BAXTER - What area priorities will see funding support from St. Paul was a luncheon topic of discussion Friday as a representative of the state government came to the lakes area to get the local perspective.
Department of Revenue Commissioner Ward Einess said meeting face-to-face with city and county government and educational leaders was much better than reading lists of priorities for state funding.
Whether those priorities see actual dollars sent their way will largely depend on what the Minnesota revenue forecast, which comes out Nov. 29, says.
"All I can say about the forecast is stay tuned," Einess said.
Priorities discussed Friday included getting the permit for the joint Brainerd/Baxter wastewater treatment plant update. Dan Vogt, Brainerd city administrator, and Dennis Coryell, Baxter city administrator, spoke on that issue and how delays in getting the permit are increasing costs. Vogt said without the expansion, the wastewater plant will be full and "our economic development is going to come to a halt."
Other funding priorities discussed included a regional performing arts center, downtown Brainerd, updating the fire alarm system at Central Lakes College in Brainerd, science lab initiative, and a large classroom initiative to update the Chalberg Theatre for multiuses.
After the meeting, Einess said one of the things he heard across the board was that it is a good idea to get the tax bill passed. Local government aid will be a big discussion with the tax bill, Einess said.
The meeting, facilitated by the Brainerd Lakes Area Development Corp., brought together representatives from Brainerd, Baxter, Crow Wing County, the Brainerd School District and Central Lakes College and Rep. John Ward, DFL-Brainerd.
Steve Razidlo, Brainerd School District assistant superintendent, said the district doesn't believe the recent school levy referendum vote was an anti-education sentiment but many no voters said they wanted to force St. Paul to act. Ward added people feeling crunched by property taxes didn't get to vote on other tax increases but did have the option to vote no for the school referendum.
More about SEED
The Strategic Entrepreneurial Economic Development proposal includes:
Creating a state office of entrepreneurship.
Assisting rural Minnesota manufacturing companies with training and consulting to increase competitiveness.
Expanding regional Initiative Foundations' ability to offer business loans.
More on SEED will be discussed at the Brainerd Lakes Area Development Corp.'s annual meeting Tuesday when Commissioner Dan McElroy, Department of Employment and Economic Development, speaks.
Einess said he wasn't second guessing the school district but he wondered about the inclusion of the relatively new ability to adjust the levy for inflation, which the Brainerd district included in the question. Referendums that included that option did not fare well, Einess said.
"There is something there," he said, adding the initial reaction from voters is they are uncomfortable voting for that.
Philosophically, Razidlo asked if consideration may be given to letting elected school board members vote on levies the way city council members can. Einess said that is a discussion at the state level every few years but there isn't a consensus to make a change. City budgets are annual discussions while school levies are long-term commitments. "So in that respect it's a different question," Einess said. "I think that does have a different level of importance."
Asking if there were one or two things the next legislative session could help, Einess was told special education costs with mandated programs continue to be a concern even with recent help in that area.
"We would not be asking for a referendum at all if we had those costs covered," Razidlo said.
In other areas, Einess asked what people found helpful. Vogt said tax-increment financing continues to be helpful in Brainerd in order to help businesses redevelop existing properties, particularly when that option costs more than building on bare ground.
The group talked about the governor's proposal for Strategic Entrepreneurial Economic Development or SEED. Gov. Tim Pawlenty is proposing an additional $20 million with an additional $50 million in one-time bonding to help new and existing companies in the state.
Plans for a rural enterprise micro loan fund, JOBZ, main street grants and an infrastructure financing program were all listed by the group's members as particularly helpful parts of SEED.
Sheila Haverkamp, BLADC executive director, said JOBZ has been beneficial and she'd like to see that program continue without being so reduced it won't be feasible for businesses. Ward said JOBZ has its critics but it's been important to the area.
Einess said JOBZ provides a tool that is essential for communities. Vogt and Haverkamp said when there is a project for the state, like a veterans nursing home, the Brainerd area would be a good place to consider.
Einess said the area was on a short list of high functioning communities.
"It's rare to see the kind of collaboration you guys have," Einess said of the diverse group. "You guys are the exception to the rule."
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5852.
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