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Shutdown slows VA benefit processing

Published October 17, 2013 in the Isanti-Chisago County Star

When the federal government shutdown Oct. 1, the already burdened Veteran’s Affairs (VA) claims office had to put 60 percent of their employees on furlough, and area veterans are already feeling the some of the affects.

“There is going to be a slow down in wait time for claim processing,” said Isanti County Veteran’s Service Officer Jim Rostberg.

“Compared to a year ago, we are seeing wait times that are two months slower,” echoed Chisago County Veteran’s Service Officer Al Budde.

The St. Paul Veteran’s Affairs office is known throughout the country as one of the quickest, processing veteran benefit claims for education, disability, and for other veteran services at an expected rate in most cases, said Rostberg.

Earlier this year, the Federal Government took notice of the efficient office and moved some of the backlog in claims files from the Chicago and Cleveland branches  to the St. Paul branch. Minnesota claims officers started work on the oldest unprocessed claims, some reaching back well over two years.

While it hasn’t hindered the St. Paul office completely, there has been a noticeable increase in the processing time. Paired with the current furlough, veterans could see an even longer response time long after the government reopens.

“We are seeing all kinds of veterans in our office,” Budde said. “Vietnam and Korean veterans, recent Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, all types of veterans are feeling the affects.”

“There are people still working at the St. Paul building for now,” Rostberg said. “I still send in claims for the veterans. They get logged into the system, but after that, I don’t know what happens to them. It’s still too early to tell.”

Both Budde and Rostberg have been told by the Veteran’s Affairs office that if the shutdown continues until Oct. 23, all employees will be furloughed and the VA building will be completely shutdown.

“If we get to October 23 and the shutdown is not over, I don’t know what will happen,” Rostberg said. “We are just waiting and watching.”

Jeff Poole, a academic advisor for veterans at the Anoka-Ramsey Community College, as seen an increase in student veterans coming to him with questions about pay, but “we shouldn’t see any breaks in pay,” he said.

Funds for any classes that began before Oct. 1 have already been distributed, and Poole said he doesn’t have any major concerns yet.

“The education funds from the National Guard are a little different, so guardsmen that go to a non-semester technical school have reported some issues with paying for classes this month,” Poole said. “We are going to wait this shutdown out and hope for the best.”

Backlog in VA benefit claims affect veterans most in need

Published on August 8, 2013 in the Isanti-Chisago County Star

“Some days I don’t know where my feet are going,” said Bill. “Morphine doesn’t work anymore, so now I take between 8-10 Percocet [pills] for the pain. I’m in pain everyday.”

The crippling nerve pain in Bill’s (last name withheld) feet can be traced back to exposure to Agent Orange, a chemical he came in contact with during his service during the Vietnam War.

“The war was unpopular and many of us didn’t apply for benefits,” he said. Bill was able to start a career and built a life in Isanti County after the war.

As he got older, the affects of Agent Orange slowly took their toll. Standing for long periods of time became too painful and his work began to suffer.

“It hard to hire someone with that kind of medication,” Bill said of the amount of pain management pills he is taking. “I had to lower the hours I was able to work.”

He decided to reach out to the Veterans’ Affairs (VA) office for disability benefits. After a full medical exam at the VA hospitals, Bill filed his claim. A year of waiting was met with the news; his claim had been denied.

Bill worked with Isanti County Service Officer Jim Rostberg on an appeal and, at the time of the interview, Bill has been waiting 5 months.

“Just a response would be beneficial,” Rostberg said.

When Bill calls the VA about the status of his case, the answer is always “the case is pending and will take 230 days to process.”

Bill, now unemployed, had to be reevaluated by VA doctors because his case had taken so long to process.

“It’s three days of tests,” he said with an edge of frustration in his voice. “The PTSD [post-tramatic stress disorder] just comes back.”

Bill’s story is one that Rostberg hears often; the backlog in Veterans’ Affairs is causing veterans to wait longer than ever.

