NORTHOME — “If I know better, I do better to move forward.”
That was the message Congressman Pete Stauber brought Monday about local, state and federal concerns to a round table discussion at the Northome City Hall.
Seated at the table surrounding Minnesota’s 8th District representative were officials of electric cooperatives, local city public works departments, Koochiching and Itasca county commissioners, local mayors, healthcare providers, veteran services, and economic development organizations.
Taking questions from the audience, Stauber on several issues asked his district assistant to take notes that would remind him to take action or learn more upon return to the United States Capitol.
Local to national
Asked by a resident of Effie about what he plans to do about the “southern border humanitarian crisis,” which she said was both “concerning and distressing as a parent and grandparent.”
“If a picture is worth 1,000 words, seeing is believing,” Stauber responded, describing a tour of Yuma, Ariz., in April, where he said the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol sector chief said he was overwhelmed with illegal activity.
Much of the border crossing activity, he said, is caused by illegal drug trafficking by cartels, and the U.S. needs to establish credibility at the border to assist in the effort against human and drug trafficking, and illegal immigration.
He also said the desire for drugs in the U.S. continue to make the illegal border activity profitable, adding that education about the devastation of drugs to lives must be provided to youth, as well as the doors left open to treatment.
Later in the meeting, an Itasca County resident agreed that illegal drugs crossing the nation’s border is a big concern, but described the difficulty and costs involved in obtaining his pain medication provided through a pain management program.
“I am not the problem, the problem is people taking illicit drugs, yet I’ve been pin-pointed by the government and medical system,” he said.
Itasca County Commissioner Ben DeNucci described the Mesabi Metallics project, whose developers are waiting for the state to respond to their request for an extension on the state mineral leases.
DeNucci said the $350 million that would be infused into the economy and the 100 or so jobs the project would provide is needed in a county with 7 percent unemployment and 10 percent of it’s population on some kind of assistance. How would the congressman ensure the project is viable, he asked.
Stauber said his job is to provide support on the federal level, to ensure that both standards are met and permits provided.
“Everything needs to be in place to help go forward in a proper way and let progress continue,” he said. He said the project in Itasca and the jobs it would provide matter.
Stauber discussed local and national infrastructure needs and a transportation budget, noting the House Transportation Committee has always included a representative of the 8th District. As a member of the committee, he said he expects a continuing resolution before 2020, “but I hope there’s more to it.”
“The big question is how to pay for it,” he said, noting expansion of broadband internet is as critical as roads and bridges. “I hope we have a healthy discussion in the next couple weeks, but I am concerned that in election years politics get in the way. We need to put partisan politics aside, we need infrastructure and I refuse to put it on the backs of our children.”
“We will look into it,” Stauber said, after Koochiching County’s need for an overpass on dead-end County Road 24, or the Van Lynn Road, was raised by Commissioner Kevin Adee. He described residents being cut off from the rest of the community, at times for two hours, when Canadian National Railway trains stalled at the crossing.
He said local folks are concerned that not only are the delays inconvenient, they could make it difficult for emergency providers to access residents on the east end of the road. About 30 trains measuring up to two miles cross the tracks there daily, he said, adding that’s expected to increase to 50 trains a day measuring up to three miles long.
Adee asked Stauber to support the county’s application for a $5 million federal grant, and a state bonding request of $3 million for the project. Total cost of the overpass is expected to be about $6.25 million.
Stauber agreed with an Itasca County healthcare provider that behavioral health and mental health services must be available to rural communities, adding that as a former Duluth police officer and St. Louis County commissioner, he understands the repercussions and costs of distant care.
“We tried to arrest ourselves out of the situation (of people in drug and mental health crisis), but you just can’t do it,” he said, adding that people need immediate stabilization when in crisis — not several hours later miles away from their community.
This topic got support from Northome Principal Jeremy Tammi, who said staff, teachers and parents need help for behavioral challenges at the schools. He asked Stauber to get money to hire a professional to assist.
As the father of a special needs child, now a teenager, Stauber said he was glad someone raised the school component. He said a government promise 40 years ago to provide 40 percent of the funding to every school in the nation for special needs services has been broken, with maybe 15 percent provided. He urged people to contact U.S. Sens. Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar to sponsor a companion bill in the Senate that would add money to the fund.
“I want Minnesota to lead on this issue,” he said.
Koochiching Veteran Service Officer Mark Lessard asked for support in getting a local home healthcare provider to again provide services to local vets. He said the services have been suspended because payments to the provider from the Veterans Health Administration have stalled.
“We will find out why,” Stauber said. “These benefits are a promise and have been earned.”