As we transition from 2021 to 2022, Wright County is excited about the prospects of our future, as well as the increased and improved services we will be providing our residents. The most visible change will occur when county employees move into our new Government Center on Braddock Avenue north of Buffalo, which is expected to take place on or before March 1. The move will bring all county employees to one campus. The new Government Center was designed to provide enhanced customer service by placing the departments our residents on the first floor to be easily accessible, including Taxpayer Services and the License Center.
Another key addition to our Government Center is the dental clinic. The county has partnered with Community Dental to provide dental services to residents from Wright County and surrounding counties to improve the health of children and adults in need. The costs to county to illness and emergency room visits due to the lack of proper dental care are staggering. The county received $1.4 million in bonding from the State Legislature to cover the costs of construction and the clinic is expected to open in the summer of 2022.
As part of the move to a single campus, the county will be vacating two of its current properties – the Health and Human Services Center at the intersection of Hwy. 55 and Hwy. 25 and the current Government Center in downtown Buffalo. During 2021, the Wright County Economic Development Authority worked to redevelop the two properties. We currently have a Letter of Intent to sell the HHS Center and will be exploring the available options for the disposition of the Government Center in 2022.
The results of the 2020 U.S. Census were released in 2021 and the growth of Wright County continues to be among the fastest of any county in the state. That growth has been a driver for the County Board of Commissioners. The county board is budgeting with the vision of capturing new growth to keep the tax rate as flat as possible for property owners and incorporating strategic planning to achieve short-term and long-term goals while providing services for our growing population. Thanks to planning following the last Census, for the first time since the 1960 Census, Wright County commissioner districts won’t require redistricting.
One county initiative that took steps forward in 2021 in anticipation of our move into one campus was Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP). The goal of ERP is to streamline operations by eliminating redundancies between departments, making operating systems uniform instead of multiple systems that don’t communicate with each other and saving taxpayer dollars by increasing efficiencies within all county offices and departments. When fully installed, ERP will be a game-changer for the operation of county government in terms of efficiency and cost savings.
While the county made great strides in the fight against COVID-19 in 2021, the battle stretches into its third year as we attempt to adjust and adapt. Wright County Public Health has conducted several mass vaccination clinics at the Highway Department Building to assist residents in getting their first vaccine or booster shots. Public Health has worked tirelessly to help keep our residents safe as new variants of COVID spread across the country.
In the summer of 2021, Wright County received $26.8 million in American Rescue Plan funds. One of the largest commitments was to designate approximately $10 million for broadband improvements. What distance learning in our schools in 2020-21 and the need for remote working taught us was that internet accessibility is grossly deficient in many areas of the county. While the county will not be getting into the Internet Service Provider (ISP) business, the goal is to facilitate an environment to entice ISPs to lay the fiber needed to connect rural residents and assist businesses in the county. The county commissioned a comprehensive broadband study that was presented to the county board in December. The study will enable the county to access state and federal grant program funds to assist in creating a robust fiber grid that will leverage the county for greatly improved internet access in the next 5 to 10 years.
Another initiative that will be discussed by the county board in early 2022 will be whether to continue the county’s half-cent Local Option Sales Tax (LOST) and update the eligible projects list. Enacted in late-2017, LOST has generated approximately $8.5 million annually ($34 million total) for exclusive use on county road and bridge projects. It has helped gap the shortfall in decreased state and federal funding for local projects and LOST funds have been utilized for projects throughout the county. Reporting data has showed that more than 25% of the revenue generated by LOST is derived from people who don’t live in Wright County, which helps in reducing the levy amount paid by taxpayers to keep the 512-mile Wright County highway system among the best in the state.
The Wright County parks system added a new feature in 2021, as the crown jewel of the system – Bertram Chain of Lakes Regional Park – added a campground so more people can enjoy the natural beauty of the park. Wright County’s parks system has been critical in helping people cope with the restrictions brought on by COVID and residents from all corners of the county are never more than 10 miles from a county park to enjoy the outdoors with their families.
As we leave 2021 behind, we look optimistically at the prospects for 2022 and beyond. With Wright County government centralized at one location to optimize our operations and create efficiencies, we are prepared to take our customer service to an enhanced level to serve the public while shepherding the continued growth and increased demand for services. We hope you will take the time to see our new facilities and know that our employees are here to serve the needs of our growing community. As we look forward to the possibilities before us, we embrace the growth of our county while remaining mindful of the small-town past from which we came that has made Wright County the choice of many families looking for the amenities of the modern era and the peace of mind that our tight-knit communities provide.
Lee Kelly is the Wright County administrator and is officed in Buffalo.