A new year is upon us, and I’m excited to begin a yearlong term as chairman of the Board of County Commissioners. We have many challenges ahead, and we have an outstanding team that’s ready to meet them.

For today, though, I want to reflect on our accomplishments of the past year. First and foremost, they begin with our ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Pinellas County again joined with partners to prioritize the safety of our most vulnerable citizens. We directed resources to slow the spread of the virus, keep our economy open and help our residents who were most impacted. All the while, we maintained our commitment to providing the first-class services, environmental stewardship and progress that you depend on us for.

When the FDA-granted emergency use authorization for the COVID-19 vaccine early in 2021, Pinellas County jumped at the opportunity to participate in a pilot program for residents and staff of long-term care facilities. As vaccine eligibility expanded, the County supported the Florida Department of Health in opening vaccine sites around the county. By December, nearly 69 percent of people in the county had received at least one dose of the vaccine, with County-supported sites distributing more than a quarter-million doses.

The County also continued supporting COVID-19 testing sites that opened in 2020, administering 95,000 tests in 2021 and more than 241,000 total tests. In coordination with the state, we opened a monoclonal antibody treatment site that treated 7,883 residents. Our bilingual website, covid19@pinellascounty.org, shared valuable resources and data and reached 7.5 million page views following its launch in 2020. Through these efforts and many more, Pinellas County regularly maintained a significantly lower rate of new COVID-19 cases compared with the rest of Florida.

We’re pleased to report that businesses and workers who fell on tough times during the pandemic are getting back on their feet. The county hit an all-time high in total jobs and recorded the lowest unemployment rate among Florida’s large urban counties by the end of the fiscal year. We invested more than $17 million in our small businesses through County contracts and helped others receive another $20 million through our consulting work.

Housing affordability has become a crisis for our community, and its impacts were worsened by the pandemic. Pinellas County stepped up to distribute more than $17 million in emergency rental assistance to more than 2,000 households. We approved eight new affordable housing developments that will bring 880-plus new homes and keep residents and workers in the county, thanks to the Penny for Pinellas sales tax.

We also kept our eye on the future by beginning to develop the County’s first comprehensive Sustainability and Resiliency Action Plan. We completed a Sea Level Rise and Storm Surge Vulnerability Assessment and entered Duke Energy Florida’s Clean Energy Connection Program to offset County energy use with solar power. Our aim is to build toward 100 percent renewable, zero-emission, clean energy consumption by 2050.

Speaking of the future, the County partnered with the City of Dunedin and our community to acquire the Gladys Douglas Preserve for land and habitat preservation, funded in part by a $2.4 million Florida Communities Trust Grant.

This past year also brought our second severe Red Tide bloom in four years. Between June and November, we removed 1,859 tons of Red Tide-related debris from our beaches and waterways. Along the way, we provided accurate and timely maps that tracked the bloom and information to help residents and visitors enjoy our beaches safely.

Hurricane season is always an anxious time for our community, and to help residents and businesses prepare, we distributed 86,500 Hurricane Preparedness Guides in English, Spanish and Vietnamese. We handed out 3,000 hurricane kits to residents in at-risk communities in coordination with partners. Although the season was kind to us, we activated our Emergency Operations Center for Hurricane Elsa in July and launched a Tropical Storm Flood Risk Map tool.

Despite the pandemic, 2021 was another growth year for St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport. The airport expanded to 65 nonstop destinations, the most in its history, and added two new commercial airlines. We also completed a $22 million rehabilitation of primary runway 18-36.

Keeping our roadways well-maintained and our traffic moving is a high priority for our densely populated county. This past year, we installed a new, state-of-the-art traffic management system and secured a $4.6 million grant for smart transportation technologies. We resurfaced 77-plus miles of roadway and repaired all reported potholes within three days. We also continued to expand our network of pedestrian and bicycle trails, including an addition to the Pinellas Trail.

These are only some of the high points, and I wanted to share them with you. We are dedicated and determined to continue earning your trust in 2022. As always, if you have questions or comments, you can reach me at (727) 464-3363 or cjustice@pinellascounty.org.