January 29 Virtual Eggs & Issues: County leaders discuss the impact of COVID-19 and plans for the future during the annual State of Eau Claire County Address
On Friday, January 29 the Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce hosted the annual State of Eau Claire County address in a virtual format this year. The event was streamed via Perigon at WIN Technology and presented by leaders of Eau Claire County. Eau Claire County Board Chair Nick Smiar and County Administrator Kathryn Schauf shared some highlights of the county’s work as the county developed a strategic plan to increase community development, navigated challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, and look forward to this upcoming year.
Eric Killen, Director of Veteran Services; Tyler Esh, Emergency Management Coordinator; Sue McDonald, County Clerk; and Dave Riewestahl, Security Services Captain also shared the work they have accomplished the past year as the county worked to establish an effective emergency response to the pandemic, smooth elections in the spring and fall, and safe county jail operations.
County Board Chair Nick Smiar began to morning presentation noting 2020 has been a “rollercoaster year” and one in which the county has faced many challenges. However, despite the many challenges they have had to face, Smiar was confident that the past year has also been a time “to engage in some creative thinking and reworking of the work that we do.”
COVID-19 disruption and county response
At the start of last year, the county developed a strategic plan in an effort to increase community engagement and enhance the quality and equity of citizens’ lives. However, as the groundwork for this plan was beginning, COVID-19 came to the area and caused major disruption in the county’s work.
“In 2020, our local governments came together in new ways that we have not done in the past,” Kathryn Schauf, the County Administrator, said. Despite the unprecedented disruption brought on by the pandemic, the county’s 600 employees found ways to continue their work and keep the local government running. As many employees began working from home, meetings became electronic. Many county services also moved online. A Bridge Plan was created for financial sustainability and the COVID-19 Taskforce was established to help with operations going forward.
Tyler Esh, the Emergency Coordinator for the county explained that during a crisis the roles and responsibilities of county departments do not change. It is the responsibility of the emergency operations center is to step in and provide additional assistance when needed.
Eric Killen, the Veterans Service Officer served as the Emergency Operations Center’s (EOC) planning section chief from March through May. The purpose of the EOC was to provide a centralized location from public safety. Killen said its responsibilities could be boiled down to four words: “connect, coordinate, organize, and respond.”
There are four elections in a presidential election year and while the primary in February went smoothly, COVID-19 brought disorder to the April election and those going forward. With the general mistrust of election credibility, Sue McDonald, the County Clerk, explained that the county wanted to prepare for these concerns. While there was a larger number of absentee requests this spring and fall, the county was very organized and prepared for any recounts and other logistics that might occur during the November election.
County jail operations
Dave Riewestahl from the County Sheriff’s Office, explained that even though COVID-19 was going on crime was still being committed. In an effort to practice better social distancing, bookings at the jail were minimized. Although crime did not go down during the pandemic, Riewestahl said they had requested that their partners in law enforcement only bring people who were a security threat into the jail.
These preventative measures ensured that no outbreaks of COVID-19 occurred in the jail. Although there have been a few cases of the virus at the jail, these positive COVID-19 infections did not spread from the individual who first carried it.
COVID-19 also presented financial challenges for the county. Schauf explained that the initial sales tax projections were concerning, especially because sales tax is the primary funding source for many of the county’s operations. Mandatory furloughs and reduced travel expenses due to the pandemic helped reduce the county’s financial needs. As 2020 came to a close Schauf is cautiously optimistic that the county ended the year “in a positive position.”
Looking to the future
Although Smiar does see continual disruption from COVID-19 as he looks forward to 2021, there are also many exciting new beginnings to look forward to. The county hopes to begin construction on a new courtroom soon and add a sixth circuit court judge in 2022. The County Board put aside $24 million with plans for a new highway facility to begin construction this summer and be finished by fall of 2022. The county is also working to establish a passenger rail service here in the community. Finally, while it is unlikely that any new census data will be available until July of this year, the county looks forward to receiving this data so that they can work on redistricting and preparing ballots for the 2022 election.
Eggs & Issues PowerPoint Visuals (Eau Claire County; click to download pdf)
County leaders talk COVID, emergency preparedness (Leader-Telegram $)
Eau Claire County Website
Posted by Grace Hanson, Governmental Affairs Intern
Eau Claire Chamber
The Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce has more than 1,200 members.