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Fire department merger supporters look ahead

BEMIDJI — It’s expected to take until 2017 to fully accomplish, but the idea of combining the Bemidji Fire Department (BFD) and the Rural Fire Association (RFA) is gradually gaining traction.

Bemidji Fire Chief Dave Hoefer said Tuesday one of the tasks lying ahead of the merger’s proponents was to get a bill introduced at the State Capitol that would allow a system of fees intended to fund the new combined fire organization.

The future Bemidji Area Fire/Rescue Department would combine the existing BFD, which fights fires both in the city of Bemidji and in rural townships, with the RFA, a group representing the rural cities and townships that provide funds and equipment to the BFD but not firefighters.

The plan is to charge a fire protection fee instead of relying on a property tax for funding. This would allow the combined fire department to get revenue from tax-exempt properties like colleges, hospitals, and government buildings. The fee would be based on the value of structures on the property. Since the fee is a new concept within Minnesota, it would require a new state law to allow it to take place.

Hoefer said the goal was to have a bill introduced during the next legislative session, which starts in late February of 2014. He said merger supporters have been working with all of the legislators that represent the local fire service area. Before they can introduce a bill allowing the fee, Hoefer said, the legislators want to be sure there’s a responsible outline for the project that the public has had a chance to weigh in on.

"What they’re looking for is a document that is a good baseline," he said. "They want to know that we’ve actually done our homework and engaged everybody."

Hoefer said the research committee has already been talking with the tax-exempt properties that would pay a new fee.

"We’ve already started some preliminary discussions with some of (the) tax-exempt properties in the area," he said. "We also understand too that they live within certain budgets, and that whatever we do, we’re going to need to give them some time to prepare financially."

Mel Milender, Eckles Township resident and vice chairman of the RFA, was confident there would be enough public support for the project to cause a bill to be introduced next session.

"If everyone understands it correctly, I think we have more than enough," he said.

Milender said he expected some opposition from the tax-exempt property owners that would have to pay a new fee.

"They’d be crazy not to," he said.

However, Milender said, part of the rationale behind the fee is that a great deal of high-value property in the city of Bemidji goes untaxed, placing an undue burden on the property owners who do pay taxes.

He said if fire protection fee legislation isn’t introduced next session, inequality between taxpayers in the City of Bemidji and those in the townships would continue.

"The city taxpayers pay twice as much as the township taxpayers for… the same amount of protection," he said. "They’re paying…that difference because there are so many non-taxable buildings in the City of Bemidji."

Zach Kayser
Zach Kayser covers local government and city issues for the Pioneer. He previously worked for the Wadena Pioneer Journal, and is an alumni of the University of Minnesota, Morris. 
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