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Feehan discusses challenges to small cities

NEW ULM — Candidate for Minnesota’s First Congressional District Dan Feehan held a virtual roundtable with officials in southern Minnesota to discuss challenges facing communities related to COVID-19

Feehan said cities with under 500,000 did not receive aid or funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by the federal government. In his view Congress ignored rural communities and he wanted to hear the perspective of officials in these communities.

A common thread among officials in city, county and school government was a need for stability and resources to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Austin Mayor Tom Stiehm said the hardest thing from a city perspective is the budget. Levy discussions have already started and if Minnesota cuts local government aid (LGA), it will hurt the bottom line. He might not be able to hold the city to a 4% levy increase.

Also, the city is considering protective barriers at government locations to protect from the virus, but there is no way of knowing if the city will be reimbursed for these added expenses.

Blue Earth County Commissioner Vance Stuehrenberg said his county is looking at a loss of $3.5 million in revenues and increased costs. He said the county is already looking at possible furloughs to reduce expenses.

Albert Lea School board member Angie Hanson was concerned about deficits Minnesota was facing, but also her district has no idea what the next school year will look like.

She said her board had an idea what variables could come up in the next summer or whether Minnesota would see a second wave of COVID-19.

Mankato area school board member Abdi Sabrie said his district has a lot of resources but also spent a lot related to the pandemic. In the past, the district provided free and reduced meals to qualified students, but the need has expanded and the district is serving 3,000 meals a day.

Sabrie said access to technology is another issue. COVID-19 has highlighted the need for high-speed internet access for distance learning. Sabrie said his district was well placed in terms of technology, but not every student was so fortunate. Rural and smaller communities had unequal access.

Sabrie said education already had unfunded mandates before the COVID-10 pandemic exacerbated the problem. Funds for special education are a problem.

Hanson said federal funding for special education is only 20% and services are mandated. The problem is even more compounded now.

She agreed access to technology is not equal from district to district. Her school had a one-to-one technology program to carry out distant learning but that was not true for all districts.

“Maybe this is the opportunity to not just go back to how things were,” Hanson said. “Maybe this is the time to make drastic changes and change things for the better.”

“How we fund education in this country is wrong,” Sabrie said. Funding education through local components and referendum base creates inequity in education. The resources available to a city and rural farming communities will not be the same.

“This is an opportunity to revisit how we do things,” Sabrie said.

Feehan said education can vary based on where you live.

Stuehrenberg said it would have been better if the federal government had given the counties the money from the CARES Act rather than the state distributing the money. He said the local government needs the money because they are on the ground to do the work and take direct care of the people.

Stiehm said if his city could be assured funding was coming, the city could avoid laying off personnel and avoid cutting services.

“Right now we need something for stability,” he said. It would give communities the ability to plan.

Feehan said he is worried about the fall school season. If a second wave does hit, he is unsure if the state is in a better position than it was in March.

“I see no foresight in planning, no foresight in helping build more resilience in schools that ultimately deliver critical care services,” Feehan said.

Feehan asked the officials what they need from Washington, D.C.

Stiehm said there needs to be a clear message.

“We’re getting mixed messages on just about everything coming out of Washington and it is not sustainable. It is making a tough situation much harder.”

Stuehrenberg agreed with the school board members that broadband was a necessity. He said some children can only get access to high-speed internet at the library, but the libraries are closed forcing them to do homework from the parking lot.

Stuehrenberg understood broadband installation was expensive but said it was expensive to install telephone wires across the United States, but it was done.

“You have to have priorities and in this day and age, broadband is what keeps places in business,” he said. “We could open up a lot more businesses in the rural parts of our county if we had good broadband across.”

Sabrie said broadband also helped with telemedicine and keeps a level-playing field for rural areas to connect with economic infrastructure.

Feehan said his takeaway from the virtual roundtable is, communities in southern Minnesota are unable to plan for the future.

He said the pandemic has laid bare the frailties and vulnerability of the healthcare system.

“Healthcare must be affordable, it must be assessable and it must be of high quality,” he said.

Feehan said polling suggested 44% of Americans would not seek care for COVID systems for fear of the cost.

“That is an indictment of a system of healthcare that is failing everyone.”

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