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Robert McKenzie


By: James Joerke, Cook County Administrator

COOK COUNTRY, MINNESOTA   December 26, 2022  (LSNews)  2022 has been a year of continued change within Cook County Government. Consistent with trends across the state and country, the organization continues to see high rates of staff turnover. In 2019 and 2020, the numbers of people leaving employment with the County were 14 and 16 respectively. In 2021, the number of departures shot up to 23 people, and this year we have seen 25 people – one-fifth of our workforce – retire or move on to other opportunities.

This trend creates tremendous challenges for us as we continue to deliver essential services on which County residents depend. Even at a low level, staff turnover is disruptive. When experienced people leave the organization, they take with them technical skills and expertise, a knowledge of processes and procedures, and relationships with internal and external customers, among other assets. These things are essential to doing a job well, and they cannot be quickly or easily replaced. The County’s human resources staff and department leaders have been doing a remarkable job of working to find qualified candidates to fill positions, and we have added some great new talent and leadership to our staff roster this year. But it has been an uphill battle, exacerbated by the shortage of owner-occupied and rental housing, high inflation rates, and a shrinking labor pool.

So what are we doing about it? In February of this year, the County Board directed my office to undertake a compensation study to determine whether the organization’s pay structure is in line with what other Minnesota Counties currently offer. We created an internal working group to determine what criteria would be most important in selecting Counties to use for the comparison. Unsurprisingly, housing and rental costs rose to the top of the list. We also looked for comparables that had similar household incomes, per-capita spending, and tourism-reliant economies. Using these criteria, 20 counties were selected for the study. The data showed that Cook County’s pay rates are at only 84 and 80 percent of average benchmark minimum and maximum pay rates respectively. In other words, pay increases that we have adopted over time have not kept up with what our benchmark counties now offer.

As a result, the County Board voted on December 20, 2022, to approve a new pay table that would bring County compensation up to 95 percent of market. The price tag of the new pay increases comes to slightly over one million dollars, which is equal to about 8.7 percent of the approved 2023 County levy. It’s no small thing, particularly when we are all feeling the pinch of inflation, but it is vitally important that we be competitive in compensation to attract plow drivers, 911 dispatchers, sheriff deputies, social and financial aid workers, and candidates for the many positions that support the essential services that the County is required to provide.

Of course, competitive pay by itself is not enough to create a high-performing organization that people want to work for. It’s also important to have a culture in which people feel valued, where they understand the importance of their contribution to the larger whole, where innovation is encouraged, and where staff are empowered to exercise leadership, regardless of their position in the organizational chart. This year the County launched a Labor Management Committee (LMC) to build the working relationship between organizational managers and representatives of collective bargaining units. The LMC is focused not only on issues related to compensation and benefits but also on exploring opportunities to enhance the culture of the organization in ways that lead to higher performance and better quality, more efficient services.

Another key initiative that the County launched in 2022 is the update of its Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) for county buildings. A history of underinvestment and deferred maintenance in County buildings has led to diminished operational reliability and higher operating costs. With invaluable assistance from its Budget and Facilities Advisory Committee, the County hired a consultant, CR-BPS, to assist in the development of the CIP. Together CR-BPS and County staff spent this summer collecting a comprehensive set of data on the County’s 25 buildings to assess the condition of each facility. That work culminated in three open house meetings on December 1 to share information with the public about the state of County facilities and to gather feedback that will be used in setting priorities in the CIP. If you were unable to attend one of the open house sessions, you can view informational materials from the meetings on the County’s website and provide feedback via an online form. A second set of public meetings is being planned for the latter half of February. At that time, a draft CIP will be presented. We are sincerely committed to making sure that the CIP reflects the desires and priorities of the community, and I encourage you to check out the collected information and to share your feedback at the February open house meetings or by contacting me directly.

Cook County continues to work officials in Lake and St. Louis Counties to bring the reappraisal of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to a more satisfactory conclusion. The appraisal is used to determine the level of payments in lieu of taxes, or PILT, that the three counties receive from the Federal Government, since the counties cannot collect property taxes on federal lands. A reappraisal that the U.S. Forest Service conducted earlier this year still failed to account for the fair market value that a sale of Cook County’s BWCAW lands would generate, and the three counties are appealing to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, of which USFS is a part, to recognize the significant flaws of the reappraisal and render a determination that would be more equitable to the counties. The valuation is important because PILT payments are used to offset the County levy, reducing the financial burden on taxpayers.

Looking into 2023, the County Board and I will be closely monitoring state legislative activities focused on enhancing County Program Aid, which also helps reduce pressure on the County levy, and an increase to state PILT payments that was proposed in the last legislative session but failed to gain passage. Another key initiative that we will be undertaking is the development of a strategic plan for County Government. This will be an internally-led process that will focus on positioning the organization to maintain and enhance service delivery in light of the tremendous demographic and economic shifts that are occurring now and are likely to continue into the future.

It is a privilege to serve as your county administrator, and I wish you and your family a happy and healthy 2023. As always, I invite you to contact me about any matters related to County Government. You can reach me at [email protected] or 218-387-3687. 

By: James Joerke, Cook County Administrator


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

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About Cook County Minnesota

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 

Snow Depth Minnesota
Snow Depth   Minnesota   Lake Superior News

The views expressed in this opinion article or photos are solely those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by Lake Superior News / Lake Superior Media.


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