While the backlog coincides with the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the veterans that are facing the most amount of delays are Vietnam veterans.

“It’s the Vietnam vets, the 65-plus, that had received health benefits from their employers,” Rostberg said. “Now they are reaching retirement and are applying to the VA for benefits.”

Rostberg also said that the entire VA system is not dealing with the backlog. The Veterans’ Affairs office encapsulates the memorial and burial services, the Veteran’s Health Administration, and the Veterans’ Benefits Administration. The backlog exists primarily in the Benefits offices where veterans receive monetary resources.

Senator Al Franken and Congressman Tim Walz have introduced identical bipartisan measures in the House and Senate, known as the Quicker Benefits Delivery Act, that will remove some of the hurdles to getting claims processed quickly.

The legislation would ensures disabled veterans can get at least some financial help and support while their claims are still being adjudicated.

The measure would allow local doctors to conduct disability medical examinations for veterans, which is currently not allowed. This could cut back on wait times at VA hospitals and eliminate unnecessary trips to the VA for veterans in rural communities.

The bill would also requires the VA to award interim benefits to clearly disabled veterans whose cases are still undergoing review to determine the full extent of their disabilities.

“Our goal with this legislation is simple: to uphold the promises we’ve made to our veterans by ending the backlog and getting them the benefits they have earned and deserve,” said a representative from Sen. Franken’s office in an email.

The bill was introduced to congress on May 13, 2013 and is currently in the Senate Veterans’ Affairs committee.

Isanti Spirits set to brew

Published on January 2, 2013 in the Isanti-Chisago County Star

When Governor Mark Dayton signed the 2011 Surly Bill, hundreds of small business owners throughout the state hopped into the microbrewery industry and made Minnesota a craft beer destination when the limitations on beer pint sales and taprooms where lessened. A little known 47-word provision in the Surly Bill is slowly starting another alcohol-fueled industry in Minnesota, and Rick Schneider found a farm in Isanti County that would be a perfect place to start a distillery.

“Before the Surly Bill, a license to operate a microdistillery would cost $30,000,” said  Schneider. “Today, the state fee is only $1,000 per year.”

This less cost prohibitive state fee opened the door for Schneider develop his own label of craft rye and bourbon liquor in Minnesota, but it was just one step toward making the dream a reality.

Unlike brewers, distillers can’t just set up a shop in their home, which is known as moonshining and is still illegal. Counties and cities can still prohibit distilleries from operating in their jurisdiction, and distilling is also federally regulated.

“There are a lot of pieces that need to fall into place before you can even start,” Schnieder said.

For Schneider, the first step was to learn the craft and business of distilling spirits. For most people, this means a week-long bootcamp at an already established distillery, and Schneider headed West to Washington’s Dry Fly Distillery.

“I learned how to operate a distillery, but I couldn’t call myself as master distiller,” Schneider said. “I knew how to do it, but I wanted to know the whole process.”

After reaching out to fellow distillers, and the American Distilling Institute, Schneider received a scholarship to be the first ever summer intern at the Michigan State University’s Artisan Distilling program in 2012.

“I want to make rye and bourbon, but I also learned how to make vodka, gin… you name it,” Schneider said.

With new knowledge and a few barrels of spirits from his final internship project, Schneider and his wife started looking for a farm to purchase with the hope to make it their own distillery.

“We looked at over 70 properties,” Schnieder said. “We were looking for a city or county that was willing to entertain the idea of letting us set up a distillery.”

Schneider, a glass blower and professor at Anoka-Ramsey Community College, found a farm outside of Bradford.

“It was not too far from campus, and Isanti County was willing to work with us,” Schneider said.

“We took a gamble and bought the place in 2013, and the right set of dominoes came into place,” Schneider said.

After eight months of county board meetings, presentations to the township of Bradford, and talking with his neighbors, everyone was onboard. The Isanti County Board of Commissioners awarded Schneider a conditional use permit for a rural retail tourism distillery business on Nov. 20, 2013.

