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City supports further efforts toward fire department merger

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BEMIDJI — The Bemidji City Council voted Monday to sign a resolution supporting further research and lobbying efforts at the State Capitol toward a merger of the city’s fire department and the Bemidji Rural Fire Association. The RFA sponsors firefighting services for two rural cities and fifteen townships in the greater Bemidji area.   

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 Bemidji Fire Chief Dave Hoefer said currently the Bemidji Fire Department  responds to calls for service both within Bemidji’s city limits and the townships that make up the Rural Fire Association — a service area that encompasses about 522 square miles and 35,000 people.

HoeferThe RFA gives money and equipment to the firefighting effort in the 522- square-mile service area, Hoefer said, but not firefighters. If the BFD and RFA were to merge, there would be no operational difference in the way the BFD handles fire calls in that it would still be BFD firefighters responding to calls in the rural townships, he said.

City Manager John Chattin said the potential merger would mean the city would charge a fee instead of a property tax to help fund the new combined fire department. More than half of the property value in Bemidji is centered around tax-exempt entities like government buildings, churches, hospitals and schools, Chattin said.

Because of this, switching to a fee would allow the city to spread the financial cost of the fire department to every property owner in Bemidji and lower the amount non-tax exempt property owners have been paying since the beginning, he said.

To Chattin’s knowledge, a city using a fire service fee rather than a property tax to fund its fire service would be completely new in the state of Minnesota.

A specific change in state law would have to be enacted for the fee to work, Hoefer said.

The fee would be up-front and separate from fees for fire calls on the property, Hoefer said.

He later added a merger would also give rural townships more say in the way the fire department as a whole is run. It’s an appropriate move, Hoefer said, since the RFA already has a large financial stake in the area’s fire services. In 2012, the RFA paid about 44 percent of capital and operating expenses for fire services compared to the BFD’s 56 percent, he said.

As it stands now, the potential combined firefighting organization, dubbed the Bemidji Area Fire/Rescue Department, would have two leadership boards. The first board, which would approve overall budgets and “major policy decisions” for the new Bemidji Area Fire Department, would be a governing board made up of one elected official from each of the 18 cities and townships in the fire service area. There would also be a five-member board of directors that would oversee the new department’s operations. One of the five members would be the city of Bemidji official from the governing board.

Although she voted for the resolution, Councilor Nancy Erickson was concerned the city would have inadequate representation in the combined unit’s leadership.

“We would end up being only 20 percent of the board of directors and one-eighteenth of the governing board, and yet we’re committing all of our equipment, all of our assets, all of our everything that the city has built over decades to this,” she said.

Erickson added the governing board’s large size might lead to a lack of accountability.

A target date for the BFD and RFA to combine was Jan. 1, 2017, Hoefer said.  

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