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Bemidji City Council cuts city budget: Four city positions to be left vacant; Project Pride eliminated

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

The Bemidji City Council Monday evening made significant cuts to its 2010 budget.

But a more enjoyable budget meeting could soon be in the council's future.

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The council not only supported staff's recommendations of $213,770 reductions in 2010 and $381,770 for 2011, but it also supported about $200,000 in additional cuts for each year. The council's vote was unanimous.

No one argued that the cuts made to the city's budget would be painless. Rather, everyone seemed to agree that the public will, indeed, see the consequences of a lesser budget.

But with the additional cuts supported by the council, city staff believed there would be a possibility of lessening service cutbacks in the future.

"It's very likely we could have some dollars added back for 2010," said City Manager John Chattin.

The budget reductions were made in advance of expected Local Government Aid cuts.

Bemidji is expecting a loss in LGA yet this year. Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposal had the city losing $581,323 in 2010 and about $302,000 for 2011.

The state Legislature on Monday voted to approve a partial deficit-reduction plan, which included $105 million in state aid cuts, less than the $250 million reduction Pawlenty sought.

Whether Pawlenty will sign the bill was unknown at press time.

Not including this year, Bemidji has lost nearly $1 million in LGA in the last three years, including the reduction of $485,688 that was "unallotted" by the governor late last year.

Positions unfilled

The cuts proposed by city staff were prompted by Pawlenty's proposal.

"This is a solvable problem. We can deal with this," Chattin said. "But it's not solvable without cutting some services."

Four city positions would be left vacant due to retirement. Positions left unfilled would be a street department employee, two police officers and a utility operator.

"We're going to be down four (full-time employees)," Chattin said. "We are reducing our staff."

In fact, by allowing the city's building official to seek phased retirement (and saving more than $25,000 in 2010 and $43,000 in 2011), the city will be down 4.5 full-time employees.

"There are going to be impacts to services," said Mayor Richard Lehmann. "That cannot be helped. That cannot be avoided."

The more public effects of service reductions will be the loss of Project Pride, an annual spring-cleaning effort usually held in May; a slower response time for non-emergency police calls; slower response to icy or slippery intersections in the winter; and less maintenance at city parks.

The city's Parks Department is set to lose $35,000 in 2010 and $30,000 in 2011, which would result in less equipment purchased and less regular maintenance of parkland.

But some councilors voiced support for covering park cuts, if it is deemed possible.

Councilor Barb Meuers said this issue, in particular, will likely raise the ire of the public as the city is nearing the end of parks renovations through the use of a half-cent sales tax.

"Now, all of a sudden, we're going to not keep them up like everybody thought we were going to keep them up," she said. "This is a sad time."

Councilor Kevin Waldhausen agreed, noting that current economic times have prompted families to seek low-cost and free activities, such as spending afternoons at city parks.

"If we can't maintain them, we shouldn't be building them," he said, referencing the city's plans to develop a new part along 30th Street Northwest.

Other budget changes approved include:

- Increased revenues at Neilson-Reise Arena through increased fees.

- Adoption of fire inspection fees for commercial buildings.

- Implementation of a charge for new residences seeking a water meter.

- A new charge for assigning new addresses.

- The city's contribution to the Kitchigami Regional Library System will be decreased by 10 percent.

Department input

The budget reductions were based on Pawlenty's budget proposal - but the cuts themselves were prompted by discussion and suggestions by department heads.

Finance Director Ron Eischens said department heads instinctively fight for their funding, but were open to debate on the budget.

"The department heads worked really hard on this," he said. "It was not an easy thing to do."

For-sale signs

The council also voted unanimously at the end of the meeting to install for-sale signs at city lots, including those along the south shore, that are developable, either as commercial or residential properties.

The council also discussed the possibility of including some vacant parkland, but decided to have the Parks and Trails Commission review parkland properties first.

The properties listed for sale will also be posted on the city's Web site at www.ci.bemidji.mn.us.

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