‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’: Julia Lines reflects on interesting first year as Isanti County Administrator

Isanti County Administrator Julia Lines in a self-professed “dorky selfie” at the Legislative Conference in Feb., 2020. Lines had only been in her new position a couple months before the pandemic hit.

To say Julia Lines has had an interesting first year as Isanti County Administrator would be the understatement of the century. 

The North Branch Area High School graduate and former Human Resources Director for Cambridge-Isanti Schools took on her new position in January, 2020, excited for the challenges this new position would entail. Those challenges, however, quickly escalated to unprecedented heights as she found herself doing on-the-job training in the middle of a global pandemic.

“It has been quite a year. Last early February I was at the Legislative Conference and I was just so excited to be learning what it is county administrators do,” Lines said during the North 65 Chamber of Commerce’s virtual ‘State of the County’ address as she showed a self-professed “dorky selfie” from the conference. “I was down there meeting our Senators and Representatives and just really making plans to move really slowly and get to know everyone at the county and kinda take things in.”

We all know what happened next. 

With the rookie administrator in the lead, the county took on all sorts of new roles and responsibilities associated with the pandemic, from distributing CARES Act funding to providing weekly COVID updates, to organizing the distribution of COVID vaccines.

‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’

“I do think a number of opportunities came along with the unfortunate pandemic,” she said.

Lines said the primary responsibility of the county is to be the public health resource for the county. “Public Health has worked really closely with the schools, the businesses, the residents of the county,” she said. “To get PPEs where they’re needed, to make plans for reopening.

“But one of the things that became clear to me while we were responding to this pandemic was that there was a number of organizational challenges within the county,” she continued. “There was just a very old-fashioned, siloed approach to the way that the different departments operated. This is no ones fault. I don’t want to be making it sound like I’m blaming anyone who previously worked here.”

Lines said she noticed the different departments didn’t really know each other, or what they did. So when they started having to collaborate, it just felt “unnatural.”

“It was glaringly apparent that we needed better collaboration and better experiences within county operations, which will then translate to better customer service for the residents,” she said.

Based on that observation, Lines suggested to the Board of Commissioners they initiate an organizational study. The recommendations from that study indicated the county should streamline their organization from 17 departments to “four or five divisions.”

Reorganization

Lines said the first actions taken based on the study’s recommendations were to promote Penny Messer to Health and Human Services Division Leader. That division will now be a combination of the Public Health Department and Family Services Department.

“Those services will now be provided under one roof and under one team,” Lines said. “We’re finding we can provide a more holistic approach to a family in need by knowing these other services that are offered by that other former department.”

Additional changes include merging the IT, GIS, and facilities departments into the Central Services Division, under the leadership of former IT Director Travis Martilla. 

Chad Struss is in the process of being appointed to Chief Financial Officer - Property and Finance Division. This will be a merger of Assessor, some of Zoning, and Recorder, along with the licensing counter.

“Our hope is to provide more of a one-stop counter for someone who is going to be coming into the county and needing any kind of property services,” she said.

Finally, Lines said that an Environmental Division, which will include such things as Parks and Recreation, along with other zoning functions, is in the preliminary stages.

“I’m excited that in the scope of one year, we’re making these decisions to move forward and modernize the county services,” Lines concluded. “Many of you know, things don’t move quickly in government, but we are taking the opportunity to really push forward and take that next step to a modern process with better customer service at the end of the day.”

CARES Act money

Lines said the county received $4.8 million in CARES relief. $2.9 million of that money went to county infrastructure, including construction and technology upgrades to the courtrooms. $1 million went to small business relief, with another $500,000 going to non-profits. $300,000 went to public schools, and $100,000 went to individual housing relief through Lakes & Pines.

Included in the small business and non-profit relief were 37 $10,000 grants in the first round, 41 $5,000 grants awarded specifically to businesses that were shut down by the governor’s order in the second round, and 77 grants of up to $15,000 in the third round from the state.

Lines said that the county is estimated to get an additional $7.8 million in relief from the American Rescue Recovery Package recently signed by President Biden. While the exact amount and specifically what this money can or will be used for is unknown, Lines said they will have until December, 2024 to spend it.

Vaccine clinics

Lines said the vaccine clinics, which is currently the primary focus, started out small, in the lower level of the government center. It next expanded to some drive-thru clinics at the Sheriff’s Office, and now to a larger-scale clinic at Cambridge Middle School. As of Wednesday, March 17, the county had vaccinated 6,700 people, which comes to about 57% of the population 65 or older. Lines said future locations for the clinics will be at the New Hope Church, along with at the fairgrounds once the weather gets warmer.

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