the fact that most of my colleagues are not going to agree with my spending objections. 

The great thing about representative democracy is that even the losing side – a.k.a. me – can share dissenting opinion with the public.  And while I realize that there will be some political retribution from certain members of the Board (as there already has been), I will continue to let my constituents know about how we spend their money on the county board and will do so without ever criticizing any individual board or staff member.

So, please stay tuned: The best Golden Fire Hydrant yet is coming next week.

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