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Shutdown could slow Wadena tornado recovery

The Minnesota state shutdown is being felt in different ways around Wadena, even with entities not directly tied to the government.

Even though the Wadena Otter Tail Long Term Recovery Committee (LTRC) runs on private donations, its work has also been restricted by a domino effect: the Otter-Tail Wadena Community Action Council is its fiscal agent, and since Community Action receives state funding, it had to be closed.

"We are not able to process any payments to vendors or clients during this time," Case Manager Wendy Molstad said. "We can still operate on a day to day basis, still have volunteers do labor and still help our clients in other ways."

The tornado recovery center office is still open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Molstad said that people affected by the June 17, 2010 tornadoes can still stop in, donors can still contribute, and volunteers can still work on homes - as long as the supplies were already purchased.

"At this time, we're not able to actually purchase the supplies," Molstad said.

She said that if a tornado survivor had dipped into savings to put up a roof and was waiting on reimbursement from the LTRC, that person could not be reimbursed yet because they cannot write the check until Community Action is back up and running.

"If they have bills for contractors that had done work on people's homes, they're not able to get paid at this time because we're not able to write out the checks," Molstad said. "But we are still able to take donations."

Molstad spoke about the shutdown Wednesday, when the LTRC had its first regular meeting since state government stopped operating.

"Today is our first meeting that we really can't help the needs of our clients because we're not able to process those checks," she said.

Community Action itself is even more restricted. Its services are closed with the exceptions of federal Head Start, limited family planning services and mortgage foreclosure counseling.

"Those are the three programs that we're able to continue because they had other funding that didn't come directly through the state," Davis Leino-Mills, executive director of Otter Tail - Wadena Community Action Council, said.

However, the state-funded Early Head Start program had to be shut down. The 11-month program works with 33 area families with children 0-3 years old.

"It normally shuts down in July, but it would start up again in August," Leino-Mills said. "We're pretty sure that it's going to be refunded, but we won't know until the governor and the Legislature make a final agreement."

Services that had to be shut down included weatherization, child care resource and referral, energy assistance and some emergency service and homeless programs.

Family planning had to reduce its hours.

Those needing emergency assistance are directed to contact county human service offices. Even though food shelf referrals are not available, food shelf arrangements have been made.

Leino-Mills said the shutdown affected even the services that receive other funding.

"We have many federal grants that are passed through the state," he said.

The closure of Community Action has also affected jobs and vendors in the area.

"The other big issue is that none of our vendors are going to get paid. We have 350 vendors that we work with at any one point in time in a year," he said. "We tried to get them paid through June, if they work through June, but if they didn't turn their bills in - not all of them do if they're working that last week of June - the state can't process ... [Contractors] have done some very good work for us; we delay our payments, they delay their payments, it becomes a domino effect."

The payments will be delayed as long as the shutdown persists.

"Our staff are laid off. When you're laid off, you have no benefits, so they have to go on COBRA if they want to continue insurance benefits," he said. "It affects both the staff, and our clients and our vendors."

Leino-Mills said that the shutdown has hit hard for people in vulnerable situations.

"It's really a hardship for our clients. We have a lot of clients that have housing issues, that have food issues, that have transportation issues, let alone unemployment issues," he said.

Leino-Mills encouraged people to call Governor Dayton and local senators and representatives and tell them to reach a compromise.

Functions of the state government which were not considered essential services have been shut down since July 1.

The Minnesota Workforce Center in Wadena is closed, although Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP) is still running and appointments are to check in at the Human Services reception desk in the same building.

The Wadena License Bureau is open and still doing driver's license renewals, motor vehicle transactions and renewal of tabs. However, the DNR cannot issue hunting and fishing licenses during the shutdown. Driver's license testing, which is conducted at the Wadena Armory, is also unavailable.

Local gas stations have signs reminding customers that state lottery tickets are not available during the shutdown.