BEMIDJI –The city council chambers were filled with residents Thursday night to hear from candidates in the city’s upcoming elections on issues facing the area.
The forum was hosted by the League of Women Voters. Incumbent Mayor Dave Larson debated current Ward 4 Councilor Rita Albrecht, who is challenging him for the post.
Former Ward 5 Councilor Nancy Erickson, who is challenging Greg Negard for his position, joined Derrick Houle and Michael Meehlhause in the city council forum. Negard and current Ward 3 Councilor Ron Johnson, who is running unopposed, were out of town and unable to attend.
Larson and Albrecht agreed that ensuring the city has a say in how much Local Government Aid it receives is a major issue. Both pointed out that 52 percent of the city’s market value is exempt from property taxes, making it difficult to budget for essential services.
Albrecht said that in order to encourage more economic development within the city, it’s important to have a trained workforce and a quality city that will attract businesses to the area.
“I think of community development as creating the city you want that makes economic development possible,” she said. “That drives an interest in our community.”
As far as the role of the mayor in city processes, Larson said he thinks the council works best when it’s working as a team, and added that he likes to hear from everyone before adding his opinion.
“Because I do not want to influence or dictate the direction that the council goes,” he said.
Albrecht said she saw the mayor as serving an ambassador role to be a voice for the city. To that end, Albrecht said she believes the city needs to be at the table when the state Legislature discusses the tax bill in 2013.
Larson, meanwhile, said the city is facing an “identity crisis,” adding that people who come here are pleasantly surprised by what Bemidji has to offer.
“That tells me we need to do a better job communicating who we are,” he said.
Larson used his closing comments to point to his business career and how he’s applied them to his role as mayor.
Albrecht said in her closing comments that there are opportunities to partner with other local governments, the education sector and private businesses to create a quality city.
“We need to have some jobs that are living wage,” Albrecht said, adding that Bemidji has a 20 percent poverty rate. “We need to find a way to get people trained … so businesses that have good-paying jobs will want to locate here.”
City council forum
The city council candidates discussed ways to revitalize downtown in their portion of the forum Thursday.
Houle said Bemidji is still very much a tourist town and the city needs to find ways to bring those tourists from the Paul and Babe statues across the street into downtown, a sentiment Meehlhause agreed with. Erickson noted that empty buildings are partly to blame on economic factors, but that the city can play a role in making it desirable for businesses to come downtown.
“Some of the simplest answers I can think of is beautifying our downtown,” Houle said.
The candidates had somewhat varying views on whether the city should extend utilities to areas that have not requested them. Erickson pointed to the council’s decision on Monday to not extend sewer and water utilities on Lake Avenue as a missed opportunity.
“It would have been money well spent,” she said.
Both Houle and Meehlhause suggested that there’s a balance to that decision. Meehlhause noted that there’s pending litigation in Northern Township regarding a utility extension project, and Houle cited lack of current demand for the services in certain areas as potential drawbacks. But they also noted that there could be a need for them in the future.
Likewise, the candidates differed somewhat on their views of a potential hospitality tax. Erickson said it would be a good tool to take the burden off taxpayers, while Houle questioned the argument that it will discourage businesses from coming to the area.
Meehlhause, meanwhile, said the hospitality tax should only be used if “absolutely necessary.”
“The more business that we have along that south shore the more the (Sanford Center) is going to be able to pay for itself,” he said.