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A new direction for Bemidji Fire Department? Recommendation calls for joint fire district without taxing authority

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

The Bemidji Fire Department operationally is among the top in the state. But, governmentally, there is much room for improvement.

That, in short, was the result of a four-month-long study by a national consulting firm.

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In response, a local committee has developed a recommendation that would change the way the Fire Department would function.

"We feel operationally we have a good system in place," Fire Chief Dave Hoefer said Thursday night. If area municipalities would buy into the idea of a new governmental model, "We can have a good future."

Currently, the Bemidji Fire Department is a department within the city of Bemidji. The Rural Fire Association contracts with the city of Bemidji to provide fire protection to an additional 17 municipal areas, mostly townships.

Funding for the BFD is done via a city-rural split. City of Bemidji dollars fund 56 percent of the costs and the Rural Fire Association 44 percent.

But despite its financial contributions, the Rural Fire Department has no say in the operation of the BFD.

The recommendations seek to change that.

"Operationally, I don't think you're going to see any changes," Hoefer said. "It's really about giving those who are paying and receiving the services (the ability) to have some input on that service."

Hoefer was a key speaker in a Thursday evening meeting at the Sanford Center during which the results of the Emergency Services Consulting International study were explored, and the local committee's recommendations were revealed.

The study, which was paid for by a Minnesota state grant, was designed to investigate the option of a fire district.

The Cloquet Area Fire District was the first fire district in the state. Established in 2009 when the Cloquet and Perch Lake fire departments combined, the district is the first in to have taxing authority.

The Bemidji study was done to assess the feasibility of creating a local fire district.

"About a year ago, the long-range planning committee (comprised of both city and rural representatives) decided that it's time to look a little more seriously at the concept of establishing a fire district," Hoefer said. 'I think we've done a good job of getting everyone's interests on the table, about talking about things."

ESCI was the firm that helped Cloquet examine the feasibility of a fire district, and since then, has helped other communities consider a similar venture.

The firm now has about 10 active studies throughout the eastern United States.

"Bemidji is unique because it is the only one right now that has the operational part already put together," said Phil Kouwe, with ESCI. Typically, there are multiple fire departments operating independently of each other but thinking of joining together.

When conducting the studies, ESCI considers three possible governmental structures for running the fire department:

E An Intergovernmental Agency. This is the model under which the BFD currently operates.

E A joint powers authority. Similar to that of the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning venture. Multiple municipalities come together and have authority over the operation of the fire department. The joint powers board actually runs the department. But it does not have taxing power.

E A fire district. An actual district is formed that has taxing authority. Similar to that of the Bemidji Regional Airport Authority, it would have the ability to levy taxes on the residents that the district covers for the fire department's operation.

"We come into these studies with zero assumptions," Kouwe said, saying that the firm does not go into it trying to prove the fire district model is best. "We look at the fire department first, then we can identify (what) model of operations makes sense from a regional perspective."

The study does not actually make a recommendation, but reveals findings that were provided to the local committee, then made a recommendation.

The findings of the study showed that the BFD is working well operationally.

"The regional approach to fire services is working here," said Kent Greene with ESCI. "This is probably the most impressive system that we've seen throughout Minnesota."

But, the ESCI team believes an improved governmental model would be more fair and equitable.

The two men said they would support a joint powers venture.

Their investigation into the impacts that a fire district revealed that such a venture would create an inequitable cost distribution.

"Our findings were that a fire district was probably not a wise way to go here," Greene said. "We don't list it as a non-option. But we don't think the feasibility is high. We don't believe it would succeed."

ESCI was the firm that helped Cloquet examine the feasibility of a fire district, and since then, has helped other communities consider a similar venture.

The firm now has about 10 active studies throughout the eastern United States.

"Bemidji is unique because it is the only one right now that has the operational part already put together," said Phil Kouwe, with ESCI. Typically, there are multiple fire departments operating independently of each other but thinking of joining together.

When conducting the studies, ESCI considers three possible governmental structures for running the fire department:

- An Intergovernmental Agency. This is the model under which the BFD currently operates.

- A joint powers authority. Similar to that of the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning venture. Multiple municipalities come together and have authority over the operation of the fire department. The joint powers board actually runs the department. But it does not have taxing power.

- A fire district. An actual district is formed that has taxing authority. Similar to that of the Bemidji Regional Airport Authority, it would have the ability to levy taxes on the residents that the district covers for the fire department's operation.

"We come into these studies with zero assumptions," Kouwe said, saying that the firm does not go into it trying to prove the fire district model is best. "We look at the fire department first, then we can identify (what) model of operations makes sense from a regional perspective."

The study does not actually make a recommendation, but reveals findings that were provided to the local committee, then made a recommendation.

The findings of the study showed that the BFD is working well operationally.

"The regional approach to fire services is working here," said Kent Greene with ESCI. "This is probably the most impressive system that we've seen throughout Minnesota."

But, the ESCI team believes an improved governmental model would be more fair and equitable.

The two men said they would support a joint powers venture.

Their investigation into the impacts that a fire district revealed that such a venture would create an inequitable cost distribution.

"Our findings were that a fire district was probably not a wise way to go here," Greene said. "We don't list it as a non-option. But we don't think the feasibility is high. We don't believe it would succeed."

The seven-member Bemidji Area Fire Services Research Committee is composed of representatives from the city, townships and fire department.

Its recommendation is that the BFD's governance model be changed to a joint powers entity through a joint powers agreement between all of the municipalities.

The operations of the BFD would not change. But instead of having the city of Bemidji have complete control over its operations, the department would be governed by a governing board composed of representatives from all municipalities. Each local governmental unit would be represented by one board member - from among the LGU's elected officials - per 3,000 residents.

"We wanted to have the ability for this government board to be accountable to the taxpayers," Hoefer said. "That's why we went with elected officials."

That would result in a 24- or 25-person board, which would likely be difficult to manage for day-to-day operations. So the committee also recommends that a board of directors be named composed of five members appointed by the governing board.

The board of directors would be composed of a mixture of city and rural representatives.

"What we're trying to do is balance this governance a little bit," Hoefer said. "The goal is to provide fair and equal governance."

The BFD would become the Bemidji Fire District (but not have taxing authority). It would be funded by the governing board with contributions from each municipality based on a formula that considers area, building values, population and service demand.

All assets currently owned by the city of Bemidji and Rural Fire Association - including trucks, engines and stations - would be transferred to the joint powers entity for $1.

The joint powers entity would negotiate the lease of the fire hall.

"The operating budget that we use today will not change," Hoefer said. "Our budget is a neutral budget. It doesn't change at all."

The meeting culminated with a recommendation. And it was not a recommendation that is expected to be passed immediately.

All municipalities currently served by the BFD have been asked to consider the recommendation and provide input by the end of the year.

A resolution of support from each is the hoped for to create the joint powers entity.

In February, the plan is to have agreements in place and a 2013 budget complete.

By May, the municipalities would enter into a joint powers agreement and a transitional board of directors would be named through the remainder of 2012.

If all goes as planned, come 2013, the joint powers entity would take over the operation of the BFD.

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Bethany Wesley
(218) 333-9200 x337
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