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Bemidji City Council: Annexation to go forward

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news Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

If at first you don't succeed, try again.

Bemidji City Councilor Ron Johnson made the same motion twice during Monday night's work session on annexation. The first time, the motion failed on a 4-3 vote. The second time, it passed 4-3.

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The council ultimately decided to proceed forward with annexation but to not annex seven properties that are entangled in the reassessment process for Birchmont Drive.

The work session was prompted by Northern Township, which had requested that the city delay annexing the first ring of properties included in the Joint Orderly Annexation Agreement between the city and Bemidji and Northern townships.

Northern Township is in the process of reassessing the properties of 54 property owners who had been imposed assessments in 2008 for the Birchmont Drive reconstruction project. Those property owners eventually prevailed in court and Northern Township is now working to reassess those property owners.

Complicating plans for annexation is that seven of those 54 property owners are within the ring of properties that were set to be annexed into the city limits this year.

City Attorney Al Felix explained in a memorandum to the City Council that "neither governmental entity can assess properties outside their respective jurisdictional limits."

Which led the township to ask for a delay.

"The township's fear is if certain properties are annexed into the city before the reassessment process is complete, the township will no longer have assessment authority over those properties and will not be able to recoup costs related to the Birchmont Drive project," wrote Jason Kuboushek, the Iverson Reuvers attorney who is representing the township in the appeal.

City staff agreed with Northern Township, saying that waiting one year would be prudent.

"Nobody is suggesting that we don't annex," said City Manager John Chattin. "We are suggesting we delay it for a year."

The City Council struggled with the decision during the two-hour work session.

Discussion ranged from proceeding with annexation anyway to stopping annexation altogether to meeting with Bemidji and Northern townships to renegotiate the Orderly Annexation Agreement.

Johnson's first motion - to proceed with annexation except for those seven properties failed 4-3. Voting in favor were Johnson, Councilor Roger Hellquist and Mayor Richard Lehmann. Opposed were Councilors Jerry Downs, Barb Meuers, Greg Negard and Kevin Waldhausen.

A second motion was made to delay the annexation to 2011. The motion initially was made by Meuers and seconded by Waldhausen. But, as discussion continued, Waldhausen withdrew his second - and Meuers considered withdrawing the motion. The eventual vote failed 4-3. Voting in favor were Downs, Meuers and Negard. Opposed were Hellquist, Johnson, Lehmann and Waldhausen.

Johnson, sensing a shift, again posed his original motion. This time, it passed 4-3 as Waldhausen changed his vote.

Waldhausen said he found himself agreeing, as discussion continued, that it would be most beneficial for the city to move forward with annexation and "get this done."

But he wasn't the only one torn between the options.

Lehmann said his concern with moving forward with annexation was that those seven properties would be left as virtual islands of township properties with city limits.

Negard said he was a "proponent - not an opponent" of annexation, but wanted more detailed cost estimates.

Even Downs and Meuers, who voted against annexation for all three motions, said there are benefits to moving forward.

"The short-term consequences for long-term gain are inevitable," Downs said.

Meuers said she just could not support that move at this time.

"It scares me right now," she said.

Hellquist and Johnson, however, remained strongly in favor of annexation throughout the meeting.

As his fellow councilors bemoaned the loss of Local Government Aid and cited the city's current financial situation as reasons to not proceed, Johnson instead urged them to go forward.

"The whole idea (of annexation) was to wean ourselves off of LGA," Johnson said.

Annexation will build the city's tax base and spread out the financial burden for the city, he argued.

"This is the exact thing we should be doing," Johnson said. "If we're waiting until things get better, we could be waiting for years and wishing we could build our tax base."

Public Works Director/City Engineer Craig Gray said there are financial challenges involved in annexation. The Public Works Department, for instance, will be plowing and caring for an extra 3.5 miles of roads, which include 12 dead-end roads.

"There are significant costs," he said.

Finance Director Ron Eischens pointed out that the city will not make money on annexation.

Even if the city was to receive all of the tax benefits from annexation this year - which won't really happen until the sixth year after annexation - the new city properties would bring in $280,000, Eischens said.

Gray has listed $1.7 million worth of road repairs needed for those now-township roads in the next five years, Eischens explained, which would amount to $340,000 a year for road improvement needs alone.

"We're $60,000 short before we even look at operation needs," Eischens said.

Negard said he did not know which would be the best option, but found himself asking what is best for the current citizens of Bemidji.

He noted that the city has budgeted about $80,000 in 2010 to cover annexation-related demands, such as the workload increases to the Public Works and Parks departments.

Those costs could be frozen and set aside for use in 2011 and the city might be more prepared then to take on the added needs, Negard said.

Later, when the council appeared poised to vote to delay annexation until 2011, Hellquist argued that the financial situation isn't going to change.

"We'll face the same situation in a year that we face now," he said. "This is effectively going to end annexation."

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