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Groups promote veterans' home plans

Joe Vene, a Beltrami County commissioner and Army veteran, told a Minnesota Senate committee Tuesday that land for a new veterans' home in the Bemidji area could come from the city or county. Scott Wente, Minn. State Capitol Bureau

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota is not prepared to care for many of its 400,000 military veterans who will need physical and mental health assistance in the coming decades, lawmakers were told.

Communities trying to land a state veterans' home or care facility tried to sell their plans to a Minnesota Senate veterans committee Tuesday, promoting their locations and facilities and the specialized medical treatments they could provide.

Lawmakers soon will receive a Department of Veterans Affairs study that is expected to include veterans' demographic estimates and population statistics looking out to 2030. It may include recommendations for future veterans' homes.

Minnesota has five veterans' homes. They are in Fergus Falls, Silver Bay, Hastings, Luverne and Minneapolis. Officials say that leaves entire regions of the state without a facility offering comprehensive medical care or living options.

A veterans' home in Bemidji would serve 12 or 13 counties in northern and northwestern Minnesota, which is the state's most underserved area, said Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, who proposes state-borrowed funding help build a veterans' facility in her county. The project could cost $30 million, with the federal government chipping in as much as $20 million. That would leave $10 million to be covered by state and local governments, she said.

Many northern Minnesota veterans must travel three hours to be treated at either the Fergus Falls facility or in Silver Bay, Olson said. Also, the region also is home to three American Indian reservations - Red Lake, Leech Lake and White Earth - and Indian tribes have a high percentage of military participation.

"When veterans return from military service, we need to take care of them," said Joe Vene, a Beltrami County commissioner and Army veteran.

There are other regions in need of a new veterans' facility, senators heard. Proponents of a veterans' mental health facility in west-central Minnesota's Kandiyohi County said there are 32,500 veterans living within 50 miles of their proposed Willmar site.

Some of those veterans currently must travel up to 120 miles to the nearest veterans' home, said Ron Andreen, an Army veteran and chairman of Kandiyohi County's Veterans Home Advisory Board.

In Montevideo, southwest of Willmar, officials say they are ready to build a veterans' facility. Montevideo has completed a site pre-design and is raising local funds to help finance a facility.

"Frankly, we probably need four or five (veterans') homes," Montevideo City Administrator Steve Jones said of Minnesota. "This is a growing need."

Sen. Jim Vickerman, who leads the Senate veterans' committee, said not all of the five proposals discussed Tuesday - Bemidji, Montevideo, Willmar, Owatonna and Brainerd - will get state funding. The Tracy Democrat said there may only be funding for one new home.

"If we're only going to do one, it's going to be a tough decision," said Sen. Steve Dille, a Dassel Republican and veterans' committee member.

None of the projects expect to receive state funds this year, but supporters are working in advance of the 2010 legislative session, when lawmakers would traditionally pass a large public works spending package.


It is important to introduce a proposal early because that makes it more likely the Legislature's public works committees will visit the site, said Sen. Gary Kubly, who is pushing the Montevideo plan.

A project that lawmakers are familiar with is more likely to receive funding, Kubly said.

"You have to look quite a ways down the road for bonding proposals," Kubly said.

Steve Renquist, Willmar's economic development director, said the Kandiyohi County proposal has been on the table for four years. Unlike other veterans' home proposals, Renquist said his county's already has completed a pre-design phase and identified a site.

Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, said Kandiyohi County has requested $7.9 million in state-borrowed funds, but may not even need the state aid.