Graphic by Kathy Johnson/Photo by Tim Engstrom/Albert Lea Tribune

Dredge assistance sought

Published 12:53pm Monday, January 7, 2013

City, watershed district, others hope state takes 2013 request seriously

With Minnesota legislators returning to the state Capitol on Tuesday, local officials are finalizing their goals for the upcoming session.

A high priority for several local entities is to lobby for $7.5 million in state funding for the restoration of Fountain Lake, according to officials with the city of Albert Lea, the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce and the Shell Rock River Watershed District.

The efforts follow the watershed district’s purchase this fall of a 51-foot dredge, pumps, pipes and other equipment for the project.

“I think we made a clear statement that we’re serious about this and ready to move forward,” said Watershed District Administrator Brett Behnke. “It positions us well.”

The entire project is estimated to cost $15 million, including the costs of engineering, permitting and land acquisition. Local officials hope to start the project in 2014.

Behnke said he thinks District 27 Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, will be a key promoter of the plans during the upcoming session, and he also hopes to reach out to freshman legislator District 27A Rep. Shannon Savick, DFL-Wells, and other new legislators who are not familiar with the project.

“It affects so many different things,” said Albert Lea City Manager Chad Adams, who noted the effect a restored lake can have on economic development, quality of life and tourism.

Other local priorities include passage of legislation to encourage job growth and economic development in Greater Minnesota, funding all-day, everyday kindergarten and giving additional local control to school districts.


Economic development

With the sunset of the Jobs Opportunity Building Zones program in 2015, officials said they are urging the passage of a viable successor to the program or an extension of the current program.

The program has been highly successful for Albert Lea, aiding in the creation of more than 700 jobs; however, with the program coming to a close in 2015, companies are no longer taking advantage of it.

“The bottom line is we need to have more competitive tools,” Adams said. “We’re competing against South Dakota and Iowa, and we need to be competitive to not only attract new business but to grow existing business.”

Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce Director Randy Kehr said the states surrounding Minnesota have aggressive incentive programs to bring companies to their states.

“The playing field just is not level,” Kehr said. “To have no true incentives to offer is just not acceptable.”

The program would also address the disparity between metro and Greater Minnesota.

Kehr said the chamber has also tentatively passed priorities to encourage the passage of a Greater Minnesota jobs training program, which would give an incentive such as a tax credit to businesses to train new employees and keep up with changes in technology.

Similarly, the chamber is encouraging an employer internship tax credit, which would be a way to incentivize high school or college students to get into the workforce. The companies would be paid for a portion of the salaries.

The chamber’s is also supportive of an expansion of the angel investment network in Greater Minnesota.

K-12 education

Albert Lea District 241 Superintendent Mike Funk said he would like to see legislators support all-day, everyday kindergarten for all school districts.

“People have shown over time that the more money put into early childhood education, the better the payoff,” Funk said.

Kehr said the district and others currently fund all-day, everyday kindergarten on their own, but many other districts are not doing so. If the program would receive full funding, the money currently used for the kindergarteners could be used to fund a program for 4-year-olds at all the elementary schools in the district.

Funk said he is also supportive of giving school districts the same authority as county and city governments to renew existing levies rather than having to go up before the voters.

If the district is seeking an increase to the levy, that question would still have to come before the voters.


Higher education

Kehr said the chamber has also tentatively passed a priority supporting an additional $97 million in funding over the biennium to restore higher education to 2007 funding levels.

He said this is important to advance the state’s workforce, increase access and affordability and accelerate competition.


Other priorities

Adams said the city is also supportive of other potential bonding requests to support projects for the Freeborn National Bank Building, a sewer extension for the Stables neighborhood and other storm water projects in the community.

The money for some of these projects may come through competitive grant programs, and Adams said he wants to make sure those grants don’t get taken away.

He said he is also supportive of the Legislature relaxing some of the unfunded mandates for city governments.

Kehr said the chamber supports a state reimbursement rate increase that provides an equitable and fair contribution for local nursing homes and their clients.

The state has not set Medicaid nursing home payment rates since 1995 and has thus created a shortfall each years for the state’s nursing homes.

Both the chamber board and the Albert Lea City Council will be meeting within the next two weeks to reaffirm their priorities.