From the County Manager Column from March 9, 2021

Looking back with gratitude; Looking ahead with optimism and concern

“Happy March 365, 2020!”

Maybe you’ve seen this joke circulating lately as we approach one year living through the COVID-19 pandemic. A little biting and optimistic at the same time, the joke points to the repetition, frustration and sheer endurance of these last months while also reminding us we can count our blessings every day. Looking ahead, we have many reasons to be optimistic – and today’s weather certainly is a nice reminder of what’s right around the corner – while also seeing our community lined with security fences and COVID fatalities that provide daily reminders that ongoing concerns must also be a part of our current reality.

Good news came last week as the state received the first 45,000 doses of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine and Minnesota moved into place as one of the top states for overall vaccine distribution. Gov. Walz announced today that about 70% of our seniors have been vaccinated and eligibility is expanding quickly to other populations – by summer, we are on pace for broad availability for all who want to get vaccinated. We are also making progress in ensuring that we will see equitable results in who has access to and is receiving the vaccine; Ramsey County continues to have work to do but we must continue to fight to ensure equity and community trust are an integral part of our vaccine response. On the economic front, we are getting closer to a federal relief bill that will bring tens of millions of additional dollars to Ramsey County to extend support beyond the crises as we look toward recovery across our communities and organization, too. 

We’ve heard often that this is a time like no other. While we were all eager to put 2020 in the books, many of the challenges that arose over the last year will certainly persist throughout this one and beyond. I am very proud of how we met the challenges of this last year as an organization and think it’s valuable to recap our successes. In fact, when I look back at my message from about a year ago, it’s clear that the course we had been on prior to COVID-19 – following our vision, mission, goalsstrategic priorities and values - truly helped prepare us as we navigated the last year where many local governments struggled.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be using this space to lift up many of the ways employees and teams from across the organization have stepped up to overcome some of the most challenging times during the past century. We have many, many heroes among us and what has been achieved over the past year deserves acknowledgement as this work has changed us, taught us a great deal, and has set a new foundation for our work going forward. Here are a few of the many, many notable achievements of the past year. Each week will present a moment to think about specifics, but starting from a general perspective, here is just a snapshot of what we’ve been through together:

  • In response to the arrival of COVID-19 in Minnesota, with support from Emergency Management & Homeland Security and Public Health, the board of commissioners declared a state of local emergency on March 17. This provided the ability to operate under an Incident Command System to best align our resources to swiftly meet the needs of our community and organization during the pandemic. We took a one-week preparation period to reorient most non-emergency service delivery, retuning with an emphasis on online and phone service as well as new drop boxes for critical documents. We began reopening in-person services over time, with an emphasis on five new Service Centers located throughout the county following public health protocols to keep visitors and employees safe.
  • The worldwide unrest over racism, inequality and policing following outrage over the killing of George Floyd last Memorial Day began in our Saint Paul neighborhoods – as did Ramsey County’s response. Sheriff’s deputies, 911 telecommunicators and others in public safety handled calls and worked around the clock to keep the peace. Simultaneously, staff from across the organization worked in partnership with community to provide food and basic needs in neighborhoods and worked to de-escalate violence. The Racial Equity and Community Engagement Response Team (RECERT), Public Health, Diversity, Inclusion and Organizational Development (DIOD) staff and others got to work immediately outside and inside of our organization to provide support, engagement and safe spaces for grieving and expression.
  • As a community with a population greater than 500,000, Ramsey County was directly awarded $96 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act dollars for our local COVID-19 response last summer. We promptly put these dollars to work in emergency service across our community where most needed through public health, financial assistance, job and training support, and help for small businesses under the framework of Ramsey Investment & Support Efforts (RISE). Programs included:
    • $24 million for emergency expenses related to public health and safety, direct care, employee support, personal protective equipment, and other materials and supplies.
    • $16.2 million to help provide support for those experiencing homelessness. Following our strategic priority, Stability Starts with a Place to Call Home, efforts in this area included leasing and renting hundreds of rooms across the county to provide emergency shelter, respite care and housing stability programs in alignment with our partners. Due to these and related efforts, we have been able to provide a bed for all who would have slept outside this winter.
    • $15 million in emergency financial assistance to those in need of help paying for expenses such as rent or utilities, as well as assistance for landlords to help keep their tenants in place.    
    • $10 million for food support and basic needs, including delivery of hundreds of thousands of meals to those who are homebound due to impacts of COVID-19.
    • Opening Community Career Labs at three Ramsey County Service Centers and a number of Saint Paul Library and community sites to serve job seekers impacted by COVID-19, as well as launching the TechPak program providing digital literacy for more than 2,150 youth by providing laptops, internet access and training.  
    • $15 million through the Small Business Relief Fund to help small businesses and self-employed entrepreneurs directly impacted by COVID-19. The program prioritized businesses with 20 employees or fewer and those owned by people of color and/or women.

It is a testament to our commitment to our communities, that we were able to commit all of the dollars to our residents, businesses and other stakeholders by the original deadline of Dec. 30, 2020. In addition, several of the efforts that we undertook with CARES funding have been extended and continue to be refined utilizing other funding. We are in the process of completing a comprehensive evaluation of the entire CARES spending program and effectiveness so that we may learn from and improve upon the efforts put forth this past year.

These examples that I’m featuring today are only a segment of achievements from employees across the organization that we can all take pride in. I look forward to sharing more in the weeks ahead as we continue to take stock and reflect on how we’ve met the challenges of the past year and how this will shape where we’re headed as an organization and a community. I also look forward to developing more formal processes to recognize the individual and collective contributions that have been put forth to lead Ramsey County through this tumultuous time in history.

I know you are tired. I feel the same exhaustion that you do. Our entire community is tired. But it needs us to continue finding strength to forge ahead so that we build a better tomorrow – and together we will. Through the simultaneous feelings of optimism and ongoing concern, I stand with you as we move to day 366 and beyond. Thank you for your continued commitment and service to this community.