As we leave a uniquely difficult year behind us and look with guarded hope toward 2021, it is reasonable to temper one’s expectations.

The rollercoaster ride is not over yet; 2021 will surely have its twists and turns as well. But imbedded in the new year are some real opportunities for progress:

COVID-19 will continue to be the top priority for local government. However, with the first Public Health vaccine clinic completed on Dec. 28, we are now taking the offensive against the virus.

As production and distribution increases, we will move quickly and efficiently through the prioritized populations and on to the general public.

If we can match our vaccination efforts with an ongoing commitment to the existing virus mitigation measures, improving metrics should allow us to loosen restrictions and start returning to normalcy.

Meanwhile, our Community Leadership Roundtable of over 40 county leaders will continue to meet weekly, tackling both the epidemiological and economic challenges as they arise and working to ensure a unified countywide approach to both messaging and policy.

Professional polling in 2018 identified Wildfire/Forest Health as one of the top two priorities for our county residents.

Creation of our Next Generation Community Wildfire Protection Plan and formalization of the Envision Forest Health Council have focused our efforts on treating the most impactful 30,000 acres of forest by 2030.

Achieving this goal should reduce countywide wildfire risk by 50% while improving wildlife habitat.

Funded through Chaffee Common Ground and state and federal grants, major wildfire mitigation efforts on the Methodist Front south of Poncha Springs and Salida, near Railroad Bridge north of Buena Vista, and along Coyote Valley Road near Centerville will all help reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire.

In addition, the Chaffee Chips program, which worked in four high-risk neighborhoods in 2020, will expand its reach in 2021, providing motivation and assistance with wildfire mitigation on private lands.

The other community priority identified in recent polling was affordable housing. The 2018 creation of our Office of Housing, funded by the county and all three municipalities, has been a great start, but 2020 demonstrated the limitations of such a model.

The Decker Fire and COVID-19 took significant leadership focus away from long-term big picture challenges like housing.

With the transition this fall to the Chaffee Housing Authority, we will have an appointed board of directors bringing greater focus, expertise and accountability to the county housing effort.

This is the organizational model used to successfully tackle this challenge in other Colorado mountain communities.

The Decker Fire and COVID-19 have demonstrated that communications between county government and the public could also be enhanced.

How do we better reach county residents in an emergency?

How can we create a more unified distribution of information from all of our departments?

How do we more actively engage the public in our dilemmas and decision-making?

As with our housing efforts, the communications function needs more focus, expertise, and accountability. Toward that end, we welcome Buena Vista resident Beth Helmke as the county’s inaugural Public Affairs Officer.

In the year ahead we will be building a much more integrated and accessible communications program that is truly representative of the vibrant and interconnected Chaffee County community.

2020 had a tremendous impact on Chaffee County. I am sure that every one of our residents has a tale to tell. Many suffered the loss of loved ones, financial distress, family tensions, educational setbacks and/or anxiety about an uncertain future.

I suspect it will be some time before the full picture is clear.

Meanwhile, many of the resources that exist to help those in duress have been depleted or had their funding cut altogether.

It is a double-edged sword of increased need and reduced support. As local government works collaboratively to respond to this challenge, we encourage individuals of means to stay engaged and to continue to support our many critical non-profits, whether financially or as a volunteer.

Despite the setbacks we faced in 2020, Chaffee County has come through in better shape than most rural counties in Colorado.

With continued collaboration and commitment to our priorities, I believe we can make real community progress in 2021, even as we continue the work of bringing this pandemic to a close.

Felt is chairman of the Chaffee County Board of Commissioners.

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