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Time for a game change

t’s 2020. Welcome not just to a new year, but a new decade.

I It’s a new beginning and, of course, we are full of questions. Will things get better? Will things get worse?

No one can know the future, but we can peer into the past and assess where we are at as a hint as to what will be.

There is no best way to do this. The county board, however, sets as its vision that it wants us to be the “the most prosperous, safest and healthiest” county in Wisconsin.

We can use this goal as a rough yardstick to measure progress (or lack thereof) over the past decade.

Most prosperous. By this metric, the county lost ground. Back in 2010, the Census Bureau said the median household income in Marathon County slightly bested the Wisconsin average, $55,610 vs. $55,210. By 2017 (the latest data), the county fell behind the state’s median household income by over $1,000, $58,173 compared to $59,305. During the decade, manufacturing, the county’s biggest employer, stalled, employing a steady 14,500 workers (2013-17). At the same time, health care, finance and education employment surged. Retail jobs slipped by a few hundred. Office work continued to be the county’s most common job. Wisconsin’s median household income trailed the U.S. national median household income.

Safest. The county’s safety record is something of a mixed bag. According to the Wisconsin Department of Justice, total arrests made by law enforcement during the decade (2014-18) declined sharply, 6,406 to 5,441, but arrests for crimes that most jeopardize safety were up. The department thus reports that while property crimes fell from an annual rate of 957 to 702, violent crimes increased from 105 to 170 annually, a 62 percent increase. Drug arrests were up, too, from 735 to 871 each year.

Healthiest. The county made little progress in this category over the past decade. According to the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, the county lost ground when it comes to length of life and inched up a bit in quality of life. Between 2011 and 2019, the county’s rank for longevity slipped from 16th to 18th place among the state’s 72 counties. At the same time, the county’s rank for life quality improved from 32nd to 31st.

Over the decade, county residents made slight ranking gains for smoking, excessive drinking and access to mental health providers. It fell back, however, in some important categories. County residents dropped from 28th in the state for obesity to 33rd. The percent of people reporting either poor or fair health inched up from 11 percent to 12 percent.

The picture here is not dire, but not encouraging, either. We see the county hanging in there. The county struggles to make money. But it fails to take care of its health like it should. And safety is a concern. It feels like the county is stuck, unable to make progress on intractable, persistent problems.

All of these issues are things that the county board will need to wrestle with in a new year.

But, then, the county is nobody else but us.

In a New Year, then, perhaps we all should make a resolution to help everybody here enjoy a more prosperous, safe and healthy future.

We should be bold, perhaps courageous. The county trend lines don’t suggest our problems will fix themselves. Maybe some game changing is in order. The good thing is that we don’t have to fix problems overnight that have festered for years. We have a whole brand new decade at our disposal.