Otter Tail County commissioners and staff paid a heartfelt tribute to retiring Public Works Director Rick West, who has received national recognition for his work making roads safer.

West was hired as county engineer for Otter Tail County in 1990 and became public works director in 2012.

"What a blessing that has been for our county and for all of our residents, visitors, tourists, not just state, but nationwide," said County Administrator Nicole Hanson during the Tuesday, May 25, county commissioner meeting.

West spent more than 40 years in the engineering field. In 2020, he was given the prestigious David P. Brand Safety Award by the National Association of County Engineers for his work not only improving Otter Tail County road safety, but being a key player in Minnesota's Toward Zero Deaths road safety initiative.

His work undoubtedly saved "scores of lives," the association said.

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The association also named him the 2016 Rural County Engineer of the Year.

Under his tenure, the number of miles of paved roads in Otter Tail County grew from 1,040 to more than 1,700, Hanson said.

"Rick has been a mentor for all of us county engineers," said Brian Giese, president of the Minnesota County Engineers Association, who drove to Fergus Falls from Glenwood to introduce a resolution declaring May 25 "Rick West Day." "His legacy will live on."

Commissioners thanked him for explaining engineering issues to them, for welcoming questions and for providing clear explanations.

“When I came I had the thought that I’m not going to get involved in roads because I don’t know anything about them," said Commissioner Betty Murphy, her voice breaking with emotion. ”And you welcomed me in and taught me a lot."

In his remarks, West stressed the important of long-range planning, and praised the county's efforts to look ahead, not just with transportation, but with solid waste recycling and other subjects.

"If you don't have a map to your goals, you're probably never going to get to your goals," he said. "What do we want to look like in 40 years? Who do we want to be in 20 years?"

He said he feels the county is going in the right direction and is a bright spot in Minnesota as far as planning for the future.

West is retiring at a time when pandemic restrictions are easing in Otter Tail County and around the state. County commissioners are talking about once again opening their meetings to members of the public and also looking toward ending the county's emergency declaration that has enabled it to take special steps to protect staff during the pandemic.

The percentage of Otter Tail County residents that have been vaccinated against COVID-19 now stands at 51%, said Public Health Director Jody Lien. The county would like at least 70% of the county to be vaccinated. Reaching that goal is aided by families who are now bringing in children as young as 12 to be vaccinated against the disease.

“We’ve seen a real good response to that from families with school-age kids,” said Kristi Wentworth, assistant Public Health director.

The public health officials still urged caution, as the virus is still spreading and sending people to emergency rooms. A new variant is making people sicker faster. COVID has sickened 5,803 county residents and claimed 78 lives, nearly half of them in long-term care facilities.

In other news:

  • A developer in Vergas is seeking a $10,000 tax abatement, half from the county and half from the city of Vergas, in connection with a 5,500-square-foot building they want to build on a vacant lot to house a real estate office and the showroom for a construction company. Vergas has already set a public hearing on the request. “They haven’t seen new construction in many years in this community and they wanted to get this off the ground,” said Community Development Director Amy Baldwin.