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CORRECTED: Wagner eyes the future with senator

WAGNER -- Sen. Tim Johnson isn't done working. Johnson, D-S.D., toured Wagner on Thursday afternoon, making three stops and taking part in two roundtable discussions, asking pointed and probing questions during both. The three-term, 66-year-old s...

Johnson in Wagner
Sen. Tim Johnson and retiring Wagner School Superintendent Susan Smit, left, and Wagner Early Learning Center Principal Lori Bouza listen during a roundtable discussion Thursday afternoon at the Wagner Community School. (Tom Lawrence/Republic)

WAGNER -- Sen. Tim Johnson isn't done working.

Johnson, D-S.D., toured Wagner on Thursday afternoon, making three stops and taking part in two roundtable discussions, asking pointed and probing questions during both.

The three-term, 66-year-old senator, who announced last week he will not seek a fourth term in 2014, also found time for some political work. He posed for numerous pictures, shook hands and joked with people in town, who were excited to spend time with the veteran politician.

Johnson returns to Washington, D.C., this weekend, but he has made several stops across the state in the nine days since he announced his retirement. On Thursday, he seemed eager to discuss multiple issues, and to encourage Wagner leaders.

"I commend you for the progressive agenda you set for yourself," Johnson said to Bryan Slaba, the CEO of Wagner Community Memorial Hospital.

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Slaba said the hospital has had some good news in the last year or two. A $4 million expansion was added to the facility, and local residents raised $900,000 of that total. That's particularly impressive in a town with a population of 1,566, he noted.

The Indian Health Service facility in Wagner was open March 24, the first time in almost five years it was open on a Sunday or a holiday, Slaba said. It will now be open seven days a week, which will relieve some pressure on his staff, Slaba said.

Johnson was curious about the people who are served by health care agencies in Wagner, and what kind of access they have to treatment.

Slaba said 40 percent of the hospital's patients are American Indians, which matches Wagner's percentage of Natives. He said there are nine doctors in the town: two on staff at the hospital and one independent doctor who has hospital privileges, five at the IHS facility, and one at the Veterans Affairs Community Based Outpatient Clinic, which Johnson later toured.

The Dakota Senior Meals program has been revitalized, Slaba said, and now serves an average of 40 people daily. The community donated 10 percent of the costs, and seniors who are served by it agreed to pay $4 per meal to ensure it continues.

"We knew there probably was a call for it out there," he said. "We kept hearing there was a need for it."

Slaba said he counts on input from his staff to help guide him as he makes decisions. The nurses are especially valuable, and he said he relies on their knowledge.

"It's always a struggle and a challenge," he said. "Like everybody else, it's challenging times, challenging times."

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WAGNER CHALLENGES

Wagner Mayor Sharon Haar, who is leaving office in May, told Johnson the community is doing fairly well. A new water tower was installed a few years ago, and new rental units were added recently.

Ken Cotton, a Wagner lawyer and member of the local economic development board, said he sees reasons to be encouraged. But he said there are also looming problems, including concerns about dry conditions with planting season in the offing.

Barb Johannsen, of First Dakota National Bank, said the bank is doing well -- people are "flipping houses" and taking out loans, so it seems there is a sense of optimism.

But she said farmers are waiting to see if there will be adequate rain, after the dry conditions that prevailed in much of the state last year.

"A lot of those people are quite concerned this year, and are being quite conservative," Johannsen said.

"It's a lot better than it was in the '80s," Johnson said. "And I sense that this, too, will pass."

Johnson noted he is the chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Development Committee, and said with a smile that he had one piece of advice for bankers in the current climate: "Best wishes."

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Mike Frei, of Commercial State Bank, offered a mixed message.

"Business has been good. We've had several good years in a row," he said. "It's no secret to anyone that agriculture has done well, up until last year."

But he said the town needs more single-family homes, but the low incomes in the area, and the fact that builders seem more interested in homes that sell for higher amounts, don't create an air of optimism.

"Senator Johnson, it's just not possible for some people to own a house," Frei said.

A "bare-bones" house is $90,000, he said, and the average annual income in Charles Mix County is $19,000. The math just doesn't work.

"If you're making $19,000 a year, there's no system that's going to work," Johnson said. "We might as well suck it up and provide subsidized housing."

"It's a tough problem to solve," Frei said. "As far as your average income, it's very difficult to find housing."

