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City Council brainstorms JPB funding ideas

Rita Albrecht, Bemidji's assistant city planner, has resigned to take a position with the Headwaters Regional Development Commission. Her last day with the city is Aug. 10.

The Bemidji City Council already had been set to discuss potential funding plans for the Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board and joint planning commission. But, with Albrecht's decision to leave the city's planning department, some councilors pondered whether this would be a good time to consider staff members who would work solely with the Joint Planning Board.

No decisions were made regarding JPB funding during Monday's meeting. The JPB and joint planning commission is scheduled to meet at about 6:30 p.m. Aug. 1 to discuss potential arrangements.

The JPB held a retreat in May during which its members discussed its plans for staff and administration in the future. Currently, as the JPB meets throughout the three entities' boundaries - the city of Bemidji, Northern Township and Bemidji Township - that jurisdiction's respective clerk has been responsible for taking minutes and getting agendas prepared.

But, councilors said during Monday's meeting, Bemidji city staff also has dedicated a lot of time to the JPB. City Attorney Alan Felix is involved with legal matters and City Planner Curt Oakes also spends time reviewing potential plans and preparing for meetings.

Councilors discussed several options during the work session, but never really reached any conclusions.

"There are no real right answers and there's really no wrong answer," said Mayor Richard Lehmann, a member of the JPB.

Councilor Ron Johnson said that since the city already will be looking at filling the assistant city planner position, perhaps it was time to consider what JPB's staffing needs will be in the future.

"This might be an opportune time," he said.

Councilor Nancy Erickson wanted to know how many staff members would be needed to handle the JPB's work.

Lehmann originally mentioned one that a clerk or administrative person would certainly be needed, but by the conclusion of the meeting, councilors seemed to think that at least a clerk and a planning and zoning staff member would be needed.

Erickson suggested that instead of having a clerk, a planner and a zoning administrator, perhaps the JPB would be better off with two or three planning and zoning staff members who instead focused on different areas "so they're really knowledgeable" about their respective areas.

City Manager John Chattin said it would be difficult for the council to decide now what the staffing needs will be in the future. Perhaps the JPB would hire one or two staff members to start and contract with others as needed, he said.

He said the JPB would quickly find out whether additional staff was needed based on how much it is paying for contract work.

"We hire consultants until we determine that we're paying so much" for the consultants that the city would actually be better off hiring the staff, Chattin said.

Johnson said he considered the situation to be "very similar" to the early years at Bemidji Regional Airport, which is funded by the city and Beltrami County. First, he said, there was a part-time manager and the engineering was done by the city.

As it grew, the city and county "kind of weaned off of that," Johnson said. "I see this going the same way."

Erickson was concerned with the amount of staff time that may be required from Bemidji city employees.

"I am very uncomfortable volunteering our staff," she said.

With "only so many hours in a day," Erickson said she was worried that city staff members would not be able to pay due attention to city issues. She said she would hate to see staff "overworked and overburdened."

She also said the JPB needs to have funds available, either way, to pay its employees.

Oakes, who said he is roughly about three years from retirement, said he is supportive of the JPB and it is "really enjoyable to be working together (with township officials and staff) as a cohesive" unit, but he does not want to be a JPB staff member.

Offering his personal opinions on the subject, Oakes said he likes working with the city, and does have some concerns about how JPB staffing may affect his current job.

The council also discussed whether it was willing to host a JPB office at City Hall. While, again, no decisions were made, councilors seemed to think it was a good idea, as the staff members are in the building and the location is central. Erickson said she would support leasing the space to the JPB.