Rep. Tim Walz staff introduces new ‘small town vitality act’ at Preston forum

Tim Walz's staff held a forum at F&M Community Bank in Preston last Wednesday morning, inviting county and local representatives to attend. From left are Wanda Jensen of Workforce Development, commissioners Mitch Lentz and Duane Bakke, CEDA representative Marty Walsh and Gabby Kinneberg from the Preston Chamber of Commerce.
By : 
Bluff Country Newspaper Group

Members of U.S. Rep. Tim Walz’s staff traveled to Preston last Wednesday, Sept. 19, for what they called “the hand-off” to local and county officials as Walz, who is running for the Minnesota governor’s seat, has drafted a bill he wanted shared with the people who can best carry out its intended purpose — the county and town governments.

Staff members Sara Severs, Josh Syrjamaki, Peder Kjseth, Shawn Schluesser and Randolph Briley brought forward an agenda that included a short survey of participants — namely, what the most important thing that each wanted their congressman to know.

The staff then went on to outline findings from the 21-county tour that Walz instructed his staff to take nearly two years ago to hold listening sessions and gather information on the very same question.

Additionally, Walz’s staff is well aware of the impending close to their time as his staff, as he pursues the governor’s office, and they gave an update on the representative’s efforts to craft an “exit memo” to the next person who will hold his seat as a U.S. congressman.

Attendees included Preston City Administrator Joe Hoffman, two Fillmore County commissioners, Mitch Lentz and Duane Bakke, Preston Chamber of Commerce Director Gabby Kinneberg and Wanda Jensen, a representative of Workforce Development, among others.

Some of the infrastructure items the group noted were needed in small towns included broadband internet access for everyone in order to expand commerce and educational opportunities, affordable childcare and preschool options, amenities to support the arts, sports and recreational opportunities in the region, and educational options that are aligned with the needs of the people who live here.

The bill summary for H.R. 6383, or the Small Town and Regional Vitality Investment Act of 2018 — still a draft, notedly — states, “This legislation creates a new investment initiative by sharing federal revenues directly with local governments to address the major challenges facing their specific communities while tying those decisions to their region’s long-term strategic framework. USDA Rural Development administers the revenue sharing grants to local and regional governments representing small towns and rural areas. The legislation utilizes the U.S. Economic Development Agency’s current system of regional planning, called ‘Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy’ (CEDS) to ensure resources are used efficiently and effectively. Rather than the burdensome and often confusing process to access other funding streams, the Small Town and Regional Vitality Investment Act of 2018 will streamline this process for counties while empowering local leaders to build up their communities and create jobs in the process.”

The draft specified the qualifications, how towns will apply and what the funds can be used for. “Small towns and local units of government representing a population of 30,000 or less are eligible to apply to their county board for the competitive grants. To receive the grants, counties will only need to submit a needs assessment, public engagement plan, and certify that they are covered by a CEDS regional plan to ensure resources are spent efficiently and effectively. Letters of support from local, regional, state and federal elected officials may be encouraged to demonstrate broad support and accountability for the investments. The funds can be used for affordable, quality child care and early education options, fixing or constructing public infrastructure such as water treatment facilities and substance abuse treatment centers, building housing for the local workplace, deploying high speed broadband and internet connections, protecting and enhancing health care services — including mental health care, training skilled workers for the jobs of today and tomorrow, attracting and retaining talent, and creating more community amenities like art and music, sports, bike trails, and other outdoor recreational opportunities.”

A statement from Walz and his staff that was included in the bill’s draft background relayed that the congressman chose to write this bill because of “critical challenges facing communities.”

“Leaders in small towns and rural areas are facing critical challenges when it comes to meeting the current and projected needs of their local residents and communities,” Walz wrote. “Given the trends in America’s population and tax base, there is an increasingly pressing need to address these challenges with a specific focus on the regional vitality of rural areas. We have seen that ‘one size does not fit all’ when it comes to federal programs helping small towns with community development and investing in critical public infrastructure. Some government programs are under-funded and others have burdensome paperwork and red tape. Too often, small towns forgo applying for government funding because it may cost too much or take too long to jump through the hoops. Simply put, small towns often say they don’t believe there is a return on investment for all the time, energy and money it takes to even apply for federal funding.”

The statement added, “The result of the federal headaches listed above are missed opportunities in making critical investments in protecting and enhancing the small town way of life. H.R. 6383, the Small Town and Regional Vitality Investment Act, addresses these needs, and in doing so, we can help empower our small towns to achieve their full potential and thrive for decades to come.”

Bakke and Lentz posed questions regarding how the county board would be tasked with handling distribution of the funds and whether there would be requirements for local and regional contributions to receive funds.

Bakke inquired particularly about whether the county would need to form a county committee now to prepare for the bill’s passage, and staff members replied that the county may choose to do so because the bill is “developed from the ground up, instead of from the Washington, D.C., bubble out.”

They also commented that there would be some requirements for local and regional governmental entities to post a small percentage if they are awarded funds — such as 5 percent at the local level and 10 percent at the regional level, with the rest coming from provisions made by H.R. 6383.

The bill isn’t up for immediate consideration, however, as Walz’s team cited that it has three to five years before it might be passed into policy as part of the next farm bill.

As the session came to a close, they encouraged the participants to explore how to support the farm bill, then thanked everyone for attending the forum and for the opportunity to work with the county and local administrations to reach small towns and rural corners of the state.