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Boreal Community Media

Cook County Connections: Cook County Year in Review

Dec 03, 2021 08:09AM ● By Editor

By County Administrator James Joerke from Cook County MN - December 3, 2021

County Administrator James Joerke. Submitted photo 

It’s hard to believe that it has been over a year since I started serving you as County Administrator. I want to start by thanking all of you who have made me feel welcomed, shared your insights about our community, and recommended your favorite hikes and fishing spots. With each passing day I feel more connected to this magical place and the amazing people who live here. It is truly a privilege to be able to call Cook County home.

With the pandemic still swirling around us, upheaval in employment markets, escalating housing costs and supply chain bottlenecks, Cook County, like the rest of the country, is at an inflection point. We are facing a number of major challenges, and the decisions we make in how to respond to those challenges will have impacts for years to come. It is important to be deliberate and thoughtful, to make sure we are using the best information available, and to seek solutions that serve the needs and interests of the entire community.

In the last year, Cook County Government has taken several major steps to address the County’s housing shortage. Last year the Cook County/Grand Marais Economic Development Authority (EDA) secured a technical assistance grant from the Minnesota Housing Partnership (MHP) to assess the feasibility of creating a Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) that would oversee the development of a housing strategy and coordinate with developers to finance and build new affordable housing for people who live and/or work full-time in the county. In August, the Board of County Commissioners held a hearing to receive public input on the need for an HRA. There was clear consensus about the need for more housing, particularly for working people and those on fixed incomes. Consequently, the County Board voted to form an HRA and appointed five members to serve on its Board. The HRA Board had its first meeting on November 17 and will soon start the process of recruiting an executive director, who will work with community stakeholders to develop a housing plan and build private-sector partnerships to plan, finance and construct new housing.

The County Board also created another tool for expanding the availability of affordable housing by updating its economic development tax abatement policy in June. Two proposed developments in Tofte have requested abatements, which the Board approved on October 26. The two projects include 20 new units of rental housing. The Board approved the abatements with the expectation that the housing would primarily serve people who are full-time County residents and work in the community. The County has begun drafting development agreements that will include provisions to ensure that this expectation is met. 

The County has also started the process of updating its capital improvement plan (CIP). In April, the commissioners toured County facilities to learn about the challenges of maintaining existing buildings and the space constraints the organization currently faces. More recently, members of the County’s Budget Advisory Committee, which has also agreed to serve as Facilities Advisory Committee, took the same tour. Decades of underinvestment and a low-bid approach to doing capital projects have resulted in buildings that are energy inefficient, problem prone and expensive to maintain. As we work to update the CIP, we will use a life-cycle cost analysis framework to make decisions because this approach better represents the true cost of building ownership and provides greater value over the long term. 

Preliminary data from the 2020 U.S. Census indicate that Cook County now has 5,600 residents. The CIP that the County developed only four years ago utilized a state demographic forecast indicating that there would be 5,440 residents by 2040. The population growth rate appears to have accelerated significantly in the last two to three years and shows no sign of letting up. As an organization, we are paying close attention to this trend to make sure that we are prepared to serve the growing number of people who call Cook County home. Our ability to accomplish this will depend on being able to attract qualified staff to fill County positions. This is a challenge in the current job market and with the dearth of affordable housing options locally. The County will be undertaking a compensation study in the first part of 2022 to make sure that County salaries and benefits are aligned with what is happening in the job market, and we will continue to support the work of the HRA to increase the availability of affordable workforce housing.

Our ability to provide the services that you need and expect depends on your willingness to provide feedback on what we’re doing well and what we could be doing better. I welcome you to contact me at 218-387-3687 or [email protected] to share your thoughts about any part of our work that touches your life. Thank you!

 

County Connections is a column on timely topics and service information from your Cook County government. Cook County – Supporting Community Through Quality Public Service