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Many factors blamed for defeat of veterans home proposal

WILLMAR -- Multiple factors -- a lack of unified support from military veterans, worries about ongoing costs, misunderstandings about a proposed mental health and traumatic brain injury component -- were to blame for knocking a veterans home proposal for Willmar out of the legislative bonding bill this year.

Lobbyist Dean Elton Johnson is urging local officials not to concede defeat just yet, however.

"For the future it'll be difficult, but as a community, don't give up," said Johnson.

Members of the joint powers board of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission met with Johnson on Thursday to analyze the legislative session and why the veterans home proposal failed for the third year in a row.

"It's very disappointing," Kandiyohi County Commissioner and joint powers board member Harlan Madsen said of the failed effort.

Johnson, a one-time Senate majority leader in the Minnesota Legislature, said he lobbied hard for the project to be included in the bonding bill.

He traveled to St. Paul six times while the veterans home was under discussion. He met four times with Sen. Larry Pogemiller, Senate majority leader; four times with Sen. Keith Langseth, chairman of the bonding committee; and talked almost daily with Rep. Al Juhnke, who represents Willmar and Kandiyohi County and chairs the Veterans Affairs Finance Division in the House.

The veterans home project was contained in the House version of the bonding bill but not in the Senate version. It was removed from the bill at the conference committee level after Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said he preferred to see expansion of the veterans home in Minneapolis.

What went wrong?

There didn't appear to be unified support among the Minnesota veterans community for building another facility, Johnson said. "There seemed to be not a strong statewide sentiment on behalf of veterans that another nursing home was needed."

Local organizations were supportive of the project but there was also "some opposition," he noted.

Backers of the project also struggled to convey the message that this wasn't going to be solely a geriatric facility. The plan called for the home to include mental health and traumatic brain injury services for veterans of all ages statewide.

There was frequently confusion on this issue, and the misunderstandings persisted despite efforts to clarify the proposal, Johnson said. "We've said it once, we've said it 99 times, this is not the usual and customary veterans home."

With the state facing difficult economic times, it was especially tough to persuade legislators to spend the money for a new veterans home -- and to convince them the ongoing operating costs, estimated at $8 million a year, would not become burdensome.

Steve Renquist, executive director of the Economic Development Commission, said the project would have been eligible for federal reimbursement of a portion of the operating costs, making it less, not more, expensive for the state. A case could also be made for the fact that money for veterans services is already in the state system, he said.

"Needless to say, we never got the message totally endorsed. It didn't fly," he said.

Board members acknowledged the finances posed a high hurdle.

"Money is the factor. We're going to be faced in the next few years with money problems," said Ron Christianson, chairman of the EDC's joint powers board and a Willmar City Council member. "I don't see a veterans home in the future of Minnesota."

If the Economic Development Commission wants to continue pursuing the project, a change in tactics will be necessary, Johnson said.

"Each time a veterans home proposal comes forward, three or four communities come forward and say, 'We want it.' There should be a statewide plan based on demographics, geography and the overall needs of veterans," he said. "Will there be a need for more veterans homes? The answer is yes. Will there be a need for more veterans services? The answer is yes. How are we going to pay for it? Not sure."

Whether to try again is a discussion local officials need to have, said Denis Anderson, a Willmar City Councilman and member of the EDC joint powers board.

"I think we just move forward," he said. "The big decision is going to be what do we do about a veterans home next year."

Renquist said the EDC staff devoted "an enormous amount of time" to attempting to get the project into the bonding bill.

"We felt it was attainable," he said. "We weren't going to not get it because we were outworked. Had we now been planning the construction season for it, it would have all been worthwhile."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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