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Jim Dokken, a retired Air Force senior master sergeant and member of the Willmar City Council, second right, and Trisha Appledorn, Kandiyohi County veterans service officer, right, joined area residents Monday at Willmar Public Library to discuss a proposal to build a 90-bed veterans nursing home in Willmar. Dokken urged legislators to be "thoughtful" in taking care of veterans and "very careful" in how they choose to spend taxpayers' money. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

With nursing home proposal, 'clarity' is the key

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WILLMAR -- Community support for military veterans is a given, but Sen. Joe Gimse said Monday he wants to make sure local leaders are all "on board" with building a 90-bed veterans nursing home in Willmar and that everyone understands the complexity of the process to get it done.

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During a meeting with about 50 community members, Gimse said there needs to be clarity when it comes to the details of the proposal, how it would be funded and state and federal criteria for building and operating the home.

The process "can be pretty confusing," said Gil Acevedo, deputy commissioner for veterans health care in the state Department of Veterans Affairs.

He said people with "good intentions" in several Minnesota communities are proposing to build a veterans nursing home, but there is confusion.

Acevedo said Willmar's unique proposal for a geriatric nursing home that would provide skilled nursing care for veterans with mental illness is already on the federal list of projects.

But it will sit on that list until the state agrees to provide 35 percent of the construction costs of about $8.5 million.

Once that happens, the project will move to the federal "priority one" list which makes it eligible to receive 65 percent construction funding, he said. A federal per diem is also available to offset operations costs if the facility is used for the specific purpose as proposed.

The Minnesota House has approved the $8.5 million Willmar bonding request in three previous sessions, but the funding has not yet won approval in the Senate.

With a state budget deficit looming and early indications that Gov. Pawlenty may want a smaller bonding bill than the Legislature this year, getting money for a new project may be a "difficult sell at this time," said Gimse.

Gimse said he doesn't want the state to build a $28 million "field of dreams" facility that's fully staffed but only half full.

In a later interview, Gimse said he will work hard to get the $8.5 million in local construction money included in the 2010 bonding bill, but because of "lingering concerns" he is not ready to "jump in with both feet" to lobby for the biennial $11.5 million in operating costs.

The Senate deals with those two issues separately, he said, and he said there would be time to address operational funding later.

Rep. Al Juhnke, chairman of the agriculture and veterans affairs finance committee, said once the House approves funding for a project to be built, it automatically attaches the operations funding.

Juhnke said he's been told that Pawlenty will sign any veterans project "that hits his desk."

Willmar City Councilman Jim Dokken, who is also a veteran, urged the legislators to be "thoughtful" about taking care of veterans and "very careful" about spending taxpayer money.

Juhnke said finding money to operate the Willmar home won't take new money because veterans with mental illness are likely receiving services that are already paid for by the state or counties. Instead, he said, the funding could be reallocated from existing expenditures.

Steve Renquist, executive director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission, said some community members have advocated for a traditional nursing home for veterans. Because that could cause economic harm to existing nursing homes, Renquist said this proposal specializes in geriatric and psychiatric care for veterans and their spouses.

The plan originally included care for veterans with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress syndrome, but Renquist said that component was removed from the proposal.

The 2010 legislative session begins Feb. 4. Juhnke said he hopes the bonding bill can be put together in the first few weeks of the session.

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Carolyn Lange
A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers county government and regional news with the West Central Tribune.
(320) 894-9750
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