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Local leaders attend legislative conference

Wadena city administrator Brad Swenson (left), council member Toby Pierce (left-center), Mayor Wayne Wolden (right-center) meet with Rep. Mark Anderson (right) in his St. Paul office during a visit to the capitol last week to discuss the legislative session.

Wadena city and county leaders traveled to St. Paul last week to learn about what's on tap at the Capitol this session and talk about local priorities with regional legislators.

Mayor Wayne Wolden, council member Toby Pierce and city administrator Brad Swenson attended the Joint Legislative Conference Thursday. So did Wadena County commissioner Jim Hofer. The meeting brought together city, council, township and school district leaders from throughout Minnesota.

"It's a great way to find out what's going on with our counterparts across the state ..." Wolden said. "We didn't have anything specific we were looking at from the legislature this year."

But the League of Minnesota Cities, the organization that represents Wadena at the legislature, does have an agenda, which the Wadena leaders learned about Thursday.

One bill the League supports would allow cities to create street improvement districts - a measure that could help the city finance the upcoming comprehensive infrastructure project on the southeast side of town.

Another bill would clarify when cities are required to pay sales tax. Right now, they are exempt unless the purchase is for something that competes with private enterprise - a wellness center, for instance. Exactly what qualifies is open to interpretation.

"Let's get it straight," Wolden said. "What's the intent of the legislation?"

After the conference, the three city leaders met with Rep. Mark Anderson (R-Lake Shore) and Sen. Paul Gazelka (R-Nisswa) for what Wolden called "a wonderful half-hour discussion about the issues that are important to Wadena."

Hofer met separately with those two legislators, who represent most of Wadena County.

The commissioner presented one of the county's top priorities for the session: A bill authorizing the sale of 43 tax-forfeited parcels. Because the plots have more than 150 feet of riparian vegetation, selling them requires legislative approval.

The county and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources have already reached an agreement. "That makes it go a lot more smoothly," Hofer said.

Gazelka's office is drafting the bill. The senator said he plans to shepherd it through his chamber, while Anderson works to pass an identical bill in the House.

"They thought it would be handled pretty routinely," Hofer said. "But you never know with the legislature."

The county would also like to secure more money to cover the cost of recycling mandates, Hofer said. "Everyone is trying to get a piece of that $1.2 billion surplus. It doesn't hurt to ask."

One of the most high-profile bills the legislature will consider this year authorizes borrowing for construction projects statewide.

Hofer said commissioners hope that bill includes borrowing to expand rural broadband access.

"A good chunk of our county and other counties around us don't have that access," he said.

Ideally, Hofer said, the bill will also prioritize overhauling deficient bridges.

Jeff Adophson, assistant county engineer, said the County Road 26 bridge over the Leaf River is one of several due for replacement.