At the County Council meeting on March 29, County Executive Steve Ehlmann delivered his annual review of the county’s performance during the previous calendar year.
Ehlmann reported that the county experienced a fairly strong year, with surprisingly positive economic numbers and general success, notwithstanding the admittedly grim nature of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The COVID-19 issue overshadowed all other aspects of county government and county life in 2020, as was the case for most of the world at large. However, Ehlmann extolled the county’s voluntarist approach in regard to masks, closures and capacity limits. He said St. Charles County chose to let customers decide which businesses were essential, meaning that the free market and consumer choice would be a better method of closing businesses or allowing them to remain open during the pandemic.
In addition to putting a positive emphasis on the choice to avoid mandatory lockdowns, Ehlmann stressed the salutary effect of the county’s message on the importance of mask-wearing and maintaining social distancing policies. He thanked both citizens and volunteers for their help and support in those efforts.
Ehlmann also returned to a familiar theme, namely that the county had worked with public school districts during the onset of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, but left the decision to open the schools to the districts themselves, against considerable opposition from the Teachers Organizations, in advance of the fall 2020 term.
Continuing on the COVID-19 front, Ehlmann noted that his administration also decided to allow bars and restaurants to continue normal operations with normal hours during the first eight months of the pandemic. The county did order an 11 p.m. closing edict beginning on Nov. 24, 2020, at the peak of the pandemic but repealed that mandate on Jan. 11, 2021, when statistics showed no new surge in cases after New Year’s festivities.
Ehlmann proudly noted that the county’s COVID-19 numbers were better than the state’s averages on hospitalization and deaths, and noticeably better than the numbers in neighboring counties and in St. Louis City. He used charts with the official numbers to underscore his point.
Ehlmann reported that during 2020, the county’s unemployment rate stood at 4.0%, slightly better than the overall state rate of 4.3%, and noticeably better than St. Louis County’s rate of 5.2%, and the 7.1% rate in the city of St. Louis. The stout numbers seem, at least for the moment, to run counter to the fears of many professional economists who warned that it might take years to return to the rosy years of growth and prosperity before the pandemic descended on the nation.
The report did, of course, offer a few cautionary notes. Ehlmann mentioned the fact that growth brings traffic congestion and infrastructure needs. He pointed out that St. Charles County is growing, which is positive, but that this growth is leading to serious traffic issues that must be addressed, noting that the I-70 corridor between the Fairgrounds to the Cave Springs interchange, and the Wentzville bottleneck as areas of particular concern. He called for expanded funding from the state to the growing counties, using statistics from the East-West Gateway Council of Governments to reinforce his argument, and challenging the current policy that calls for maintaining the current system of disbursement and road expansion.
Finally, Ehlmann cited numbers that showed county parks setting an attendance record, although that seems to have been quite a feat, during the middle of a pandemic.
He noted, with some concern, that 2020 had been a trying year for county law enforcement. He pointed out that the county dealt with nine demonstrations related to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and said several demonstrators were arrested for blocking the highway. The county piled up 2,500 hours of police overtime due to the demonstrations, Ehlmann said.
All in all, he said that the past year had been quite difficult but that St. Charles County had come through fairly well and in a strong position to meet the future.