Legislature delivers for several local projects
Pilot program gives volunteer firefighters stipend; nursing homes lacking new money
Albert Lea will receive funding for several projects this year thanks to bills approved by the Legislature.
In addition to $7.5 million to dredge Fountain Lake, the Legislature approved $433,000 for the Blazing Star Trail. The money was needed to extend the trail from Myre-Big Island State Park to Hayward — specifically to cover the last mile and a half stretch of the extension.
The Blazing Star Trail presently begins at Frank Hall Park in Albert Lea and goes to a point on the northeast side of Myre-Big Island State Park, about a three-quarters of a mile from the western shore of Albert Lea Lake’s northern bay.
The extension would be 2.9 miles and would include a bridge over Albert Lea Lake. Once it is completed, it would be turned over to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for maintenance.
Local officials had initially requested $500,000 for the project, but legislators ultimately cut off 10 to 12 percent of funding for all trail requests.
It is unclear whether there will be enough funding to finish the project.
DNR officials, who are heading up the project, could not be reached for comment on Friday.
In addition to the dredging and trail money, legislators approved $700,000 out of the outdoor heritage bill for the installation of a fish barrier on the Albert Lea Lake dam, said District 27A Rep. Shannon Savick, DFL-Wells.
“I think the session very hard because we started late and we quit early, so we had very short time of getting bills in,” Savick said. “There were a lot of long hours, but I’m very proud of the work that we got done. We got done a lot more than we thought we would.”
The following are other bills approved that will affect the Albert Lea area:
Minnesota workers earning minimum wage will earn up to $9.50 an hour by 2016, thanks to a bill passed in April. After 2016, there will be automatic increases for inflation.
According to state numbers, there are 2,873 minimum wage earners in District 27A alone.
Savick said she would have liked to see the wage go straight to $9.50 an hour instead of being phased in over two years.
“Everybody complains about people on welfare, but if they were paid a living wage they wouldn’t have to be on food stamps and welfare,” she said.
The bill gives Minnesota one of the nation’s most generous pay floors after years go being among the states with the lowest minimum wage. The bill passed with only Democratic votes after Republicans said it would cause hardship on businesses and narrow opportunities for those the legislation is designed to help.
Minnesota last raised its minimum wage in 2005.
Firefighter stipend pilot program
Freeborn and Faribault counties will be among 14 counties across the state to take part in a pilot program for firefighters and other first responders.
Every volunteer firefighter, first responder and emergency medical technician will receive a $500 stipend from the state out of an effort to help recruit and retain volunteers.
“Right now we have a problem with Greater Minnesota,” said Savick, who created the bill. “It’s very hard to get volunteers in those areas.”
Savick said schools across the state have been paid back and Albert Lea Area Schools will receive roughly $2.8 million in new funding this biennium, including full funding for all-day kindergarten.
Savick said the Legislature approved $550 million in tax cuts for families, businesses and farmers, including the repeal of three business-to business taxes.
Families affected will see increased refunds this year and next.
Savick said thanks to increased local government aid and county program aid, homeowners in Albert Lea will pay 13.8 percent lower taxes this year.
Albert Lea is certified to receive $5.16 million in local government aid this year, up about 9 percent from last year’s $4.72 million in LGA.
The Legislature approved $20 million for improved broadband Internet access across Greater Minnesota.
Dan Dorman, executive director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership, said the action was a good start, and he hopes more money will go toward the fund in future years.
Dorman said a governor’s task recommended $100 million for the fund. He talked about the importance of broadband for economic development.
“Twenty-four percent of the new jobs that will be created will be very dependent on broadband,” he said.
The Legislature ended without any new money for nursing homes much to the dismay of nursing home administrators such as Bob Johnannsen of Parkview Care Center in Wells.
There was, however, a 5 percent increase in funding for long-term care workers, such as home health care workers and people who work in facilities for the disabled.
Savick said she hopes to organize a committee to determine how to pay for long-term care next session.
“I don’t know how we will do that, but it’s got to be done,” she said. “We have to face it and basically find a way to pay for long-term care because otherwise the state’s going to go broke.”