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Council OKs 9.9 percent preliminary levy increase

While the Legislature will convene today for a special legislative session, the Bemidji City Council is disappointed that it won't address the previously vetoed budget bill.

The vetoed bill included an additional $428,000 in Local Government Aid for Bemidji. The City Council has bemoaned the loss of those funds since, saying that it will drive up the local tax levy for residents.

Had the city secured that funding, councilors likely would have supported no levy increase for 2008. However, since those funds were canceled, the City Council has supported a 9.9 percent levy increase.

During Monday's City Council work session, councilors voted 6-1 to certify the city's preliminary levy at 9.9 percent. The preliminary levy, which must be submitted to Beltrami County by Sept. 15, may be lowered, but can not be raised.

A final levy amount must be adopted by the end of the year.

Councilor Onen Markeson voted against the levy, saying a 9.9 percent levy increase was "fiscally irresponsible" because it would not provide needed money to maintain the city's streets, buildings and parks and recreation services, and it would not help support improvements to the municipal liquor store.

"I really encourage (councilors) to vote against the degradation of our community," he said prior to the vote.

Mayor Richard Lehmann said he understood Markeson's concerns, but the council had directed staff to develop a budget based on a 9.9 percent levy increase.

"This is a good budget based on the council's recommendation for staff," he said.

Lehmann said the council should continue the discussion when it plans for its 2009 budget next year.

But Markeson said the council could choose to support a higher levy this year.

"I'm worried we are limiting ourselves severely," he said, adding that the City Council was supporting an "irresponsible" budget.

But Councilor Jerry Downs said he believed it was a "responsible budget" considering recent years of double-digit levy increases.

Councilor Ron Johnson said he agreed with Markeson's statements but he doubted that a levy increase of 13.1 percent, which had been discussed in a previous work session, would make much of a difference.

Johnson said to fund the operations and projects that Markeson was referring to would take more than a double-digit levy increase. Instead, the council needs to continue to keep the pressure on to restore LGA funding in the future, he said.

Councilor Nancy Erickson said the Minnesota House of Representatives and the Senate understand the need for LGA dollars.

"It's the governor who doesn't get it," she said.

Bemidji's LGA amount for 2008 has been certified by the Minnesota Department of Revenue to be $3,068,088 for 2008, which is $260,000 less than the city received in 2007.