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Bemidji, Montevideo jockey for $16 million for new veterans homes

A $16 million plan to build state-operated veterans home in Bemidji and Montevideo cleared its first hurdle Monday when the House Veterans Affairs Division approved a bill years in the making.

HF1109, sponsored by Rep. Tim Miller (R-Prinsburg), is just the first step in a marathon of establishing veterans homes into two outstate communities with growing aging populations who currently drive hours to receive services in one of the five current state-run homes. Through bonding, the bill would appropriate $10 million for the proposed 15-acre Bemidji location on the hospital campus and an  $6 million for a 13.5-acre plot in Montevideo.

The bill’s next stop is the House State Government Finance Committee. Its companion, SF1089, sponsored by Sen. Andrew Lang (R-Olivia), awaits action in the Senate Capital Investment Committee.

“This will be the 10th year we’ve come before your various committees in support of construction of the home,” Montevideo City Council President Marvin Garbe, a veteran, said. “During that time, you’ve constructed the Twins’ stadium, the Vikings’ stadium and approved $20 million for the St. Paul Saints … during that same timeframe, our local American Legion honor guard provided military honors for more than 200 funerals for our deceased veterans (in Montevideo).”

Still, communities wouldn’t complete construction – nor would they fill beds – until the Legislature OKs the spending, the governor signs the bill and then, depending on a number of factors, the federal government approves the location and its associated spending. But both communities have been raising funds despite no guarantee that the federal government will approve the projects.

Montevideo has already raised $5 million to help secure its $30 million proposal, leaving the state with an additional $5.2 million for initial costs and the federal government with $20 million. Beltrami County, home of the proposed Bemidji location, is discussing pitching in $1 million to $3 million. The state would foot the bill for the annual ongoing costs of operating the homes.

With the longest continuing military effort still unfolding in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, yet fewer people serving compared to previous eras, there are concerns about future veterans’ well-being.

“Over time, fewer and fewer people have shouldered more and more of the burden, and it’s only getting worse,” said Montevideo Assistant City Manager Angie Steinbach.

Current homes in Fergus Falls, Hastings, Luverne, Minneapolis and Silver Bay leave gaps in parts of Minnesota with growing veterans populations. In Bemidji’s case, there are American Indian veterans, among others, traveling long hours to receive care – even cases of delayed services.

“That is not acceptable,” Joe Vene, a former Beltrami County commissioner, said. “Not acceptable to the veterans, not acceptable to the loved ones, not acceptable to the families. We need to do better.”

A proposal seeking $10 million for a Fillmore County veterans home was approved last Monday by the division. Sponsored by Rep. Greg Davids (R-Preston), HF79 also awaits action by the House State Government Finance Committee. Its companion, SF69, sponsored by Sen. Jeremy Miller (R-Winona), awaits action by the Senate Capital Investment Committee.

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