- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Minneapolis Star Tribune, Dec. 26

Minneapolis City Council’s pay hike was needlessly sneaky

Add local government transparency and accountability to the list of 2017 losers in Minneapolis, thanks to an unnecessarily shifty year-end move by the City Council.

In case you missed the news while preparing for the holidays in your own year-end rush, the council - led by secret Santa and outgoing President Barb Johnson - voted unanimously on Dec. 15 to increase annual salaries for its members and the mayor by $10,000. (Abdi Warsame was absent.)

The numbers are less troublesome than the process, or lack thereof. The raises were not on the pre-meeting agenda, no council committees had considered them, and there was no public comment period or public hearing. They also weren’t included in the city’s recently approved $1.4 billion 2018 budget.

Johnson, ending an otherwise solid career as a voice of reason on the council, introduced the resolution, explaining during the meeting that the increases will put Minneapolis council members in similar salary territory with their full-time counterparts in Denver and Boston but still $20,000 below those in Portland and Seattle.

Minneapolis council members, who will be paid $98,695 next year, did receive 2.5 percent annual increases for the past four years after being paid $80,354 with no increases in 2012 and 2013.

Despite Johnson’s efforts, it’s difficult to make good comparisons. St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman earns $126,000 a year (vs. the $126,528 post-raise salary for Minneapolis Mayor-elect Jacob Frey), and the capital city’s council members are paid $63,000 for what is supposed to be part-time work.

Hennepin County commissioners are paid $113,566 annually, with the exception of Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson, who has kept his own salary at $108,093.

Not to be overlooked in the stealthy Minneapolis resolution is the provision that the mayor and council members also will receive raises in each year of their four-year terms. Those hikes will be tied to increases the council approves in the city’s collective bargaining agreements with unionized workers. Taxpayers should take note as those agreements take shape.

In a statement provided after the Dec. 15 meeting, city spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie pointed out that the 2018 increases represent just 0.01 percent of the total 2018 budget. The money will be scraped from the approved budgets of several city departments that had received increases for new 2018 initiatives.

“The city anticipates no negative impact to current services provided to those who live, work and play in Minneapolis as a result of this council action,” McKenzie wrote.

The Star Tribune Editorial Board has long argued that pay for public officials needs to be relatively comparable to private-sector salaries for jobs with similar responsibilities. The elected representatives who control the state’s largest and most important city should receive competitive compensation.

But Minneapolis taxpayers also deserve a more accountable, more open process than what transpired at City Hall on Dec. 15. There will be five newcomers on the 2018 council, and Frey will move into the mayor’s office. As just part of the payback for the hefty salary increases they’ll benefit from, the newcomers and veteran council members should commit to more transparency in decision-making.


Post Bulletin, Dec. 26

Rural health care crisis is real, not contrived

A report this month from the Minnesota Hospital Association makes clear exactly how challenging the business of running a hospital — especially in rural Minnesota — has become.

The median operating margin for hospitals and health care systems in the state fell by 29 percent in fiscal year 2016, according to the MHA report, from 2.4 percent in 2015 to 1.7 percent last year. And rural hospitals and health systems are operating even more on the razor edge, at 1.1 percent.

The number of acute-care hospitals operating in the red went up from 21 in 2015 to 28 last year, representing a striking percentage of hospitals that are losing ground. Two of those were in Southeast Minnesota. St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Wabasha reported a minus-3.9 percent margin in fiscal 2016, and Winona Health Services was minus-2.2 percent.

In Wabasha, the medical center’s chief financial officer said the red ink was related to higher costs, the need to raise salaries for long-term staff because of a tight labor market, and insurance reimbursement rates.

Those are familiar issues to anyone who’s been following the controversy in Albert Lea, with Mayo Clinic Health System’s plans to move inpatient hospital care from that medical center to Austin.

Southeast Minnesota was one of three regions in the state where margins generally did better, with Olmsted Medical Center showing a net margin of 11 percent, including nonpatient services. OMC expects this year’s margin to be closer to 3 percent. And Mayo’s net margin, including nonpatient income, was 4.7 percent.

But those are the big overall numbers. Mayo says its combined operations in Albert Lea and Austin lost $8 million last year and $4.6 million the year before, due in large part to the forces cited by St. Elizabeth’s in Wabasha and others.

“Rural hospitals tend to experience lower margins, on average, due to the smaller volumes of patients they treat and scope of services they provide,” the MHA report says. “Rural hospitals also cross-subsidize a larger portion of their total operations to support other nonhospital health care services their communities need, such as nursing homes, ambulances, free-standing clinics and home health care.”

Despite what Mayo’s critics in Albert Lea, fired up by union activists, would say, it’s not a fiction that hospitals in small cities and rural areas face major challenges that will require new approaches. It’s not a contrived financial crisis that health care giants are using as a way to get bigger and operate on the cheap.

“The operating environment for hospitals and health systems is getting tougher,” said Lawrence Massa, president and CEO of the hospital association. “We have to address it from a policy standpoint - both at the federal and state level - if we want to have a health care system that provides access to essential services everywhere in our state and country. We can’t take it for granted.”

John Wolfe, the CFO at St. Elizabeth’s in Wabasha, said that institution has “experienced financial volatility” for much of its 119-year history and has been able to weather it “in partnership with our generous community.”

It will take that partnership and more for medical centers in cities such as Wabasha, Winona, Albert Lea and Austin to adapt and thrive.


Mankato Free Press, Dec. 29

Facebook: Social media giant must stop fake news

For a media platform with more followers than The New York Times and Washington Post combined, Facebook remains far behind in coming to terms with its social and public responsibility as a media organization.

Facebook leaders seemed surprised to learn early this year, for example, that its platform was used by Russian advertising trolls bent on influencing the U.S. presidential election. Facebook executives seemed oblivious to the fact that fake news masquerading as real news was shared on its platform without any question. When the impact of the fake news and ads became clear shortly after the election, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said it was a “crazy idea.”

Company executives admitted during a congressional hearing that Facebook had been used to spread misinformation on the election. Facebook admitted that some 126 million Americans saw “inflammatory” political ads from a Kremlin-linked company.

It was only after evidence surfaced that these frauds were a reality did Facebook make an attempt to enlist professional journalists and editors to fact check its news. Now, some of those fact checkers see Facebook using them as part of a public relations campaign. They’re hampered in their work because Facebook will not allow them access to some internal workings and technology, according to a report in Editor and Publisher.

Facebook and other social media have a profit model that rewards “sharing,” regardless of the accuracy. And while Facebook agreed to hire 1,000 additional employees to scrutinize Facebook ads, it admitted it would not be able to review all of them before publication, and it will go right on collecting its fees from those ads.

Of course, Facebook can’t be successful if people don’t use it. It makes its money on the size of its audience, and the free social media outlet that many find useful to connect with family and friends can be just as easily used for evil purposes.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota is sponsoring legislation with Sen. John McCain that would require disclosure of who is buying political ads on social media, just as we require the disclosure of such advertising on television. That would be a good start to getting more transparency out of a powerful media institution.

Facebook executives continue to contend that it is not a true media company and is only the conduit for their audience’s messages. But that’s like a newspaper saying it’s not responsible for publishing letters to the editor or stories from other sources. In that sense, newspapers have much more legal culpability than Facebook.

While this newspaper uses Facebook to create links to its legitimate and verified news stories on its website, it has safeguards to protect against publishing fake news or fraudulent advertising.

Facebook profits handsomely from its ability to skirt responsibility for publishing fake news. The public and democracy is not served by that business model.

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