“Even if the county wasn’t into the idea, we could have opened the distillery in the downtown area in Bradford,” Schneider said. “We have meet so many supportive people.”

With his permit in hand, Schneider can now apply for a federal permit, hire an architect, and buy the equipment. He hopes to be able to start distilling in September 2014.

It is fitting then, that Schneider has decided to call the distillery Isanti Spirits, LLC.

“Part of choosing the name is because Isanti is just a cool name,” Schneider said. “We are the new guys in town, but I hope it gives people a sense of pride.”

Not only will Isanti Spirits be made in the area, Schneider is already talking with neighboring farmers to grow the types of grains he needs for his spirits.

“When we start distilling, we want as much of our supply as we can to come from within the county,” he said.

A mountain of rubble: Seven years later, Lucht’s Crossing residents are tired of the eyesore in their neighborhood

Published on September 5, 2013 in the Isanti-Chisago County Star

When Stephanie Johnson purchased her home in the Lucht’s Crossing development in North Branch, she wanted a nice home in a good neighborhood. In 2006, Johnson’s home was one of the first to be built in the new development and she shared 384th Trail with the development’s model home and one other finished house. “And the abandoned Green Acres building.”

The old Green Acres Country Care Center, a nursing home built in the 1970s, stood empty and abandoned. Johnson was told that the developer, Shady Tree Communities, LLC., planned to tear down the building.

“The sheriff’s dispatch used to know me by name,” Johnson said of the calls to report people breaking into the abandoned building. “I would be able to see the flash lights from my front step.”

According the Demolition and Removal Agreement, enacted by the North Branch City Council on Dec. 13, 2010, between the City of North Branch, Shady Tree Communities, and 21st Century Bank, phase one of demolition was to be completed by May 10, 2011 with building reduced to rubble. Four years after Johnson moved to Lucht’s Crossing, the first phase of demolition began.

“All that remained was the elevator shaft surrounded by rubble,” Johnson said.

The next phase in the agreement allows the developer until Aug. 1, 2011 to sort the recyclable material from the non-recyclable material. During this time, the demolition site is required to be secured by a chain link fence.

Phase three, the removal of all of the recyclable material, has a completion deadline of June 1, 2016.

“It will be nine years of living in North Branch for me; nine years of looking at a rubble pile,” she said.

“Since 2011, I haven’t seen anyone [from the developer] touch the rubble pile,” Johnson said.

New Neighbors

In the time since Johnson purchased her home, the downturn in the economy forced the sale of the unfinished lots around her home. A new developer, Graphic Homes, has purchased and built twenty new homes in Lucht’s Crossing within the last two years.

“We are one of the only neighborhoods in North branch that is growing,” she said.

 The the two acres containing the rubble is still owned by Shady Tree Communities, and who is responsible for its clean up.

“It was the first thing you see when you drive into Lucht’s Crossing,” Johnson said. “We use it as a landmark, ‘Turn at the huge rubble pile.’”

Petition

Tired of seeing the rubble pile in her neighborhood, Johnson started a petition to do something about it. After knocking on the doors of her neighbors, Johnson collected 38 signatures and took them to city hall.

“The piles of rubble are approximately eight feet to 10 feet high, and spreads across two acres,” Johnson said to the Aug. 20 city council. “It is an eyesore and a blight on our community.”

The petition cites the city’s public nuisance ordinance and requests the area be cleared in 30 days.

“It doesn’t make sense to me that it would take until 2016 to remove all the rubble,” she said.

After hearing Johnson and the petitioners, the city council directed the city attorney to review the Demolition and Removal Agreement with Shady Tree, and to review the city code.

“It is unreasonable to say that a demolition agreement can’t go beyond 30 days, but I need to look at more facts on the issue,” said city attorney Jay Squires. “I would encourage city staff to contact the developer to see if they would work with the city to shorten the agreement time line.”

Going forward

“If they could just get rid of the pile, grind up the rubble and secure the fence,” Johnson said after the city council meeting. “I would be happy with that start.”

