Lawmakers Question Disaster Bill

By Don Davis

Minnesota lawmakers appear ready to spend money to help local governments affected by June storms, but during a Wednesday night meeting many questioned using a Sept. 9 special legislative session to spend anything beyond what is needed to plug holes left by federal funding.

Kris Eide, Minnesota’s emergency services director, said $4.5 million needed to aid local governments in 18 counties affected by June 20-26 storms and floods would come from money not used in northern Minnesota windstorm and flood relief last year. That would mean no new money would be spent to fund the June disaster.

Legislative leaders and Gov. Mark Dayton also want slightly more than $1 million in additional money to help Nobles and Rock counties recover from an April ice storm. However, several lawmakers at a House-Senate committee meeting said that may go too far since the state already has matched federal aid to the tune of $1.5 million and added another $250,000 beyond that.

“These things have to be resolved yet,” said House Ways and Means Chairman Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal. “There are a number of things that have to be worked out.”

No further public meetings are planned until Sept. 9.

His comments came days after Dayton and four legislative leaders signed a deal to schedule the special session. A governor’s office official told the meeting Wednesday night that details will be worked out among the five Sept. 6, before the governor signs paperwork to call the session.

Some lawmakers were concerned that they did not know what would be in the disaster funding bill and it was being rushed so fast that some communities could be left out.

“There is nothing fair about this process,” said Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul. “We rush to spend money for disaster relief.”

“We just want to be treated fairly,” Worthington City Administrator Craig Clark said of the April ice storm that devastated trees throughout his community.

The storm destroyed trees — 776 in Worthington alone — and did other damage in many areas of Minnesota, especially the southwest.

Nobles and Rock counties want more than $1 million in the special session for work such as cutting down more trees, trimming others and removing debris.

“Three inches of ice hit our entire community,” Clark said.

He asked for help “to meet our unmet needs.”

Worthington has a general fund budget of about $3 million, he said, and the city has $940,000 remaining to be paid toward the disaster.

In Luverne, $243,000 still is needed, City Administrator John Call said.

In both cities, trees that officials want to replace are in public spaces. Federal and state funds are not being used for private property.

Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, questioned whether ice storm damage should be funded because it would go beyond what federal officials have approved.

Also being questioned were electrical cooperatives’ requests for aid, something Eide said would need a law change to accommodate.

General Manager Tim Mergen of Meeker Cooperative Light and Power Association said electric lines and other infrastructure on his system sustained $780,000 in damage during the June storms, mostly in Sterns County. However, his co-op’s 7,500 members in several counties all would pay for the damage.

Federal officials approved paying for 75 percent of the damage, and he wants the state to fund the rest. Carlson did not reject the request, but downplayed its chances.

Federal funds that will pay most of the public recovery cost already are en route to local governments in 18 counties hit by storms and floods. The state is required to pick up 25 percent of the cost, which is estimated at $4.5 million.

Counties that the Obama administration declared disaster areas after the June storms and floods are Benton, Big Stone, Douglas, Faribault, Fillmore, Freeborn, Grant, Hennepin, Houston, McLeod, Morrison, Pope, Sibley, Stearns, Stevens, Swift, Traverse and Wilkin counties. Preliminary surveys show nearly $18 million in damage to public infrastructure.

Lawmakers already put $1.75 million of state money into ice storm recovery efforts in five southwest counties. Federal dollars are covering most of the damage, estimated at more than $26 million.