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Highs, lows found in state funding


October 16, 2020

As the Minnesota Legislature breathed its last gasps of air of the 2020 session, Carlton County can find some wins and some big losses when contemplating what became a session extended by five months with mostly unproductive special sessions since May and until this week.

A school district consolidation will have to wait. A long-planned waterline project is a go, as is a grant for the county jail to explore increasing services for female offenders. On the flip side, the county will have to wait for permission to ask county voters to allow a sales tax to build a new jail.

The Minnesota House was debating amendments into the night Wednesday and past deadline for the Pine Knot News. Early in the week, lawmakers on both political sides said there would likely be passage in the House of the 155-page, $1.35 billion bonding bill. The Senate was expected to vote on Thursday.

Also likely to pass was a tax supplement bill that would create funding for the Department of Corrections, $7.5 million, that will allow it to continue the Challenge Incarceration Project sites in Willow River and Togo. It’s a one-time fix. Next year the legislature would need to find more DOC funding to keep the CIPs going.

That was a big win for county residents who rose up in August when it was announced that the Willow River facility would be closed later this fall, resulting in a loss of dozens of jobs.

Nine jobs are expected to be eliminated at the prison in Moose Lake as the Department of Human Services drops a volunteer sex offender treatment program. It was announced by DHS in August that shortfalls seen earlier in the year would lead to cuts.

The satellite program was a 50-bed residential program separate from the prison unit. Prisoners were offered the treatment in an effort to reduce sentences and keep treatable prisoners from being civilly committed, meaning likely lifetime lockup at the Minnesota Sex Offenders Program. The program cost about $1 million a year to run. The DHS is paring from its budget that shows a $27 million shortfall.

Big losses for the county in the session were also long shots as seemingly simple bills with no immediate statewide financial impact were drowned out in a session marked by the Covid-19 pandemic and social unrest in Minneapolis. The state found itself in a budget hole after projecting surplus at the beginning of the session in February.

A measure to help schools considering consolidation with state money was cut from the main bill Monday. It means Carlton and Wrenshall will have to wait until next session to see if the debt equalization measure can pass. Legislators were supportive of the measure, which works much like the funding the Moose Lake District received under a disaster declaration after 2012 funding. The measure before the legislators tweaked the language, cutting out the requisite of a disaster in order to get funding.

The two districts in eastern Carlton County were hoping that the state would help with up to 40 percent of the cost to shore up its schools for a consolidation. The districts over the past year developed a campus plan including improvements at South Terrace in Carlton and the Wrenshall school that would cost up to $38 million.

Wrenshall superintendent Kim Belcastro said she can’t predict the direction the districts will take. “I know that the Wrenshall board had only been interested in consolidation if there was state funding available.”

Belcastro and Carlton superintendent John Engstrom found out Monday that the equalization measure had been taken out.

There had been support for the bill in the Senate and House, Rep. Mike Sundin said. He didn’t know exactly how the measure fell through the cracks. “I feel bad for the superintendents,” he said.

“It seems pretty clear that going from a surplus to a deficit in a matter of months (was) going to change the landscape,” Engstrom said. He took over the district in July on a one-year contract, jumping right in on the consolidation machinations. “A lot of people worked very hard and very long to try to get this bill through the legislature,” he said. “If it officially doesn’t make it through … then that’s a setback and a sad day.”

“I don’t know what happened,” Sen. Jason Rarick said Tuesday. He said he would work up to the vote Thursday to find an answer.

Also officially dead for the 2020 session was a bill that would have allowed the county to hold a referendum on whether it could use sales taxes to help pay for a new jail. It will try again next session as it faces a state-mandated sunset on use of the aging jail in Carlton. The bill died when the regular session ended May but, as with the school equalization measure, efforts to tack it onto the remaining bonding or tax bills remained a possibility.

The jail grant that remained in the bill is for $2 million and tasks Carlton County with designing a corrections facility for women. It’s a demonstration project to “address current state requirements of parity in serving male and female offenders.”

UPDATE: Here’s what's in that big public works bonding bill

By Tim Pugmire / MPR News

The Minnesota Legislature’s passage this week of a massive public works bonding bill is being celebrated by communities that were lucky enough to have their projects included.

The borrowing provisions in the nearly $1.9 billion special session bill cover construction projects throughout the state. The list includes roads and bridges, water treatment plants, parks and trails, and improvements to state buildings and college campuses.

The city of Minneapolis received nearly $85 million for local projects, including $12 million for an amphitheater near the Mississippi River. Mayor Jacob Fry was pleased with the bill.

"This is really a huge win for the city,” Frey said. “Included in the bill, there are our top bonding priorities of the Upper Harbor Terminal, the central storm tunnel, and emergency operations and training facility.”

St. Paul also did well in the bonding bill. Mayor Melvin Carter was pleased that the $52 million request for a new Third Street Kellogg Bridge was included.

“Amid this pandemic economy, projects like the Third Street Kellogg Bridge will help keep our community connected and get people back to work during these challenging times,” he said.

Other projects in the bill include:

$13.5 million for a seawall and surface improvements to the Lakewalk in Duluth

$18 million for the Lake Bronson Dam in Kittson County

$20.5 million to build infrastructure for a business park in Becker

$24 million for wastewater infrastructure in Oronoco

The Metropolitan Council received $55 million for bus rapid transit. The Minnesota Zoo received $13 million for asset preservation and $29.5 million will go toward a new state emergency operations center.

The $20.5 million for a business park in Becker will go toward sewer and water infrastructure work.

Google has proposed building a $600 million data storage center in the park, but the company hasn’t made a final decision.

Becker Mayor Tracy Bertram says the improvements made with the bonding bill funding will benefit more than just one business.

"It's not specific to just Google. It's specific to a large portion of land that where we will have Google as a hopeful tenant of that," she said.

Higher education always gets a large share of bonding bills. The Minnesota State system received a total of $91 million. The University of Minnesota’s bonding total was $75 million.

The U of M share includes $29 million for a new Institute of Child Development building on the Twin Cities campus.

Megan Gunnar, the former director of the institute, says the project has been in the works for years. She says the improvements are needed to match the current work of developmental science.

“The new building will let us all come back and do our research together in the same building, which will have wonderful opportunities for our students to interact more,” Gunnar said.

MPR News Reporter Brandt Williams contributed to this story


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