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NACo Board members identify ‘crisis-level’ concerns in survey

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Mary Ann Barton

County News Editor & Senior Writer

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Mobile County, Ala. Commissioner Merceria Ludgood (right) and Carbon County, Wyo. Commissioner John Espy participate in a panel discussion at the ForwardTogether Symposium. Photo by Justin Cox

Key Takeaways

A survey of NACo Board members identifying their top “crisis-level” concerns was unveiled Dec. 1 at the ForwardTogether Symposium and NACo Fall Board meeting held Nov. 30-Dec. 2 in Ramsey County, Minn.

Conducted by NACo, the survey identified the top five concerns as: Mental health and substance use, housing affordability, transportation infrastructure construction and maintenance, county workforce recruitment and retention and broadband accessibility and expansion.

In introducing the results to the Board, Teryn Zmuda, NACo chief economist and research officer, noted that “part of my job is to focus on the research and the data and also bring that to life in our bodies of work, our thought leadership and our best practice cohorts.” Members conducted in-depth roundtable discussions of their concerns the following day.

The survey results and discussion were part of the three-day meeting featuring a number of speakers and panel discussions hosted by Ramsey County, home to NACo President Mary Jo McGuire. The meeting kicked off Nov. 30 with a visit to the headquarters of 3M.

 

3M tour

At the 3M Innovation Center, Board members heard about the history of the company and how it operates. 

They also heard about several innovative county programs including one on how Ramsey County is working to help young people get their driver’s licenses so they can more easily get jobs in construction, public works and other positions. 

The Ramsey County Driver’s License Academy is a free program that helps young workers ages 18-24 obtain their driver’s license as a needed work credential. 

After discovering that driver’s education is no longer offered in school, and how expensive private driver’s education can be, the county created the program. 

A group that uses the program is Change Inc. “With a driver’s license, we have students who can take their child to childcare or a family member to a chemo appointment,” said Jody Nelson, executive director of Change Inc., an alternative school in Ramsey County. Find out more about the program at ramseycounty.us/DLA. 

 

Elections, homelessness among priorities

The next day, Board members voted on 10 policy priorities. Broadband, elections and homelessness were just a few of the issues among the 10 policy priorities passed Dec. 1 by the NACo Board. 

The NACo Board also approved an event code of conduct policy noting the importance of “promoting and creating an inclusive, supportive and collaborative environment for all participants at NACo events.”

Participants also heard from a number of speakers. Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan kicked off a day of discussions. “This work can sometimes seem bureaucratic and painstaking but it’s incredibly important,” she said. “As someone who grew up on public programs…we relied on SNAP to put food on the table. The work of counties is life-saving work that you do.”

Keynote speaker Bill Doherty, co-founder of Braver Angels, introduced a discussion on the “polarization” happening across the United States and the world, noting that the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill (who served in the role from 1977 to 1987) “used to say all politics are local. Now, all local politics are national. And I know you’ve run into that and have experienced that.”

White House Senior Advisor Tom Perez told Board members there’s work to be done, beyond politics, noting that the American Rescue Plan Act is not a program for “red or blue America, it’s a program for every ZIP code in America.”

“It’s important in life to know what the moment is,” he said. “It’s a time of peril and opportunity.”

“Those moments of great crisis in the ‘30s and ‘60s also ended up being moments of great accomplishment,” he said. “And that’s what’s been happening over the last three years. The American Rescue Plan is a covenant. We trust you to spend it well. We trust you to understand that what might be the best use of money in Wise County, Texas might be different in Ramsey County, Minnesota. That’s OK. From these experiments, we will see points of light. You will become the incubators of innovation. Thank you for being incredible stewards of that money.”

Following Perez, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota took the podium. “I started at the local level,” she told the audience. “I always think of my roots as being in local government. To tell you the truth, I’m glad about that. It grounds me in what my work really is.”

“Those of us in Washington, D.C. should be listening really, really hard about your experiences on the ground, solving problems for people every single day,” she said.

“It’s a really interesting time, as you look at the data – unemployment is low, inflation rate is down, we’ve created manufacturing jobs,” she said. 

“Yet, among our constituents, there’s this feeling of insecurity, like ‘What’s next?’ I was talking to a group of young leaders, the Girl Scout organization. We had this conversation about hope. I said, ‘Hope doesn’t just fall into your lap. You can find hope in the work you do every single day.’ They were so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about what we can accomplish in this country.”

“I know that every single moment, you’re [county officials] figuring out how to solve problems,” she said. “There is a ton to be hopeful about.”

 

NACo Board passes 10 policy priorities for 2024

  1. Amplify the unique county role in the intergovernmental system and federal policymaking.

  2. Cultivate bipartisan support for direct federal investment in counties.

  3. Maintain election integrity and strengthen election worker safety.

  4. Pursue better outcomes within and across behavioral health, homelessness and criminal justice systems including modernize exclusionary policies that limit local innovation and investments and provide greater incentives and agility for cross-sector collaboration.

  5. Pass a bipartisan Farm Bill with the inclusion of county priorities.

  6. Support counties with federal public lands by fully funding Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) and the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program.

  7. Promote county priorities and local decision-making in federal rulemaking around land use, environmental quality and energy development.

  8. Strengthen community resilience through enhanced federal, state and county partnerships for disaster preparedness, response and recovery.

  9. Enhance federal flexibilities, incentives and resources for county investments, policies and services that support at-risk, vulnerable residents, promote economic mobility and workforce readiness and alleviate the housing affordability and access crisis.

  10.  Deploy high-speed internet that is affordable, reliable and accessible while preserving local decision-making, partnerships and innovation.

 

‘Mary Jo McGuiring’

Grant Veeder, Black Hawk County, Iowa auditor and commissioner of elections, has a tradition of delivering a limerick to commemorate each Board meeting and this one was no different.

“We are really getting an up close and personal look at Mary Jo’s style of leadership,” he noted. “She’s full of enthusiasm, cheerfulness and passion. I found out from one of our speakers there’s a word for it.”

“I learned a new verb that’s inspiring.

A verb I can call on when tiring.

When I’m feeling weak, and things look bleak,

I’ll think about Mary Jo McGuiring.”

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