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Martin Co. seeking state’s help

FAIRMONT — State Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, attended a special meeting of the Martin County Commission on Tuesday to hear about the needs of the county.

County department heads also were present, along with a few members of the public.

Commissioner Elliot Belgard began by addressing transportation needs.

“Our goal is to get some sustainable perpetual money that’s there every year, because we’ve fallen so far behind with our county roads and bridges, it’s unbelievable,” he said. “We need something that can be there, whether it takes a small increase for the gas tax or sales tax on parts, just some kind of total package. That’s one of the main concerns of this board.”

County Highway Engineer Kevin Peyman also weighed in.

“Bridges and roads are separate; bridges very much rely on the bonding bill,” he said. “So that’s very important. Elliot’s point on transportation funding is valid; we don’t care how it’s paid for, we just need it to be sustainable and long-term.”

“I think that’s a good point when you talk about dedicated [funds],” Rosen said. “The sustainable part is questionable when it comes to the gas tax. Just in my every day workings in the district I serve, they’ll stop me and say, ‘Thank you for not voting on the gas tax.’

“It’s $30 million for every penny increase on the gas tax,” she continued. “So even if you went with 5 cents, that’s only $150 million and the question is if that’s sustainable, especially with the governor’s push towards electric vehicles.

“We do have about $500 million in the bonding bill capacity for bridges that we can tap. But the gas tax is a tough one. I am a little concerned about the gas tax and how it disproportionally hurts greater Minnesota.”

The next topic was Health and Human Services, introduced by Commissioner Steve Flohrs.

“The biggest problem that I see is generational people that just keep going through the system, and the failure of the public to understand the whole process,” he said. “It’s a huge animal over there, it’s complicated and there’s restrictions on all these programs, but the public doesn’t understand that. They think people are just walking in there and getting a free ride.

“We need to look at the bigger picture and how we can break the cycle and get people working. It’s bigger than anything that can be done simply.”

“The opioid bill, which I was a chief author on, was a tough one,” Rosen responded. “I wanted to generate $20 million, which is only a fraction of what this drug problem is costing us, whether it’s opioids, meth, heroin or fentanyl. Half of that money goes to out-of-home placement cost to the counties, and it’s on a pro-rated basis.

“So that should be available depending on how many cases you have. We’re also doing some reworking of the child protection and family assessment laws.”

Rosen went on to note that the stigma of how mental health is tied to drug use has been an issue that has long been ignored.

Sheriff Jeff Markquart shared his concerns related to the local level.

“I think a lot of the programs are kind of a deflection of the real problem,” he said. “We can arrest them and put them back out on the street, but there’s not a program for them. The ultimate thing is that we have to have a bed for them in southern Minnesota.

“This last week, I’ve gone to Grand Forks and Fargo, and we’re going to make a dozen trips. With mental health, they don’t have to go to court hearings. They can say they don’t want to go and we cannot make them go.

“So now we’ve driven up there and we can’t even make them make their court appearances. We are spending so many dollars. They need help and they need programs that are not there. We as taxpayers are just continually moving them around a maze, and it’s very expensive.”

Commissioner Kathy Smith also weighed in, noting that the issue ties in with the county’s need for a new justice center.

“So, we’re looking at a full justice center, which would include the jail, the courts, the sheriff, corrections, probation, and the county attorney,” she said. “When you’re looking at that whole package, the dollar amount is huge and we don’t have the capacity to pay for a $40 million facility. We can’t do that to our taxpayers.

“We requested bonding money a year ago, and now we’re just trying to get everything put together this year to see what we can do. It’s very important to us, we just don’t know how we’re going to come up with the money.”

“Well, the good news is that you’ve never asked for anything,” Rosen responded. “You’ve stated a very strong case.

“The discussion at the Capitol is what kind of bonding bill we’re looking for and what you put in that bill to get the votes. But you cannot negate your commitment at all.”

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