St. Louis County: 'We forge ahead' -- Challenges persist, but roads getting fixed, partnerships proving effective
It's always a challenge to predict what's to come in the new year. There's certainly reason for optimism. Our local tax base is growing. And we have in the works numerous road-improvement projects to benefit the traveling public, new technology to better serve our citizens and businesses, and strengthened efforts to protect and help our most vulnerable residents.
At the same time, there's uncertainty in our nation's capitol regarding funding for key programs our county administers. Likewise, we continue to analyze changes in tax laws to determine the implications at the local level.
Still, we forge ahead. We continue to build new partnerships and stronger relationships with our lawmakers in St. Paul and with Duluth and neighboring cities and townships as a way to offer better services more efficiently.
As you may have heard, our County Board gathered recently with state representatives and senators whose districts include St. Louis County to discuss priorities and needs heading into the 2018 legislative session. It's the first time such a meeting has been held in about 20 years, and this kind of communication will serve us well in St. Paul.
Among the county's 2018 bonding requests is funding for critical updates to the historic St. Louis County Heritage and Arts Center (the Depot). We're also joining other Minnesota counties in urging the state to fund new regional crisis programs and facilities and permanent supportive housing for people experiencing behavioral health issues. This is a huge need in our region. Getting people the help they need sooner will change lives and reduce the need for other costly services. A third request is for the Northeast Regional Corrections Center, or NERCC, specifically to complete upgrades to buildings where job skills are taught, increasing residents' chances of success after release.
Our 2018 budget maintains and builds our core services of public health and human services, public works, taxpayer services, and public safety. It also directs additional resources to help people dealing with substance abuse and mental health issues, to support families providing foster care, and to expand outreach to youth.
Watch for an accelerated process to put tax-forfeited properties up for sale and return them more quickly to the tax roll. Meanwhile, county staff is working hard to gather public input to update the county's Comprehensive Land Use Plan.
The 2018 construction season will include an estimated $47 million in improvements to county roads and bridges. We'll be building the first roundabout in the southern part of the county at the intersection of Maple Grove and Midway roads. While many motorists are initially skeptical and even fearful of roundabouts, they are proven to decrease serious accidents and save lives while efficiently moving traffic.
Other projects for our Public Works Department in the Duluth area include rehabilitating the bridge on Superior Street that crosses the Lester River; resurfacing Arrowhead Road from Haines Road to Rice Lake Road, including widening Arrowhead to add a center turn lane; and finishing the reconstruction of Fourth Street.
We are excited to see our partnerships grow with the Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment and others. Together, we are finding innovative ways to combat the opioid epidemic that has hurt so many families.
In addition to our bonding initiative to help people with mental health challenges, we are expanding our participation in the Mental Health Court, bringing this program to the northern part of the county. This is consistent with a strategic focus area of the County Board, and we are hopeful to make long-term, meaningful differences in the lives of people struggling with substance abuse and mental health.
We will continue to put new technology to good use in 2018. The sheriff's office now can issue a text message to all cell phones within a designated danger area. This allows us to quickly alert people to threats and major incidents and provide immediate instruction on how to keep safe. Also, if you haven't already subscribed to Northlandalert.com, I encourage you to do so to receive other emergency notifications from the county as well as from the cities of Duluth, Hermantown, Hibbing, and Virginia.
The St. Louis County website is getting a significant redesign to make it easier for people to find information about county services. The new design will also be mobile-friendly for the ever-increasing number of users who access our website from their phone or tablet.
We are moving forward with efforts to build a new government services center facility in Virginia to serve as a centralized hub for citizens of central and northern St. Louis County. The new "GSC North" is expected to make it easier for people to access our services while also improving employee efficiency by bringing multiple departments into close proximity.
So, yes, there are challenges, but also much to look forward to in the new year. On behalf of the County Board and county staff members, I thank you for the opportunity to serve you and wish you a happy 2018!
Kevin Z. Gray is the St. Louis County administrator. He wrote this at the request of the News Tribune Opinion page.