Commissioner Stephanie Podulke shared the following comments during the January 5, 2021 meeting of the Olmsted County Board of Commissioners.
Last January, there we were, sailing along, all of us – dealing personally with customary daily joys and challenges while maintaining and improving Olmsted County: protecting vulnerable children and adults, caring for roads and bridges, expanding housing programs, planning for a new regional crisis center, issuing licenses, filing for passports, and making plans for improving Graham Park, a nature center at Oxbow Park, and more.
Then we ran smack into a perfect storm; a worldwide pandemic, an economic crisis, and community recognition of widespread systemic racism. A trifecta of extremely challenging problems. Luckily, at Olmsted County, our team has years of experience considering options and possibilities, navigating difficulties, adapting to change, and managing emergencies. As Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “The plan is nothing; the planning is everything.”
Olmsted County was ready. With the storm raging, we all pulled on the oars to navigate towards safety. Some of the county’s notable pandemic responses:
- We managed the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) for more than 100 days and sustained our public health response for months, leading the local efforts in contact tracing and now preparing for vaccine distribution. (We worked with many partners to achieve this such as Mayo Clinic, Olmsted Medical Center, City of Rochester, schools, and many others.)
- Retrofitted and staffed Graham Park as a COVID-19 testing site and now as a community food distribution hub.
- Established remote work protocols, so many of our staff could safely work at home while maintaining the essential services the county provides to our communities.
- Procured necessary safe temporary housing to shelter the homeless and worked with partners to quarantine and isolate vulnerable members of our community as needed.
- Delivered essential food supplies and provided transportation support to the most vulnerable and continued to provide public safety and other essential services throughout the pandemic.
- Provided timely and accurate information to the whole community as well as outreach and education to those most at risk.
- Approved a 0% property tax increase for 2021, allowed late property tax payments without penalties and interest, and managed more than $19 million in COVID-19 relief funds including distribution into the business and nonprofit communities.
Our county employees have worked tirelessly and continue pulling on the oars as hard as they can. We have learned much these past several months. I’d like to share with you just a few examples.
Certainly, we have learned that public health connects to so many other important issues of well-being, such as housing security. For some who have lost income, rent and basic needs have become urgent. Our Housing team found ways to ensure payments to avoid evictions and prevent homelessness.
We also saw the raw exposure of racial disparity in our communities: sadness, rage, outrage, and despair. We now understand providing equality does not resolve disparity. Equality is treating people the same. Equity is providing people with the tools they need to thrive. We cannot achieve fair results through equality without first achieving equity. There is much work to be done to guarantee that all county residents can prosper. Olmsted County is preparing recommendations to address racism as a public health issue, implementing a community outreach team that will partner with law enforcement, and implementing One Olmsted to further our diversity, equity, and inclusion mission and goals.
We know we can operate effectively and even improve some services by offering them remotely. We also know that if some of our employees continue to work remotely, we can save valuable office space. In the long run, this may reduce new construction.
As we begin 2021, the storm still rages. We must put our attention and efforts toward these issues in the coming year. There is no question that our pandemic response will continue to be a priority for months to come. We do see an end to the pandemic as people get vaccinated. Then, we start on our road to economic recovery: people will get back to work, children will get back to in-person school, restaurants and venues will open, renters and landlords will be made as whole as possible, our courts will be open, families and friends will gather, eventually without masks.
Olmsted County will continue providing services throughout all of it. I want to reassure the public that Olmsted County is fiscally prudent and well-managed.
And, we have much to look forward to this year. We will open the much-needed Southeast Regional Crisis Center, continue preparing a new nature center at Oxbow Park, continue planning and securing funds to upgrade the intersection of County Road 104 and Trunk Highway 14, and continue to plan for a materials recovery facility at the Olmsted County Waste-to-Energy plant. We will fairly distribute recovery funds as they become available, begin our redistricting based on the 2020 census, develop an open space plan for the county and embrace technology that reduces staff and equipment costs. We will continue our work on One Olmsted to address equity and racial disparities. We will keep pulling on the oars together.
And, we must also continue to take care of ourselves and each other during this time of anxiety and isolation. Many of us across the county have lost loved ones and we cannot grieve with our usual funeral rituals and goodbyes. We also need to grieve over the myriad “normal” routines now changed forever. We will still live with great uncertainty for some time.
To help us, I would like to end my “state of the county” with recommendations from “The Book of Joy” by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu which lists three factors with great influence on increasing happiness:
- Our ability to reframe situations more positively.
- Our ability to experience gratitude.
- Our choice to be kind and generous.
Let us choose to be survivors, not victims. Let us continue to reach out to those whose lives have been shattered and help them heal and rebuild. Let us be gentle with ourselves and others. Let us give ourselves and others the space and time they need. Let us all stay safe and healthy.
We have a lot of hard work to do. Fortunately, we also have highly talented, creative, and dedicated board members, employees, and partners.