Monday, March 20, 2023 2:32 PM
County Board Chair Monica Kruse looks at the many ways the county supports our rural infrastructure, businesses and communities.
By Monica Kruse, La Crosse County Board Chair
One of the refrains I occasionally hear as county board chair is the county doesn’t do enough for rural areas. This is frustrating because it downplays the work of hundreds of county employees who strive to serve all people in our county equitably. If anything, due to the structure of local government, the county allocates a greater share of its resources to rural areas.
For a start, we maintain 282 miles of county highway that keep La Crosse County moving. This includes clearing those roads of snow throughout the winter, as our highway team does exceptionally well. Those same roads are patrolled by sheriff’s deputies employed by La Crosse County to keep rural communities safe. You’ll also see SMRT buses traveling along county highways. The SMRT bus is a marvel of intergovernmental cooperation that connects 14 predominantly rural communities across our region. Those communities, including La Crosse County, chip in financially to keep the buses rolling, bringing rural residents to work, medical appointments or social events. The SMRT bus is rural community-building effort on wheels, all for $3 a trip.
One of the newer challenges facing our region is the increasing regularity of severe flooding, which poses a particular risk to rural communities and farms. The county, primarily through our Land Conservation Department, is working to mitigate that threat. In 2022, county land conservation staff assisted with the design and installation of over 4,500 feet of streambank stabilization and 15 new dams. The county also cost-shared the planting of 1,000 acres of cover crops to reduce soil erosion, part of $500,000 in spending on rural conservation work in 2022.
Also last year, backed by the county board, we began distribution of close to $1.5 million in grants for stormwater infrastructure projects in rural parts of the county. These projects are a collaborative effort between the county and towns and villages to upgrade stormwater defenses. The result will be stronger rural communities better equipped to deal with future floods.
We are always looking for new ways to partner with towns and village governments. Examples from 2022 include the $800,000 donated to the village of West Salem in return for the village taking over a section of County Highway B to increase local control. We also donated the 117-acre Mindoro Park, plus $75,000, to the town of Farmington to give local people more of a say in the future of a piece of beautiful public property.
It isn’t just programs that directly support farms and improve infrastructure that benefit rural La Crosse County. Our Human Services, Health and Veterans Services departments also deliver for rural people through programs that support older adults, help people get health insurance, access VA benefits, and much more. Last year, 24,411 people received economic support services in La Crosse County, which is about one in five county residents. The county also supports a network of five rural libraries that act as community centers through the programming and public space they provide.
If you want to see another live example of how we build community, head to the Holmen Community Center at lunchtime on a weekday. You’ll find up to 100 older adults, many from surrounding rural areas, enjoying hot meals and companionship courtesy of the Aging Disability Resource Center of La Crosse County. The meal site is part of the ADRC’s nutrition program, which serves food at three congregate sites and delivers meals to many older adults who can’t leave their homes.
These and other examples show how county government knits rural communities together by enhancing our social and physical infrastructure. However, we know there are always new challenges to meet. For instance, in some parts of rural La Crosse County broadband access is a problem. We’re moving aggressively to attack that issue. In January, the county board passed a resolution aiming to speed up the process for providers looking to expand high-speed internet. Next, the county plans to contract with a specialist who can help identify state and federal funding opportunities.
Finally, the rural economy in La Crosse County also gets a big lift from county employees. In West Salem, La Crosse County is the largest employer, through Lakeview Health Center and Assisted Living and our Highway Department shop. The two facilities support hundreds of family wage jobs, in addition to providing important public services.
There will always be much we can do better, but we can be proud of the myriad ways La Crosse County supports both our urban and rural residents. In the end, wherever you live, we’re all in this together.