Walz team talks small town vitality

DISCUSSING SMALL TOWNS — From left, Fairmont city administrator Mike Humpal, Fairmont Area Chamber of Commerce President Ned Koppen and Fairmont Area Schools Superintendent Joe Brown listen Wednesday afternoon as Peder Kjeseth, far right, district director for Congressman Tim Walz, shares information about Walz’s Small Town And Regional Vitality Investment Act at a roundtable discussion at the Martin County Library in Fairmont.

FAIRMONT — As part of Congressman Tim Walz’s “Southern Minnesota Way of Life Tour,” members of his staff visited Fairmont on Wednesday for a roundtable discussion with local leaders.

According to Walz’s chief of staff, Josh Syrjamaki, the goal of the tour is to get feedback and direction as Walz wraps up his time in Congress. Walz is the Democratic nominee for governor of Minnesota. He will face Republican Jeff Johnson in this fall’s election.

Walz’s deputy chief of staff, Sara Severs, said part of the discussion was meant to compile an “exit memo” to pass on to whoever takes Walz’s place in Washington. Those in attendance were asked to provide one statement they want the next person in Congress to know.

Fairmont city administrator Mike Humpal said he would like to see the next congressman work hard on immigration reform.

“I think we need to allow people in this country to live, pay taxes, work and be an American citizen,” he said. “Our population is shrinking and part of our workforce shortage is the lack of workers and an aging population.”

When asked about the immigration situation in Fairmont, Humpal said that if Fairmont wants to grow, it needs to recruit people who come from anywhere.

Fairmont Area Schools Superintendent Joe Brown also was present. He said Congress needs to be more proactive, rather than reactive.

“We always seem to have money in this country for failure; we just don’t seem to have money for success,” he said. “One example is that 8 million people who served in World War II went to college free of charge under the GI Bill. Now, when we talk about free college we say, ‘Well that’s socialism.’But wait a minute. The biggest growth we had in this country was during the ’50s when we gave 8 million of our veterans the opportunity to go back to school free of charge. College and higher education is so out of touch economically for so many of our folks.”

Brown also said Congress should quit fighting and deal with things like childcare and welfare benefits when it comes to allowing and encouraging people to work.

“We always seem to have money to give to people that don’t work, and yet why aren’t we being more proactive?” he asked. “We need 260,000 additional skilled workers in the next 48 months. Every month that we don’t do something to train our kids to be skilled workers, how are we going to replace 260,000 workers in the state?”

Another part of the discussion centered around H.R. 6383, The Small Town And Regional Vitality Investment Act of 2018. The bill is meant to create a new investment initiative by sharing federal revenues directly with local governments to address major changes facing their specific communities. These include affordable and quality child care, and early childhood education options; public infrastructure investment, such as wastewater treatment facilities and substance abuse treatment centers; sufficient housing opportunities for the local workforce; reliable high-speed internet; increase in health care services, including mental health care, and affordable health insurance options; increase in skilled, experienced workers; and an increase in amenities such as art and music, sports, bike trails and other outdoor recreational opportunities.

“I think there is a very common theme that you want the next member of Congress to know what the unique challenges are that face the community, whether that’s childcare or housing shortages or whatever those challenges may be,” Severs said.

Under the bill, small towns and local units of government representing a population of 30,000 or less would be eligible to apply to their county boards for the competitive grants.

Jean Burkhardt and Fairmont Mayor Deb Foster said that while they applaud the bill, there is a concern about how streamlined the process would be.

“As a former county commissioner, in general county boards are not seen as the most progressive units of government,” Burkhardt said.

Foster said she would have liked to see something that could have been done at the city level rather than the county level, but thanked Walz’s staff for listening.

“Everything that I see on here has been part of a meeting that I have been a part of and have heard over and over again, so thank you for listening,” she said. “Our congressman could sit around and not really do anything, but that isn’t happening. It’s encouraging that you are coming here to us instead of expecting us to go to you.”

Walz’s district director Peder Kjeseth said that is part of the whole reason for going around to the roundtable discussions, to build support first at the local level for the legislation.

“We want to bring that dossier of evidence and support up to Washington, D.C., and say, ‘They want this.’ We have both Republicans and Democrats that publicly support this. Making it bipartisan is what we think is truly reflective of what we’ve been told.”