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Hennepin County weighs cuts to senior services and food shelves

The cuts come amid increase strain on the county’s human services budget.

Leif Grina
Leif Grina, right, leads the Minneapolis Regional Retirees Council, which represents people who worked at more than a dozen union organizations.
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee

Dozens of people packed the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners’ meeting room Thursday afternoon to protest proposed budget cuts to services that help some 1,500 elderly residents with medical care and help low-income households access food shelves.

Under the county’s 2020 budget proposal, an initiative called “Healthy Seniors” — which helps fund neighborhood nonprofits that provide at-home medical aid and other help — could lose all county funding, a move opponents said could have a significant impact on the nonprofits’ clients. In addition, the plan slashes spending for food assistance programs by nearly one-third. All of the ideas are negotiable until the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners finalizes the entire 2020 budget in December.

Hennepin County commissioners discussed the ideas at a hearing Thursday afternoon, where some 50 people filled the meeting room to capacity, while dozens of others protested from an overflow lobby. Some of them wore signs around their necks reading “Save Our Seniors.”

Currently, the county’s Healthy Seniors program provides a total of $110,000 in funding to three Minneapolis nonprofits: Nokomis Healthy Seniors, Longfellow/Seward Healthy Seniors and Southeast Seniors. The centers provide a neighborhood-based system of home care — called block nurse programming — in which nurses provide exams; staff coordinates transportation, errands or chores; and volunteers lead socializing activities. They are funded heavily by government aid, in addition to grant funding, private donations and fees. The services are an alternative to nursing homes or assisted living facilities for some older residents who would rather live independently in their own homes.

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On Thursday, dozens of people testified against the cuts, many of whom emphasized the county’s rapidly growing senior population. Among them was Will Sims, who lives in a high-rise apartment complex in northeast Minneapolis and shared his experience with at-home care there to emphasize support for the south Minneapolis programs.

“I just spent six days in the hospital, just got out yesterday — doctor told me about how I might have five years,” he said. “Social workers are more to us than regular people. … Without social workers, a lot of us wouldn’t be here today; a lot of seniors would die early.”

To stress the benefits of her job, Judy Houck, a social worker at Southeast Seniors, recalled a case in which she helped a patient, whom she called John, get an ambulance. “Turns out John was having a stroke and our intervention saved his life,” she said. “Every time I leave his apartment John says, ‘What would I do without you?’”

County leaders say they can no longer financially support the nonprofits amid a forecasted 2020 budget deficit for the county’s human services budget, which covers not only those programs but also services to help homeless residents and people who struggle with substance addictions.

Deputy Administrator Jennifer DeCubellis, who oversees the department, said Thursday that the proposed cuts are not about the value of the nonprofits’ services but rather a statement on who should pay for them. She said it should not be the responsibility of the county to cover the expenses since its tax base does not directly benefit when older residents live comfortably at home.

“This is truly a statement of ‘get the money from the right pocket,’ not a statement of the value that the services provide,” she said. “When seniors stay healthy at home, which we all believe is the right answer, who benefits and keeps the money in their pocket are the health plans that get paid to keep seniors healthy.”

Last year, the county eliminated a similar block nurse program from its spending for the same reason, she said, while emphasizing that Hennepin County is willing to partner with the nonprofit sector to lobby for more money from insurance investors and state legislators.

“These are important programs — they are but a drop in the bucket for this county’s budget,” said Leif Grina, who leads the Minneapolis Regional Retirees Council, which represents people who worked at more than a dozen union organizations.

For food shelves and other emergency meal programs, which are separate in the county’s budget from traditional food stamps (SNAP) or state-mandated assistance programs, the 2020 budget proposal sets aside $640,000, down from more than $1 million in 2019.

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The reduction follows a roughly 25 percent decrease in 2019 and conversations over the past several years between county staff and agencies that manage food shelves about restructuring their funding sources, DeCubellis said. In the end, she said the proposed cut comes down to human services’ strained budget and the fact that other counties do not provide the same support.

Levy increase

Across all county departments, Hennepin County administrator David Hough has laid out a $2.5 billion spending plan for next year, up $87.7 million from the 2019 budget. To cover that increase, the board has approved a maximum increase to the county’s property tax levy — or the total amount of property tax the county will collect — of 4.75 percent. That would mean owners of median-value homes (about $281,000) would pay Hennepin County about $60 more next year on top of city taxes and other property fees.

Property taxes cover about one-third of the county’s budget overall, while federal, state and other sources make up the remainder.

A few weeks ago, Commissioner Angela Conley, who represents parts of Minneapolis, proposed an additional 1 percent increase to next year’s maximum property tax levy to generate more revenue for human services, but the majority of her board colleagues voted that idea down.

“People’s lives are literally on the line, and we have to cut parts of our budget — we have to cut services — in order to rightsize ourselves,” said Conley, who previously worked in job assistance for the county, on Thursday. “I don’t believe that we should ever be cutting services on the backs of poor people and vulnerable people.”

Meanwhile, Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who represents Hennepin County’s northwest suburbs and rural areas and twice ran for Minnesota governor on the Republican ticket, voiced skepticism of his DFL colleagues’ funding priorities across the board. “If some of these [human services] are so important, then maybe we shouldn’t create a new program to fund tree canopies or the lawyers for illegal immigrants or dedicated bicycle tracks,” he said. “There are a lot of other things we don’t have to fund.”

On Thursday, Hough told commissioners that there is flexibility within his proposal to shift around money, using contingency funds, to make any changes they deem necessary.

Later this month, the board will hold meetings to get the public’s thoughts on other aspects of next year’s budget proposal, including public-safety spending and the county attorney’s office. Then, in November, county leaders are likely to amend the plan before the board of commissioners finalizes it on Dec. 12.

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Chair Debbie Goettel, a former mayor of Richfield who voters elected to represent the Bloomington area in 2017, said the 2020 budget cycle has been her most challenging so far.

The fact that the country has a growing need for human services, she said, “and the fact that we can’t meet that … it weighs heavy on all of our hearts here.”