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Nolan meets with County Board

Rep. Rick Nolan (third from left) met with Lake County commissioners on July 8 to talk about a variety of issues facing the county, such as the sale of Lake Connections and funding for Lake County Ambulance Service. (News-Chronicle photo by Jamey Malcomb)

Before walking in the Heritage Days Parade Saturday in Two Harbors, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan took time to meet with the Lake County Board of Commissioners to discuss a variety of issues facing the county.

The first topic Nolan wanted to learn more about the county's decision to sell Lake Connections, the county's broadband network built with more than $66 million in loans and grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service. Last month, after meeting with RUS the board made the decision to declare its intent to sell the network. County administrator Matt Huddleston told Nolan that the county continues to work closely with RUS on the sale and estimated the county is three to six months away from beginning the bid process for the sale.

Nolan said he thought the work the county has done in bringing broadband internet access to the most isolated and remote parts of Lake County has tangible benefits to the community and the local economy.

"If you want to be part of the times, you need broadband internet or people will start to leave," Nolan said. "What you have done here will have very substantial value and equally important you've improved the quality of life here."

In 2010, the county received a $56 million loan and a $10 million grant from RUS to construct the network and over three years more than 1,200 miles of a fiber optic network was built throughout Lake County and parts of eastern St. Louis County. About 95 percent of the network has been completed, with a few areas in Fall Lake and near Ely that still need to be built. The county hopes to sell the network to a private company that will continue to invest in the infrastructure to complete the final portions of the network.

The board also talked with Nolan about its March resolution opposing the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service's application to withdraw 234,328 acres of National Forest System lands from "future mineral exploration and potential mineral development."

The resolution asked the BLM and the USFS to follow the environmental review process already established under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The resolution stated NEPA established a policy review process; requires federal agencies to incorporate environmental considerations in planning and decision-making; federal agencies are to prepare assessments regarding the environmental impact and alternatives to major federal actions affecting the environment; and the withdrawal of the USFS lands denies the opportunity for a potential project and subverts an "established, thorough and elaborate environmental review process."

Nolan acknowledged that the board has taken considerable heat for the decision, but he also believes the BLM and USFS should follow the process. Nolan also said currently, "there is no Twin Metals project" and mineral exploration in the area should be allowed to proceed.

"We've got the brains, we've got the technology and if we don't have both, we don't do it," Nolan said. "It's an easy call for me, look at the facts, look at the science and make a decision."

Finally, Commissioner Rick Goutermont informed Nolan about funding issues with the Lake County Ambulance Service. The county's support has increased from year to year, recently with LCAS receiving $500,000 in county funds in 2017. Medicare and Medicaid caps on what LCAS can charge for an ambulance run combined with the large coverage area makes things difficult for the service.

LCAS needs support from Lake County because 62 percent of the patients it transports are on Medicare, which caps the amount of money the ambulance can collect for a run. For example, for an advanced life support call that transports a patient 53 miles, LCAS's fee is $3,179, but Medicare will only pay $988.61 for that call and if the patient is on Medicaid, about 9 percent of the calls LCAS receives, the service can only collect $804.21. The Medicare rates include a 22.6 percent "super rural bonus."

The board has already been in communication with the office of U.S. Sen. Al Franken about the increasing gaps between what the service charges and what it can collect, but Nolan said he would also have his staff take a look at the issue and look into increasing the amount of money LCAS can collect on a Medicare or Medicaid call.

Jamey Malcomb

Jamey Malcomb started as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle in August 2015. Malcomb is a native of North Carolina and holds a bachelor's degree in English and history from the George Washington University and a master's degree in education from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Malcomb moved to Minnesota in July 2012 and previously worked as a sports clerk and news assistant at the Duluth News Tribune. He is the beat writer for the Lake County Board of Commissioners, Lake Superior School District board of education and high school sports in Lake County. 

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