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Bonding for vets home sought

SOUTH OF RED LAKE -- Minnesota legislators may try to put $9 million into its public works bill as a state match for a new Minnesota veterans home, says a state senator.

Senate Taxes Committee Chairman Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said Saturday in an interview that efforts are in the works to lay the groundwork for state funding to any eventual veterans home site, including Bemidji.

Bakk also said that Bemidji, Little Falls and Crosby are now on a "short list" to be the state's choice for a facility.

Bakk was one of four gubernatorial candidates at a forum Saturday at the new Red Lake Casino. They were asked if they would support efforts to locate a veterans home in northern Minnesota.

A report issued last fall for the state Department of Veterans Affairs ranked possible locations for a new veterans home and placed Bemidji at 10th, with Little Falls first, followed by Brainerd at second and Crosby at third.

"Apparently there's a shorter list now," said Bakk, after a conversation with an economic development official from one of the cities. "There's a new short list that has Bemidji, Crosby and Little Falls on it."

The Northern Minnesota Veterans Home Task Force has been working to bring a veterans home to northern Minnesota, most likely Bemidji as it is a major regional center with medical facilities. Currently the only northern homes are in Silver Bay, which is in Bakk's district, and Fergus Falls.

The task force maintains that the area is underserved and that there are more than 32,000 veterans as well as three American Indian reservations in the region. The study criteria, however, ranked cities on how close there were to VA facilities, seeking to locate a vets home within 60 minutes of a VA hospital.

A veterans home will cost between $25 million and $30 million, with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs picking up two-thirds of the cost for construction at a site they finally chose, based on the state's recommendation. The state can provide the local match, which Bakk figures at about6 $9 million.

He said he called Sen. Keith Langseth's office on Friday and found out that no requests for state funds had yet gone to Langseth's Senate Capital Investment Committee that he chairs.

"It's not in the queue for this year ... but my hope is that once we get a site selected, the state would pick up the other third through state bonding," Bakk said. "I would have thought, if (Gov. Tim ) Pawlenty knew about it, his administration would have had a proposal - not site specific - but at least $9 million of bonding authority sitting there, if not for him then the next governor."

Bonding authority is good for four years before having to be returned to the state if unspent.

"Then it would be ready so once a site is picked, you don't have to wait around for a legislative session," the Cook Democrat said.

"I would say this area is really underserved," Bakk said.

The other three candidates - Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and Sen. John Marty of Roseville, said they would support veterans health issues wherever the priority needs are.

Rybak added that help is needed for veterans transportation to VA facilities as well.