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Administration Update

Administration Update

: Cook County Administrator James Joerke

COOK COUNTRY, MINNESOTA November 27, 2020  (LSN)  Since starting as your new county administrator on October 12, I’ve had the pleasure and privilege to meet many people in the community, and I want to start by thanking all of you who have introduced yourselves and made me feel so welcomed.

When I interviewed for this position in September, I told the board of commissioners and department leaders that I expected to spend most of the first three months here listening to folks about what they like about living in Cook County, what concerns them, and how county government can best serve their needs. That is exactly what I have been doing, and you have been generous with your time and insights. Thank you.

There are some great things going on in the county, and I’ve already seen numerous examples of the public, private and not-for-profit sectors working hand-in-hand to address community needs and make this a better place for all who live here. We are living in a very challenging time, and this willingness to work together is going to be critical to getting us through the coming months and years. It won’t be easy, but I feel a great sense of optimism about our shared future.

That said, I would like to share some thoughts about what I see Cook County government focusing on in the next 12 months.

COVID-19 Response

Cook County has been working with the City of Grand Marais, the Grand Portage Tribal Council, local townships and multiple partners in the healthcare and business communities to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and mitigate its impacts on the local economy. This collaboration has been highly successful and has resulted in the county having the lowest case count in the State of Minnesota for much of the summer and fall. However, the entire state is in a new phase of the pandemic and, like communities across the Midwest, Cook County is seeing its case counts soar.

The $730,000 federal CARES Act funding that supported most of the COVID-19 response work in Cook County this year is expiring. Some of the funding has been used to hire part-time workers to conduct contact tracing so that residents who’ve had contact with a known positive case could be advised to quarantine.

With the expiration of the federal funds, the county is looking for ways to meet the increased need for contact tracing resulting from ongoing community spread of the virus. If there is no new federal COVID relief bill in 2021, it will be a challenge to continue the contact tracing activities that are so critical to keeping residents healthy and safe. While there has been promising news recently about the efficacy of newly developed COVID-19 vaccines, it is likely to be many months before these are widely available to the general public. Consequently, it appears that current COVID prevention activities will continue to be a primary focus for county government through most, if not all, of 2021.

State Budget Deficit and Thye-Blatnik

Earlier this year, the Minnesota state budget office projected that the economic impacts of COVID-19 would result in a $2.4 billion deficit for the two-year budget period ending June 30 next year. Additionally, the upcoming 2022-23 biennial budget is projected to have a $4.7 billion deficit. While tax receipts for the most recent quarter exceeded forecasts, there is still concern that city and county governments will see significant cuts in state funding for local programs over the next few years.

At the same time, the county is awaiting a determination from the U.S. Forest Service regarding the payments in lieu of taxes (PILT) that it receives for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness under the Thye-Blatnik Act. The most recent 10-year reappraisal by the Forest Service proposed to reduce Cook County’s annual PILT allocation from $2.25 million to around $1.5 million. At the end of 2019, the Forest Service agreed to revisit its recommendation to lower the payment, enabling the county to continue receiving the higher amount for two years. However, if the reassessment upholds the recommendation to decrease funding, the county will be obligated to return approximately $1.5 in Thye-Blatnik payments.

Cook County is monitoring both situations closely and taking steps to mitigate the financial risks that state budget and PILT shortfalls may pose. Taking a cautious fiscal approach now will help the county protect programs on which residents rely and will reduce the likelihood that staff layoffs and furloughs will be needed next year.  

Community Engagement

Over twenty years in local government has taught me that the best way to define, prioritize and solve community problems is to have many voices at the table.

COVID-19 has made it impossible to have in-person board and committee meetings, which, in turn, has made it more difficult for citizens to participate in local government processes and activities. But this pause in the normal way of doing things creates an opportunity for us as an organization to step back and think about how we can better inform people about how county government serves the community and how we can be more responsive by engaging you in our work. We’re actively working on this, and you’ll be seeing more information in coming months about how you can connect with us.

In the near term, I encourage readers to consider the following:

  • All county board and committee meetings are livestreamed and recorded for later viewing on the county’s YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/user/CookCountyMN/live. Tune in and see what we’re doing.
  • We recently upgraded our website to make it easier for you to express your interest in serving on a committee or board. Visit www.co.cook.mn.us; click on the “How Do I…”tab; and select “Contact Boards and Commissions” to access the registration form.
  • Since I can’t meet with you in person right now, I welcome you to email me at james.joerke@co.cook.mn.us or call 218-387-3687 to let me know about your concerns.

Strategic Planning

In 2021, Cook County government will undertake the development of a five-year strategic plan.

The plan will define our mission, vision, goals and objectives and will be the roadmap we use to help build a community of opportunity for all who live here. The plan will only be as good as our efforts to ensure that it reflects the interests and perspectives of the entire community. To that end, I anticipate creating multiple opportunities for residents to participate in discussions and exercises to define our direction. Keep your eyes open for announcements about how you can participate.

Thank you, and I wish you and your families a safe, healthy and peaceful holiday season.

#LSN_CookCounty #LSN_MNNews

By: Cook County Administrator James Joerke

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

#LSN_News #LSN_MNNews #LSN_CookCounty 

About Cook County Minnesota

Cook County Coronavirus Response Hub

Cook Country Minnesota   Lake Superior News

Cook County is at the tip of Minnesota's Arrowhead region in the remote northeastern part of the state, stretching from the shores of Lake Superior to the US-Canada border. By land it borders Ontario, Canada to the north, and Lake County, MN to the west.  The highest point in Minnesota, Eagle Mountain is 2,301 feet and the highest lake,  Total Area equals 3,339.72 sq miles

Cook County is home to three national protected areas:
Grand Portage National Monument
Superior National Forest
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Cook County include:
 Grand Marais     Lutsen Mountains
 Gunflint Trail      Superior Hiking Trail
 Grand Portage 


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