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Launched in 2014 by journalist Sean Baker, Med City Beat is an independent news source covering government, business and culture in Rochester, Minnesota.

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An extended interview with Olmsted County Administrator Heidi Welsch

An extended interview with Olmsted County Administrator Heidi Welsch

Heidi Welsch took over as Olmsted County administrator at the end of 2017, replacing Richard Devlin, who was at the helm for nearly five decades. Welsch, whose résumé includes 20 years in policy analysis and administration positions, spent a year as deputy administrator under Devlin before taking over the top position. She also served as the county's director of family support and assistance for three years.

We recently had the opportunity to interview Welsch, now in her fifth month on the job. Our far-ranging discussion touched on transportation, affordable housing and the Graham Park redevelopment proposal.

Q: What's a day in the life of a county administrator?

A: A great thing about being the County Administrator is that I have the opportunity to be involved in many exciting things and no one day is like another. As the County Administrator, I am responsible for the overall management of the county, providing information and policy recommendations to the County Board of Commissioners so they can make well-informed decisions, supporting extremely talented staff, and engaging the community.

Q: Your predecessor held down the job for nearly five decades. Those must be some big shoes to fill?

A: When you have a predecessor with such a longstanding career with one organization, there are definitely some big shoes to fill. The County under Mr. Devlin’s leadership was very forward thinking. He supported initiatives that not every county has tried. Mr. Devlin’s leadership reminds me that we should be thinking upstream and looking for solutions that provide long-run value instead of short-term savings.

Q: What do you see as the biggest immediate challenges facing the county?

A: The biggest challenge is funding and making sure that we are able to balance serving residents with a reasonable levy. Counties continue to receive more and more mandates from the state that usually don’t come with adequate support. Mandates are legal requirements imposed by federal and state governments and often passed without funding by state and federal lawmakers. In these cases, local governments may have to pay the cost of implementing the mandate. Some examples of unfunded mandates are those setting requirements for waste management, pollution control, voter registration, welfare and social services, and public health.

The Legislature’s recent human-services funding bill makes a series of cost shifts in the counties’ direction, with larger counties bearing greater burdens. Olmsted County has been forward thinking and needs to continue that more than ever to get ahead of these complex challenges by considering them in generational terms instead of addressing them one by one. For example, we need to consider “justice reinvestment” options — which focus on things like treatment and prevention before we put more money to jail systems.

Transportation is another large part of our county budget. State and federal funding has not kept up with needs. The state Legislature passed a transportation bill during the last session that provided some additional funding. Some funding … not adequate funding; not long-term, constitutionally dedicated funding.

Our local transportation system includes farm-to-market roads, collector roads, and arterials. Some are surfaced; some are gravel; all have needs that out-pace available resources. The intersection of County Road (CR) 104 (60th Avenue) and Trunk Highway (TH) 14 is just one example of a location that needs improvements. Characteristics of the intersection – four lanes of traffic on TH 14, high speeds, a skewed angle of intersection, high traffic volumes, heavy turning movements – pose significant safety concerns. Proposed improvements include an interchange with on/off ramps at CR 104 and TH 14, along with an overpass at 7th Street NW, with connecting roadways to the interchange. The estimated cost of the project is $38 million. None of those dollars are available.

Olmsted County continues to advocate for increased transportation funding.

Q: We talk about housing as one of the key issues facing the area. What is the county's role in addressing affordable housing?

A: We know that affordable housing is a global challenge, but I would add that it is also an opportunity. It is an opportunity for the County to convene and collaborate with different stakeholders to address the challenges and strengthen our community by offering creative solutions to achieve a quality living environment for all. The recent Olmsted County Housing Environmental Scan brought together the City, County, and 50 local organizations to discuss housing concerns and solutions for our community. While the County will not take the lead on implementing all of these solutions, we can help frame and contribute to the conversations. 

Olmsted County offers programs through the Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) which provides affordable housing to approximately 2,800 residents in the County. We do this through the Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8), Public Housing, and other housing programs. The HRA owns and manages 244 units of public housing, including single family homes, townhouses, and apartments. What sets our organization aside from other housing providers is our ability to match social services, comprehensive case management, and housing because we know that many of our at-risk residents have issues other than just housing.

Q: With so much emphasis on Rochester, what can the county do to help surrounding communities grow?

A: Rochester is large city contained entirely inside a medium size county. As a result, Olmsted County has become a hub for the southeastern part of the state especially in the areas of healthcare and education. This changes how we do things because what we do here ultimately affects the rest of southeastern Minnesota. As we continue to grow, it will be important that our surrounding communities grow with us and that we continue to deliver good value and efficient services.

The County has organized an open forum toward the end of March with townships and greater Olmsted to hear about how we can help them grow and prosper despite some of the current challenges facing our region.

Q: What is one service the county provides that may come as a surprise to some?

A: When you think of Olmsted County Public Health, you may think of immunization clinics or the Women, Infants and Children Program also known as WIC; but you may not know that the County is responsible for all restaurant inspections including special event food stands and cafeterias. It is their charge to protect the public’s health by working with businesses to identify and resolve health risks in public facilities. They also work with members of the public through investigating reports of foodborne illness, responding to complaints about public facilities, and nuisance conditions, offering testing services for drinking water and radon and coordinating clean-up of former methamphetamine labs.

Q: The county is seeking $10 million from the state to help redevelop Graham Park. Why make this site such a priority?

A: It is a priority for Olmsted County because the Board of Commissioners, Olmsted County staff, and various citizens’ groups believe that the region will benefit when Graham Park is able to make year-round, affordable and accessible facilities available for a wide variety of activities. Given the limitations of the current facilities in Graham Park, upgrades are needed to meet contemporary standards, user’s expectations, and facilitate expanded revenues and use of Park venues. A detailed market analysis was commissioned and conducted in 2017 by Convention, Sports and Leisure (CSL) to assess Graham Park’s best opportunities to increase economic benefits and become a self-supporting enterprise.

Based on the market analysis, and the urging of various citizens’ groups, Olmsted County has increased its capital improvement budget to make some upgrades to existing Graham Park facilities. State funds are requested to assist in two large projects that will further upgrade and enhance existing facilities and construct a modern, multi-use venue, and develop open space into a festival park.

Q: Anything you're particularly excited about for 2018?

A: There has been a lot of change for the county in the past year, my position included. We recently reorganized departments into three divisions: General Government, Health Housing and Human Services and Physical Development. I am excited to see how each division settles in and how this new structure helps us become even more connected, collaborative and creative so that we can tackle more and more complex issues, increase the value and ease of customer service and provide services to more people with the same or fewer resources.

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