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Special session delayed, but Wadena wants to be part of it

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news Bemidji, 56619

Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

ST. PAUL -- Wadena-area leaders scrambled to get their request for tornado relief funding included in a special legislative session to help flooded southern Minnesota counties, but will have to wait along with their water-logged cousins.

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A special session is planned to deal with flooding, but Gov. Tim Pawlenty late Friday afternoon announced it will not happen Monday, as he had planned, because the federal government has yet to approve a disaster declaration. Until the Obama administration does that, the state does not know how much it would need to kick in.

"The governor requested the disaster declaration on Oct. 1 as a result of flooding caused by severe storms that began on Sept. 22 in southern Minnesota," Pawlenty's office reported. "Preliminary assessments indicate a total of $64.1 million in damage. In order to provide prompt relief to those in need, the governor intends to call a special session shortly after receiving the declaration."

Negotiations have gone on for days among legislative and governor staffers trying to write a bill funding disaster relief that can fly through a brief special session. Among items discussed was whether Wadena-area tornado relief should be included.

Pawlenty and legislative leaders originally said the special session would not touch tornado recovery because much of that loss was insured and there was little need to rush money there. Pawlenty and House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said that any tornado-related relief could wait until the 2011 regular legislative session.

But Wadena leaders had a different idea and legislators from the area pushed for aid in the special session.

Sen. Dan Skogen, DFL-Hewitt, said his requests for funding have been well received.

The biggest Wadena request is $20.5 million for a regional wellness center to replace the community center, and the ice rink it included, and swimming pool. It could be located at a new high school. All were destroyed in a June 17 tornado that was part of a record tornado outbreak across Minnesota.

A public fund-raising campaign should lower the center's state cost, Skogen said.

Also on the Wadena wish list is up to $3 million to remove debris from the old airport property. The debris was hauled there from damaged buildings, but Skogen said that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency wants it moved.

County officials expect federal funds later to repay them, but they need money now to begin paying for debris to be hauled away.

There also is a need for some money to help the school district replace equipment not covered by insurance, Skogen added.

Once those needs are covered, the senator said, he should not need to return to the state for more money unless federal funds and insurance payments do not cover the damage.

Skogen was happy that legislative leaders listened to Wadena's needs during pre-session negotiations. "They were open to having me at the table for some of it."

Flooding that touched more than 30 southern Minnesota counties is the reason a special session is planned.

Federal funds are expected to pay for 75 percent of public facility damages due to flooding, which have been estimated at $64 million.

When legislators convene their special session, besides sending money to repair public facility damages, they are expected to approve paying communities that lose property taxes due to flood damage.

The bill to be considered in the special session also extends property tax deadlines for damaged properties.

Legislative and governor staffers have met for days working to agree on what lawmakers will consider during a special session.

Last week, Pawlenty and legislative leaders emerged from a closed-door meeting to announce they agreed to a brief special session, no more than a day, to appropriate money to fill a gap in flood relief funding left by federal funds. But before that session could be held, and the final bill drafted, the Obama administration needed to declare more than 30 southern Minnesota counties a federal flood disaster area.

When they announced the flood session, Pawlenty and top lawmakers said there was no need to spend money for the Wadena-area tornadoes in a special session.

But Wadena-area lawmakers Skogen and Rep. Mark Murdock and other area leaders began to push for aid sooner than January.

More than 150 homes were destroyed and 100 badly damaged by a series of tornados that struck Wadena and Otter Tail counties in June.

Early estimates show the Wadena area sustained $35 million in damage to public facilities, not counting private businesses and homes.

When legislators return to St. Paul, it actually will be their second special session of the year. After their regular session ended, they met for 10 more hours before adjourning for the year, or so they thought, the morning of May 17 after fixing a $3 billion hole in the state budget.

Only the governor can call a special session, and Republican Pawlenty requires a firm agreement with legislative leaders before he will call back the DFL-controlled Legislature.

Special sessions have followed other recent floods.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

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