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7 things Olmsted County commissioners want state lawmakers to know

Commissioners met with state lawmakers Friday in advance of the Jan. 31 start of the 2022 Minnesota legislative session.

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ROCHESTER – Olmsted County commissioners are asking state lawmakers representing the region to support several of local priorities when the Minnesota legislative session starts on Jan. 31.

The identified priorities have been communicated to local senators and representatives, and elected officials and county staff will likely take their message to St. Paul while lawmakers are meeting.

Here are some of the priorities:

1. Commissioners want help in cleaning up the county’s wastestream

A requested $12.5 million in state investments would fund half of the estimated cost of a proposed materials recovery facility, which would remove recyclable materials from trash before sending it to the county’s Waste-to-Energy facility.

“It reduces the amount of waste that goes to the landfill,” Commissioner Ken Brown said of the proposed 30,000-square-foot facility. “It increases the marketability of recycling in a source-separated manner, and it removes those things that cannot be burned, and it increases the heat value of what we do burn.”

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If state lawmakers approve borrowing for the project this year, Brown said the proposed facility could be operating by April 2025.

Commissioners have also listed state-level support for existing waste management operations as a priority in the upcoming session.

2. More funds are being sought for an overpass project on U.S. Highway 14

County commissioners are requesting nearly $21.8 million in state investment to construct an overpass at U.S. Highway 14 and County State Aid Highway 44.

State funds were approved in 2020 for design and other preliminary work, but Commissioner Jim Bier said the added funding is needed to ensure the project doesn’t stall.

If the state funding is approved, county staff estimates the project could be constructed in 2024 and 2025, with the county paying for half the project.

County commissioners are also asking lawmakers to support funding for statewide transportation infrastructure, including $200 million for the state’s Local Bridge Replacement and Rehabilitation Program and $150 million for the Local Road improvement Program.

3. Graham Park exhibit center

An additional $10 million request in state investment is being sought to construct a regional, multi-use exhibition center at Graham Park.

Commissioner Sheila Kiscaden said plans for the facility have been modified following a 2021 market study that outlined needs.

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“We are designing to what the market shows is needed and can be supported in our community and our region,” she said of the facility that would have 60,000-square-feet of exhibit space that could be used for livestock shows, cultural events and a variety of other activities needing space.

If funded by the state, the county would contribute $10 million to the construction.

4. Support for local justice initiatives

Commissioners asked lawmakers to consider added funding for community supervision programs, noting county probation officers throughout the state supervise 82% of the people on probation, but state funding covers less than 30% of the cost.

Added investment is also being sought for reform efforts that include pretrial services, support for children of incarcerated parents and other community programs.

“It’s critical for the state and counties to work together to find new and innovative ways to better serve Minnesotans through our justice programs and do so in ways that are flexible, efficient and will ensure future effectiveness and sustainability,” County Board Chairman Mark Thein said.

Other requests include legislation to allow law enforcement agencies and social service workers to share data in response to mental health crisis calls, as well as added mental health support for people who are incarcerated.

5. Workforce help for programs serving the youngest and oldest residents

Commissioner Stephanie Poldulke reported statewide workforce shortages are causing facilities that house vulnerable senior residents, as well as child daycare operations, to close or cut services.

She said the county had at least five group homes for people with developmental disabilities close in 2021 and more are expected to close this year, with staff shortages cited as a concern.

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Commissioners are asking lawmakers to work on statewide policies to address the staffing needs.

6. Help to provide shelter for the homeless

“The homeless numbers are increasing because of COVID,” Commissioner Gregg Wright said, adding that help is needed to support the growing population.

While the county has invested in creating a nightly warming center and establishing an outreach team in recent years, Wright said commissioners are asking lawmakers to support added funding for construction of emergency shelters locally and throughout the state.

7. The county struggles with program requirements that lack funding

Commissioners are asking state lawmakers to increase county program aid to ensure they can support social services and other programs required by the state.

Wright said current funding levels are at an all-time low, but demands on the system continue.

“The only way we can supplement that, of course, and provide those services is to look at our own property taxes,” he said. “That’s the only way we can provide that.”

Randy Petersen joined the Post Bulletin in 2014 and became the local government reporter in 2017. An Elkton native, he's worked for a variety of Midwest papers as reporter, photographer and editor since graduating from Winona State University in 1996. Readers can reach Randy at 507-285-7709 or rpetersen@postbulletin.com.
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