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County Board: Skoe says veterans home decision won't be soon

Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, talks with Beltrami County staff and commissioners Tuesday about the county's top legislative priorities. The 2010 session opens today. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson

Northern Minnesota should be the site of a new Minnesota veterans home, but that decision won't be soon, says Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook.

Skoe met Tuesday with Beltrami County staff and commissioners to talk about the county's legislative priorities, with the session starting today.

Skoe also told the gathering that he plans to seek re-election this fall.

"You look at the map and most services veterans need is here," Skoe said. "A joint venture with North Country Health Services and MeritCare Clinic would be good."

A report commissioned by the state Department of Veterans Affairs, however, puts Bemidji 10th on a list of possible sites for a veterans home, with Little Falls first, Brainerd second and Crosby third. Criteria for that ranking calls for a veterans home to be within 60 minutes driving time of a major Veterans Administration health facility.

But Beltrami County Commissioner Joe Vene, who asked Skoe about the possibility of bonding for a vets home this session, said local medical providers could serve as well as a VA facility.

"There is a vast underserved veterans population in northern Minnesota," said Vene, who also chairs a task force seeking the facility for Bemidji. "When veterans come home it is our moral obligation that we take care of them.

"It is a hardship for loved ones to visit a family member three or four hours away," Vene added about facilities that must be located near VA facilities at St. Cloud or Minneapolis.

Senate Taxes Committee Chairman Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said in an interview Saturday that it appeared a short list of Little Falls, Crosby and Bemidji was being developed, and that he is working with Senate Capital Investment Committee Chairman Keith Langseth to insert $9 million into the public works bill as a placeholder whenever a site is selected.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will make the final selection, but then pays for two-thirds of construction costs. The state providing $9 million could be the local match, Bakk said.

But the Legislature this year may not take up the case of a new vets home, says Christopher Runquist, Senate Taxes Committee administrator who said he visited with the state Department of Veterans Affairs legislative liaison.

The federal agency "has identified that Minnesota has enough veterans to build another home," Runquist said in an e-mail. When communities began competing, the study was commissioned that identified 17 possible communities.

"This is as far as the issue has gone," Runquist wrote. "The department does not intend to go forward with any legislation this session."

Also, "they do not feel that bonding approval is necessary at this time," he wrote. "Operating expense funding is one of the many things that will need to be figured out before construction dollars will need to be approved."

Skoe said the same thing Tuesday. "Operating costs is the biggest problem, especially with our budget problems. It will be a state funding responsibility."

Skoe suggested working with Minnesota's congressional delegation to seek federal operating funds.

But the lack of operating funds "doesn't mean we won't build it," he said. "Keep working on it."

Runquist also said the state department indicated that "there is no short list of communities." VA told him that sparring over a site "has put the cart ... way out in front of the horse."

Skoe said filling a $1.2 billion state budget hole will occupy lawmakers this session, as well as the bonding bill, which Langseth will unveil today.

"I'm going to run for Senate because I won't be quitting, but it isn't going to be fun," Skoe said.

Commissioners complained about pending Minnesota Pollution Control Agency rules on septic systems which they say will cost counties money and would add staff.

Part of the problem, said Commissioner Quentin Fairbanks, is that state agencies don't follow legislative intent when making rules.

"I have never been supportive of turning over our legislative authority to rule making." Skoe said. "It really diminishes the role of the Legislature. I don't like that."