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Bemidji mayor Richard Lehmann delivers the annual State of the City address Tuesday evening at Bemidji City Hall. Pioneer Photo/Bethany Wesley

Mayor delivers State of City: 'Future of our city secure'

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The city of Bemidji not only met, but exceeded the challenges that were presented in 2009, according to Mayor Richard Lehmann, who delivered the annual State of the City address Tuesday evening at City Hall.

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He opened the speech by saying that the city had anticipated a reduction in Local Government Aid funds and implemented strategies that saved nearly $400,000, while preserving "critical" services.

LGA provides 36 percent of Bemidji's revenue sources.

"When the governor finally announced that Bemidji's Local Government Aid reduction for 2008 and 2009 combined would be $452,000, we found ourselves in a sound financial position," Lehmann said.

He commended city staff, stating that they were "key participants" in the budget solution. Employees reduced overtime by more than 50 percent and agreed to no pay or benefit increases in 2010.

The city actually ended up with a $240,000 budget surplus in 2009 - and sales tax collections were up 1.6 percent compared to 2008.

The Building Department in 2009 issued 593 permits (slightly more than in 2008) that resulted in nearly $53 million in new construction, including the Bemidji Regional Event Center.

"It has truly been a team effort to reduce expenses while maintaining as many services as possible," Lehmann said.

The city also reorganized several of its departments, Lehmann noted.

The Public Works Department reduced staff and improved efficiencies through cross-training and the acquisition of new skills, he said.

Craig Gray, the city's engineer, also began serving as the public works director, which saved one position. A new water and sewer superintendent position was created.

"The end result has been a leaner, more efficient department that continues to keep the water flowing, our sewers open and our streets clean," Lehmann said.

The Wastewater Treatment Facility was reduced in staff by three full-time employees. The plant also established a shared superintendent position.

"This plant is still operating at peak performance, thanks to its dedicated operators," Lehmann said.

The "award-winning" plant also has received a new five-year operating permit through the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

The Parks and Recreation Department was twice recognized last year as Bemidji received the Governor's Fit City Designation and was awarded the Award of Excellence for the Diamond Point Park reconstruction from the Minnesota Parks and Recreation Association.

The department also, for the first time, offered recreational services featuring programming and activities for youth, families and adults.

"Our goal was to get people in our parks to recognize what a valuable asset they are, and it worked," Lehmann said. "We had over 725 people participate in our activities and special events and we expect our programming to grow in the future."

The continued redevelopment of the south shore of Lake Bemidji was a significant success in 2009, Lehmann said.

The city has signed a 20-year lease with Bemidji State University that ensures $5 million in lease revenues from the university in exchange for serving as the anchor tenant of the BREC, which is expected to open in October.

Groundbreaking on the facility was April 3.

"After years of planning and countless meetings, this project is finally a reality," Lehmann said. "The structure is already a prominent addition to the south shore skyline."

He noted that the city has already sold several lots in the south shore area, including one that will feature a new hotel that is expected to break ground this spring. Another lot has been sold to Lakeland Public Television for new studios and offices.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has purchased land for an aquatic management area, trails and public uses, including a new boat launch.

Other projects completed by the city in 2009 included the Irvine Avenue reconstruction, which used $1.4 million in federal stimulus dollars and replaced 4,000 feet of 90-year-old water main and 2,000 feet of old clay tile sanitary sewer. City staff worked to save more than $200,000 in fees on the project.

The Lake Bemidji West Shore Trail has resulted in a trail connection from the Lake Bemidji waterfront to BSU to Diamond Point Park. The project was funded by $170,000 in sales-tax dollars and $430,000 in federal enhancement dollars.

The first $1 million street renewal project was completed that provided new pavement and utilities to several Nymore streets.

And, Parking Lot No. 3 was completely redesigned and reconstructed and resulted in a "much safer, more accessible and aesthetically pleasing lot," Lehmann said.

The parking lot project was the first step toward implementing the downtown study completed by RDG Planning & Design.

The city also has worked to clean up its appearance, Lehmann said.

The former Minnesota Department of Natural Resources building was demolished along Paul Bunyan Drive, as was the former MnDOT yard on Rako Street.

"These sites are now ready for development and are actively being marketed," Lehmann said. "Until new development is realized, neighbors to these areas will appreciate their much-improved view."

Lehmann also highlighted the partnerships that led to success in 2009.

The city works with Active Living to promote healthy, active lifestyles, the Bemidji Rotary Club installed a new playground at Cameron Park, and the DNR is working with the city to create a natural lake buffer for Cameron Park.

"Partnerships are key to our success," Lehmann said. "Think about all the activities that take place in our downtown or at our waterfront."

The city assists in many of those events by stringing lights for the Night We Light parade, assisting the Garden Club with the beautification of the Bemidji Public Library, helping the Downtown Development Authority with planters and providing support for the Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival, Jaycees Water Carnival, Kraus-Anderson Fishing Tournament and Fishing Has No Boundaries.

Emergency services

The Bemidji Police Department responded to more than 20,000 calls in 2009 and secured more than $330,000 in grants.

"We are an extremely busy department with professional, dedicated officers," Lehmann said.

The Bemidji Fire Department responded to nearly 2,600 calls in 2009.

"In additional to fire calls, their response to emergency medical calls has benefited many requiring immediate medical assistance," Lehmann said.

He also recognized new Fire Chief Dave Hoefer, who introduced himself to the council immediately following Lehman's speech.

Work remains

Some of the highlights from 2009 are carrying over to 2009, Lehmann noted.

While construction has begun on the renovation of Bemidji City Park, it will resume in May and will result in a $3.8 million reconstruction.

The park will ultimately feature a four-field softball complex, skate park, skating rink, 18-hole disc golf course, improved ski and recreational trails, playgrounds and picnic areas.

City Park is expected to be complete by fall.

"We have worked hard to promote our 'City as a Park' theme," Lehmann said.

The first phase of annexation is expected this year, which will initially add expense to city departments.

"In the long run, these annexations should benefit all of our citizens as our tax base is expanded and economies of scale are realized," Lehmann said.

Also, the city this year will continue to seek funding to complete a feasibility study that would examine the possibility of extending sewer and water around Lake Bemidji; the Quality Neighborhood Initiative will look at ways to improve neighborhoods; a new $2.5 million digester for the wastewater treatment plant will be designed; and projects are being designed in anticipation of a possible new round of federal stimulus projects.

'Belt-tightening'

The City Council anticipates further cuts to the LGA and is poised to deal with them, the mayor noted.

"The future will be challenging for our city," Lehmann said. "After cutting 10 percent of our workforce over the last three years, we will likely experience additional revenue reductions."

Property taxes are the only other reliable source of revenue.

"We will continue to do our best to achieve a balance between taxes and services," he said.

But, despite the challenges that remain, Lehmann said Bemidji has been "blessed" with citizens who are working toward a better future.

"I'm confident that the future of our city is secure and I look forward to the prosperity that is sure to come," he said.

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