Johnson and the other residents of Lucht’s Crossing are waiting for answers. When reached for comment, Shady Tree Communities declined to comment about the site at this time.

“It’s a nice neighborhood with nice people. We just have an eye sore smack dab in the front,” she said.

North Branch votes no on police contracting

Published on June 13, 2013 in the Isanti-Chisago County Star

Five months into the current term of Mayor Ron Lindquist, the City Council of North Branch started asking questions on the cost of contracting police services for the city to the Chisago County Sheriff’s Office. The citizens of North Branch came back with their answer, “Not now, not ever.”

On May 6, the city submitted a Request for Proposal (RFP) for police services to the Chisago County Sheriff’s Office. On May 13, members of the North Branch Police Committee, Chisago County Administration and sheriff’s staff met to review the county’s response to the RFP, scheduling a presentation by Chisago County Sheriff Rick Duncan during the June 6 City Council Work Session.

In an emotionally charged city hall, Duncan made his presentation on June 6 to not only the city council, but to the large crowd of residents in the room supporting the North Branch Police Department.

Duncan first presented an “apples-to-apples” comparison of a police contracting that would be similar in patrol hours and personnel that the North Branch Police Department currently provides. This plan would include the use of county clerical staff and would grant the city a savings of $137,968 per year after revenues, donations and forfeitures.

Duncan also presented a bare minimum of police coverage that the Sheriff’s Office could legally provide. This plan includes  the aforementioned clerical staff reduction, a reduction of all dedicated investigators, and the reduction of dedicated staff hours. This bare minimum plan would cost the city $669,448, a savings to the city of $431,087.

The budgetary savings were based on a draft of the 2014 City Budget, Councilmember Joyce Brochardt reminded the group. “This is an assumed budget as we have not completed the 2014 budget yet,” she said.

While the savings would benefit the city’s struggling financial situation, many citizens in attendance believed any cut to the police services would lead to an increase in crime and a decrease in public safety.

Councilmember Jensen tried to soothe the audience, “As part of the contract, we could ask that the officers wear the North Branch Police uniforms and keep North Branch Police on the cars,” he said. “There is a chance that it could be the same car, same uniform, same officer as before, but at a lower cost.” An angry buzz from the crowd erupted, punctuated with a shout, “There is no guarantee that the sheriff would hire the same officers.”

To the other council members, Jensen asked, “Are the numbers compelling enough to continue researching?”

Police Chief Dan Meyer also made a presentation, highlighting the department’s accomplishments and already frugal service. The North Branch Police Department responds to around 7,274 calls per year and, “currently costs $112 per capita.”

“I believe that even apples-to-apples, contracting would be a reduction in services,” Meyer said.

When an action item about police contracting was placed on the June 10 city council meeting, a record number of residents came to support the police department. The public comment portion of the meeting, usually completed in a few minutes, continued for one hour and twenty minutes as residents shared  opinions, stories and even a few jokes about their experiences with the North Branch Police Department. Their focus was directed at the close relationship the police officers have with the community and the school.

“You have managed to unite the citizens of North Branch in a common cause,” said Emil “Mic” Dahlberg.

“I’ve been getting a lot of phone calls from your constituents,” said County Commissioner Lora Walker. “They are demanding a public service. It doesn’t happen often that so many people are demanding a public service, so please give some consideration to that.”

When the council was ready to take action on the issue, Jensen asked Meyer if some of the cuts the sheriff made were ones that the police department could make.

“The next cuts we make are to staff,” Meyer said, adding that he would be willing to work with the city council when it came to preparing the budget.

Councilmember Kathy Blomquist thanked the crowd that came to the meeting. “I have been on the city council for ten years and never have I seen this kind of turnout.”

A motion to stop pursuing the issue further was purposed by Theresa Fuhrman, seconded by Blomquist and passed.

“We have never had the numbers before,” said Mayor Lindquist. “Now we have that knowledge. If that is something we want to do in the future, now we know what it would cost.”

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