A Message from Wright County Administrator Lee Kelly
It is safe to say that 2020 was an unprecedented year presenting unique challenges that drove Wright County to adapt and change to our “new normal.” It would have seemed impossible to predict when 2020 began the impact that COVID-19 would have on our day-to-day lives. Yet, throughout the pandemic, Wright County was able to accomplish many positive things through hard work and ingenuity. Our Public Health staff has worked diligently to prevent the spread of the virus among our residents. As we turn the calendar to 2021 with the hope of the light at the end of the tunnel, Wright County Public Health will remain diligent to protect and immunize our residents.
While COVID-19 provided a significant hurdle in planning for Wright County’s future, throughout 2020 an ambitious effort was undertaken in strategic planning. Many candid discussions took place internally, including the County Board of Commissioners, Administration and all county offices and departments. Feedback was solicited from key external partners, including representatives from all of Wright County’s cities and townships. The purpose of these meetings was to shine a spotlight on identifying the county’s strengths and weaknesses – sometimes netting surprising results that has us seeing our future from a wider perspective and knowledge base than we entered the process. With the information gathered, in 2021 we will initiate steps to better position our efforts to meet the needs of a growing county.
A key aspect of the strategic planning process was the adoption of new mission and vision statements for the county, as well as identifying the value streams we share as individual departments and county government as a whole. The county’s new mission statement is “Wright County provides fiscally responsible, quality services through innovation leadership and compassion.”
Although the pandemic dominated many aspects of our lives, we were able to witness the completion of two significant county projects. In July, the Sheriff’s Office Training Center, a facility co-branded with the FBI, opened and is providing state-of-the-art facilities for law enforcement training for several agencies. In October, the Wright County Justice Center opened, moving several more departments to a centralized campus on Braddock Avenue on the north side of Buffalo. The final piece of the construction puzzle to get all employees to one campus will be the completion of the new Government Center, which is scheduled for occupancy in Fall 2021. When the Government Center opens, residents will be able to access services in a single location.
As we look to close the door on 2020 and walk through to the hope and promise of 2021, there will be some notable changes in county leadership positions.
On January 4, Brian Lutes was sworn in as the new Wright County Attorney, replacing Tom Kelly who retired after 37 years of service to our citizens – the last 22 as their elected county attorney. On January 5, the Wright County Board of Commissioners welcomed two new members – Mary Wetter replaces Mike Potter as the representative of District 4 and Mike Kaczmarek will represent District 5, replacing the retiring Charlie Borrell.
In developing the 2021 budget the County Board of Commissioners has been cognizant of budgeting appropriately to meet the needs of a growing county. Over the past few years, the county has taken an approach to budgeting using forecasting models to stabilize the county’s tax rate. With the economic impact of COVID-19, the goal for 2021 wasn’t simply to focus on having a stable tax rate, the goal was to lower it. The 2021 budget included a 5 percent levy increase, but was offset by an increase in new construction growth of an estimated 6.99 percent. With the growth in tax capacity exceeding the growth in the levy, Wright County was able to accomplish that goal – reducing the tax rate from 44.22 percent to 43.71 percent (the lowest tax rate in the last eight years).
An exciting project on the horizon for 2021 will be the construction of the Dental Center. A strong lobbying effort demonstrating the need for a regional dental clinic for the underserved population of Central Minnesota yielded $1.4 million in state funds to assure the clinic would be built as part of the Government Center project. Wright County will be partnering with Community Dental to provide improved access to dental care for residents on Medical Assistance.
Another project that will take flight in 2021 will be the implementation of a county Economic Development Authority. The immediate purpose of the EDA will be the development of the current Government Center in downtown Buffalo and the Health & Human Services Center at the intersection of Hwys. 55 and 25. The long-term goal of the EDA will be to assist Wright County economic development efforts and provide a partnership with cities and townships. An EDA will provide access to additional grant opportunities to fulfill their goals that are only available if a county EDA is in place.
Transit in Wright County continues to grow to meet the needs of residents. The Trailblazer Transit facility outside of Buffalo is undergoing an expansion to accommodate and increase the size of the fleet of buses in the county. Completion of the expansion project is set for June 2021.
During 2020, Wright County received $16.5 million in CARES Act funds and the County Board of Commissioners made the compassionate act of giving almost half it away to help assist Wright County schools, non-profits, affiliate groups and small businesses. Starting this month, the county will administer a state-funded relief program earmarked to assist small businesses in the county that have been adversely impacted by the pandemic. More information on this program will be available on the county website www.co.wright.mn.us.
While most of us will be more than happy to put 2020 behind us, there is reason for optimism for 2021. The hope is that COVID-19 vaccines will help eradicate the virus and allow for a loosening of restrictions. Many projects are underway and planned for the near future that will move forward. Wright County persevered the challenges presented in 2020 and is ready to embrace the promise of 2021.