The following article was written by Kevin Z. Gray, St. Louis County Administrator. It was originally published in the Duluth News Tribune on December 26, 2016.
Right about this time last year, I wrote to you predicting 2016 would include a bunch of road and bridge projects, continued efforts to clean up blighted properties, and more emphasis on child protection services. I’m happy to say we accomplished all of these, but as I look to 2017 it’s obvious there’s so much more for us to do.
Serving children and families in crisis is a top priority in this coming year. Despite the improving economy, we have more children and families living in poverty. We also have more people struggling with addictions to opioids and methamphetamine, and with mental health issues. The circumstances in so many of these cases are heartbreaking, made even more so when you realize children are often caught in the middle.
The number of children in out-of-home placements remains at record high levels. We’re investing in programs that help families work through the underlying problems that lead to children being removed. With the County Board’s support, we’ve added staff to make caseloads more manageable so our employees can spend more time and make meaningful differences.
The issues of mental health and substance abuse are among the critical focus areas identified by the County Board through recent strategic planning as needing more attention and action. The shortage of treatment options and available beds to serve people with extreme mental health needs is a significant challenge and budget item for us. We will continue to partner with providers and the state to seek comprehensive mental health reform.
Another focus area the Board identified in the strategic planning process is economic development. The redevelopment of blighted properties is one way we’re promoting community growth and development. We’ve had good success partnering with cities and townships to find positive re-use and opportunities to add tax forfeited properties back to the tax rolls. In 2017 we are committed to cleaning up at least 35 blighted properties – and potentially more as funding allows – finding positive re-use and development.
Public Works is looking at another busy construction season in 2017. The most notable project in Duluth will be the completion of 4th Street, which includes rebuilding the road and replacing the utilities beneath. Also significant will be the resurfacing of Arrowhead Road from Highway 53 to Arlington Avenue. The project will include a new traffic signal at Menard’s Drive and other safety improvements.
The bigger Public Works 2017 story is the many smaller-scale projects that together mean a smoother, safer ride on dozens more miles of county roads. This includes the resurfacing of of Becks Road in Midway Township, and Schulz Road in Rice Lake; of eight miles – basically every county road – that run through Proctor; and another 12 roads totaling 22 miles in the Brookston and Saginaw areas. It’s a similar story county-wide, with culvert replacements scheduled in Tower, Babbitt and Britt; bridge replacements in Ely, Cotton and Morcom Township; and almost $13 million in road resurfacing projects in Eveleth, Hoyt Lakes, Side Lake and Kabetogama. In total, expect a $63.5 million investment, funding 20 bridge replacements, 94 miles of pavement preservation projects, 250 miles of preventative maintenance projects, and more. Watch for lots of green project announcement signs, and remember to stay alert in these work zones.
The increasingly popular County Land Explorer is getting an upgrade in the coming months. It’s exciting to see how many people – whether for professional or recreational use – are finding uses for this app. It combines mapping data from our Assessor, Auditor, Planning, Land and other departments. The upgrade will feature a mobile-friendly redesign, along with options to view the mapped data as focused theme, such as environmental, road construction, market sales and value, zoning and land use. The county's newest aerial photography is incorporated for an enhanced mapping experience.
Also getting a mobile-friendly redesign is the entire County website. Our new site should debut this summer.
We’ll be welcoming two new commissioners – Beth Olson and Mike Jugovich – to our County Board in January. I look forward to the fresh perspectives and energy they will bring.
Newly elected leaders at the state and federal levels will likely mean policy changes affecting the services we are required to provide, and the funding of those mandates. We will work hard with our elected officials, stressing bipartisanship as we seek reforms that best serve you.
On behalf of the St. Louis County Board and staff, thank you for the continued opportunity to serve you. We have exciting projects on the horizon, and good people working for you, providing the many services you expect from us. So while there are challenges, there’s also much reason for excitement as we look forward to 2017.