Members of Rep. Tim Walz’s staff conversed with approximately 25 members from the greater Fillmore County community during a roundtable discussion held last Thursday, Feb. 8.

The public was represented by mayors, pastors, city administrators, farmers, school superintendents and principals, department heads of Fillmore County’s various departments, a Fillmore County commissioner and local farmer. These individuals were concerned residents who wished to express their hope for what could be accomplished during Walz’s final year in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Participants were asked to answer three questions – “What is the best aspect of our way of life in southern Minnesota?”, “What’s the most serious challenge facing our rural communities?” and “If you could wave a magic wand, what’s one thing you’d want the federal government to do to enhance our way of life in southern Minnesota?”

After that, there was a discussion session during which solutions to those questions could be offered. Conversation ranged from the overhead of student debt as compared to the wages a person in the workforce could earn in a rural community to the need for reliable healthcare without having to travel to a city.

Of particular note was the difficulty small school districts encounter while trying to attract and retain quality teachers, because, as one district’s administrator pointed out, the amount of college tuition debt teachers carry after graduation cannot be balanced by the pay that a first-year teacher, or even an experienced teacher, can earn. Therefore, jobs in cities have drawn potential teaching candidates away from small towns in rural counties.

Furthermore, the participants suggested the kind of training available to students in high school does not adequately address the job market’s need for skilled tradesmen and women, such as in construction. The assumption that all students will proceed to four-year colleges after graduation apparently overlooks that there are construction jobs in Rochester and surrounding cities that need to be filled.

One participant offered her proposal that the state and federal government and the businesses for which students would someday work cover the costs of technical training. This would allow students, who may or may not continue their educations in a four-year institution, to still have the cost of college halved if they choose to go on to get a degree. “Maybe in time, we’ll have free community college?”

Walz’s staff members expressed this as being “strategic and conservative economic” means of community survival – by investing in the young people in a community, there would be the hope that those people would remain or go on to other small towns within the county to contribute toward their sustainability.

Agriculture and education came up next, and it was volunteered that there is not as much opportunity to start farming as there used to be because of the small profit margin and the cost of equipping oneself. This is especially true after spending thousands on an education to learn about the most recent farming practices, which has become almost necessary in order to farm.

One gentleman said, “I have three sons that I know want to farm, but the margin is so tight.”

Someone else remarked that the tight profit margin, compared to the cost of obtaining health insurance and being healthy enough to farm, meant that at least one of a farm’s owners has to work off the farm at a job where health insurance is a benefit.

And still another person said it’s not always possible for half of the farming family to have access to a job where that is possible.

Telehealth services may provide a solution to the loss of local clinics, but that means that broadband internet access has to be expanded, such as it was in rural Lanesboro this past fall.

Southeastern Minnesota’s insurance rates are much higher than those in surrounding regions, Walz’s staffers acknowledged.

Gabby Kinneberg, of the Preston Chamber of Commerce, commented that the cost of health care makes it difficult for business owners to approach retirement and find young successors to buy their business, as health insurance rates inhibit prospective buyers from venturing into small town entrepreneurship or business succession.

Congressman Walz’s staffers then asked the forum’s attendees to suggest some solutions as to what might fix what they had identified as the number one problem facing the survival of rural towns, and given that health care is a complex mechanism, they were initially met with silence.

One gentleman, a senior citizen who shared that he is on Medicare, brought up single-payer, or universal, health care in which there is one pool of payers and one system of insurance.

The response from the other attendees was that even with Medicare, one needs to have supplemental insurance.

Wykoff-area resident Jon Eickhoff spoke up to say that half of his family resides in Canada, where there is single-payer health care and that while he had received good care when injured, there are only seven magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines in all of Canada. This means that if one wishes to obtain immediate health care, the expense lies in the ability to respond to illness and injury quickly – more so than the Canadian system can respond to his grandmother’s need for serious surgery nine months from the time her condition was diagnosed.

“If you need it tomorrow, you pay a premium for that,” Eickhoff added.

The senior who talked about single-payer insurance added, “Constitutionally, we believe in equality, but we know that there are some people who can’t get medical care. With single-payer, they know that they, as a human being, have the right to health care.”

Other suggestions included returning to the implementation of high-risk insurance pools and deregulating some of the health care system.

Discussion then pivoted slightly toward the subject of mental health and the jails, as Chief Deputy Sheriff Kevin Beck was in attendance and agreed with the staffers that the jails have come to serve as de facto mental health centers because there are not enough mental health crisis beds available in the state.

He informed them that often, if there is an inmate who needs mental health intervention, his deputies must drive as far as St. Peter if there is no room at Generose in Saint Marys in Rochester.

He referred to the fear that can pervade a neighborhood if an individual does not get the medical or mental health assistance they need. “If they’re different, the neighbors see them and think they’ve got to call the cops, get help and get them out of here.” He added that he’s seen great improvements in people with even a little bit of medicine.

The last topic encompassed Fillmore County’s push to be the place where a new veterans home will be built, and while the staffers informed the attendees that the county’s proposal hadn’t been reviewed by the state veterans department, it is still being placed by Walz and his team for consideration, along with the other two communities of Bemidji and Montevideo.

The staffers thanked the attendees for their time and assured them their concerns had been heard and will be registered in a document to be left by Walz at the end of his term for the next representative to refer to as a starting place.