Todd Doom, the treasurer of the Boys & Girls Club Board of Directors, agreed with that assessment.

"You're just not seeing that middle-range house being built anymore," Doom said.

He said the yawning income disparity in the country is at the root of the problem. Doom, who said he was speaking as one of the few Democrats in the room, said it's an issue that needs to be addressed.

"That's the real problem," he said. "Too many people are living on a wage that we as Americans think we deserve."

BOYS AND GIRLS CLUB TROUBLE

Doom also said the Boys & Girls Club has been told it will not get another $250,000 grant it received in the past from the Shakopee Tribe in Minnesota. That's more than half the club's annual budget of $420,000.

The club knew this in advance, he said, and spread the most recent grant across two years. Still, he said, the Marty facility may see reduced hours and services, and a planned expansion to Lake Andes is off the table now. Club director Pat Breen and board president Arthur Standing Cloud also said they are hopeful the club can adapt to the loss of funds.

"We're going to see a substantial reduction in our annual budget," Doom said. "That would be sad. We have a nice operation over in Marty right now, but everything costs money."

He said 1,034 kids were served in 2012 in Wagner and Marty

"There's a huge need," Breen said. "We have a big mission."

The senator warned everyone at the table that ongoing financial battles in Washington, D.C., will likely mean a reduction in spending on impact aid, which benefits communities with parcels of land that are non-taxable, such as reservation land.

"Be ready for a sequester," Johnson said. "It will be tight for a while. Despite my best efforts, I don't see much hope. But we'll get through this."

EARLY EDUCATION PROMOTED

The state's senior senator began his afternoon at a roundtable discussion at the Wagner Community School.

Wagner School Superintendent Susan Smit and Andes Central Superintendent Darrell Mueller, of Lake Andes, as well as other educators and school board members talked about the importance of early childhood education and the value of Head Start and preschool programs.

Smit and Wagner Early Learning Center Principal Lori Bouza said by offering the programs, students are less often misdiagnosed as needing special education classes, the dropout rate has been reduced to 5 percent, and graduation rates have gone up.

"It is wonderful what our teachers and staff do here to give our kids an opportunity," said Wagner school board member Richie Sully, who is also a preschool parent.

"Preschool is what we ought to be doing nationwide," Johnson said. "It's a good program. I'm afraid it will run into sequester."

While some are concerned about spending on preschool and Head Start programs, Johnson said he is convinced they have positive impacts. It's better than spending money on prisons, he said.

Racial tensions have also been reduced, the senator was told when he asked about that issue. Kids are getting along better, and behaving more civilly with each other. It's the adults who need further education and more understanding, the educators said.

"As always," Johnson said.

The school officials also told Johnson they have concerns about the new federal food service policies designed to combat obesity. It is leaving kids hungry, they said.

Soup and pasta have been pulled off the Wagner menu in an effort to meet calorie limits. The plan was well-intentioned, Johnson was told, but more flexibility is needed.

"I never had a kid beg me for more food until this year," Bouza said. "It broke my heart."

'TIME TO GO'

Both Smit and Mueller are retiring at the end of the 2012-2013 school year, and Johnson presented them with copies of statements in their honor he had entered into the Congressional Record.

"That's pretty awesome," a clearly surprised Mueller said. "Thank you."

Smit said she was stunned by the honor. The two superintendents said the school districts have worked well together, sharing employees and services.

"It's all about good neighbors," Smit said.

Johnson beamed as children in a Wagner Community School kindergarten class, in unison, recited three rules they follow to be good students. The rules are titled "Be Respectful, Be Responsible, Be Safe."

The students' performance was flawless, as they went through dozens of words while holding their hands over the hearts. He said he was impressed by their showing, and then toured a preschool class as well.

Johnson wrapped up his afternoon with a tour of the Wagner VA clinic, where he witnessed a presentation on telemedicine.

It provides veterans with access to treatment by specialists, he was told. Johnson said he wanted to ensure veterans were being well cared for, and advances in technology can help provide that.

One thing was constant at the three stops: Johnson was thanked for his more than a quarter century of service in Washington, and teasingly asked if he would reconsider and run again.

"Thank you. I will miss you. But things go on," he said. "It's time to go."

Tim Johnson visits students
Sen. Tim Johnson listens Thursday as a class of Wagner kindergartners recites three rules for being a good student: Be Respectful, Be Responsible and Be Safe. (Tom Lawrence/Republic)

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