Good afternoon distinguished Members of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs. Fillmore County is honored to have all of you in our community today and welcome you to our county.
My name is Karen Brown and I serve as the Fillmore County Coordinator. Part of my position description is to serve as clerk of the Board of County Commissioners. Since this is a special project for the Board, I have supported their efforts in working with all parties that have contributed effort and expertise related to this project for a successful collaboration.
The grant process began in Fillmore County following a directive from the 2008 MN Legislative Session to identify any potential site for new State Veteran Cemeteries in southern Minnesota. Subsequently a document was produced by Mr. David P. Swantek, Cemetery Director, MN State Veterans Cemetery, of Little Falls, which identified an “underserved veteran population in southeast Minnesota”. This report was presented to the Board in 2010. The Fillmore County Board of Commissioners began having conversations about a possible transfer of county owned land known as the “County Farm” for use as a veterans’ cemetery. This incredibly beautiful proposed site features scenic bluff lands, gentle valleys and the Root River and would seem to be a perfect use for this land. Including populations of veterans in Iowa and Wisconsin, an estimated total of 40,000 veterans live within 75 miles of this proposed site.
After conversations where the land transfer was considered by the Board, the next step in the local process was to assess the wishes of the people in Fillmore County. With land values increasing, the members of the Board wanted to make sure that there was support before any transfer decisions were made. All veteran service groups and municipalities in the county were contacted and asked about their opinions about the cemetery. The result was unanimous: Fillmore County veteran organizations and city officials whole heartedly supported the proposal with thirty (30) resolutions of support on file. In addition, community support has been great – commissioners have not heard opposition to this project.
In February of 2010, the consensus of the Fillmore County Board of Commissioners was to begin the process to move toward the transfer of land to be used for a veterans’ cemetery. The 2011 legislature, in special session, enacted legislation that supported the proposal. Further, the legislation included language asking for a priority designation by the Commissioner since the land was proposed to be donated by Fillmore County for a veterans’ cemetery in southeast Minnesota. Following that legislation, collaborative discussions have occurred with all levels of government, countless documents have been submitted, field assessments have been completed, and land records have been reviewed in preparation for cemetery site approval.
Throughout the process, all of those involved have been very cooperative in providing support for the project. The County Board made the land available and municipalities supported the donation. MN Veterans Affairs officials have been most helpful in answering our questions and by providing information. Our MN Senators and Representatives have passed the enabling legislation and are aware of the State’s on-going responsibilities for a veterans’ cemetery in Fillmore County. Last but not least, Federal officials have been essential in this partnership of governments by funding the Veterans Cemetery Grants Program.
The keys to an effective process seem to be the following:
- Willingness for the local elected officials on the Fillmore County Board to donate a significant amount of land to make the proposal more desirable for a better priority designation
- Willingness for local elected MN Representatives and Senators to carry and support legislation for the initial costs for assessment and evaluation of the site
- Willingness of State of MN agencies to work together in a cooperative manner to come to agreement to finalize the transaction
- Willingness of the federal government to provide grant funding to finance the construction of the cemetery, and
- Willingness of the State of MN to fund the on-going operation/maintenance of the cemetery
If I might end on a personal note, I would like to add that I have been married to a Viet Nam veteran for 42 years in March. Much has changed for the better for veterans since my husband was discharged from the Navy in 1969. As you know Viet Nam was an unpopular war so there were very few thank you comments when he returned.
Today due to national efforts by the Veterans’ Affairs and other veterans’ advocacy groups to promote support of military personnel and veterans, all of that has changed. Veterans now returning from their tours of duty are welcomed back as heroes, as they should be. Now there are often big welcome home events with bands playing, veteran groups at the airport, families and friends waving flags and the media capturing it all for the evening news. That is a good thing and a tribute to the VA and the American people to recognize a job well done.
In closing, I would like to say that I feel the national grant process works well and if we are successful, this cemetery will benefit our County for many years and in many ways. This collaborative effort is the ultimate thank you to our military personnel to provide them with a final resting place that is near their families and friends and will forever acknowledge their service to our country.
Thank you for your attention and I would be happy to answer any questions that you might have.