The last two years have been an extremely eventful and game-changing time for Wright County and its residents. As we enter 2020, the groundwork that was laid in 2018-19 will begin to reflect the changes that have been instituted as the county moves forward to meet the needs of its residents.
As a county, we have come to realize that we are no longer a mid-sized county outside of the Twin Cities metro area. Many of our residents like the small-town feel that Wright County provides, but we remain one of the fastest-growing counties in the state. With that sustained growth over more than 20 years has come the need to adapt and change with the times for the generations of Wright County residents to follow.
In 2019, many of the choices made were done with the long-term future of the county in mind. In January, we converted from a county coordinator model of operating the business of county government to a county administrator model because, as a growing county of almost 140,000 residents, day-to-day decisions need to be made more readily than waiting for the weekly county board of commissioners meetings.
The most significant conclusion the county made in 2019 was the belief that the time was right to construct a new government center that will put all county offices in one central location after two decades of being or two or three different areas. Even the county’s bond counsel was pleasantly stunned with the lower-than-expected interest rates and the highly competitive bidding for the construction. In addition to the government center project, the county was presented the unique opportunity to partner with the FBI in the construction of a tactical training center that will provide state-of-the-art training for Wright County law enforcement officers. In an increasingly dangerous world where threats are constantly changing, having our officers with access to elite training methods is a valuable tool that we hope to never have to deploy, but will be as prepared as possible in the event we do.
The county accomplished several key objectives in 2019, including:
•Stepping out on our own to pass a Tobacco-21 ordinance to combat the growing epidemic of teen smoking/vaping in the county.
•Approving the Wright County long-range transportation plan in September that addresses and identifies the most pressing short-term and long-term needs of the county’s highway and county road infrastructure.
•Initiating the transition to Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) – utilizing business management software that implements a system of integrated application systems to automate many department functions to streamline county government and use technology to our best advantage.
•Supporting transit services by purchasing the Trailblazer Transit facility in the City of Buffalo. Wright County has quickly become the primary user of the Trailblazer Transit system, a partnership with Sibley and McLeod counties. When the program began in Wright County in 2014, we had three buses in daily service for our residents. This year, we will have 19 buses running daily – a number that will increase to 21 in 2021. Under current projections, Wright County will have 32 Trailblazer buses in daily operation by 2025.
•Adopting a 2020 budget and levy that resulted in a levy increase of 6.7 percent, but, paired with a tax-base growth in excess of 6 percent in the county, led to a flat tax rate – a pledge the county board made following the 17.3 percent increase that was needed in 2018 to bring the county’s budget/levy back in line.
•Reducing health insurance costs by utilizing wellness initiatives. The program has improved the overall health of our employees and lowered health insurance utilization over the past five years. We issued requests for proposal for our insurance coverage and received a reduction in 2020 premiums for our collective efforts.
•Completing a classification/compensation study of all county employees in an effort to retain current employees and attract qualified candidates to seek out employment in Wright County.
As we enter a new decade, many of the decisions made over the past two years will start to take shape. The justice center and tactical training center are both scheduled to open in the summer of 2020 and the government center approved in 2019 will be set for occupancy in 2021.
The county is making a concerted effort to plan for the future and must continue to define and refine our vision for the future, but we won’t be doing it alone. We will be reaching out to cities and townships this spring with long-term strategic planning efforts, helping to define the path of the vision for Wright County in future years. We are also increasing our efforts to get cities and townships engaged in working alongside us in the Central Mississippi Regional Planning Partnership to work on behalf of the mutual interests of both Wright County cities and townships and the portion of Sherburne County that share the Mississippi River as a border. Attempts will be made in 2020 to continue the process we have installed for levy stabilization designed to avoid the peaks and valleys that have marked previous levy rates and devise a system based upon having a predictable and sustainable tax rate. The county board of commissioners voted Commissioner Christine Husom (District 1) as the board’s chairperson for 2020 and voted Commissioner Mike Potter (District 4) as vice chair.
The last two years have been essential for Wright County. In that time, we have made several significant decisions (some of them difficult choices) that have set us up to take on the challenges of the future in a growth county that is evolving, while doing our best to preserve the elements of life here that have made Wright County a great place to work, live and play. At times it can be a balancing act, but we feel that the future looks bright for Wright County because we have spent the last few years building a foundation for our residents and have the pieces in place for our county government to move forward with as many of the key stakeholders within the county at the table as possible to make Wright County government as informed as possible, while striving to operate efficiently and in the best interests of our residents. — Wright County Administrator Lee Kelly