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City Council, engineers debate funding for road repairs

Recent decisions made by the Bemidji City Council have impacted the city's ability to repair and restructure streets, the city's engineers said Monday.

This summer, councilors voted in favor of a 9.9 percent levy increase, which replaces the $260,000 lost in Local Government Aid for next year.

Additionally, the council voted previously to transfer liquor store profits and utility fees to the general fund - both of which had been used to fund street maintenance.

The council on Oct. 8 voted to pursue raising gas and electric fees by 50 percent. For residents, this would mean a monthly increase from 50 cents to 75 cents. The gas and electric fees had annually brought in about $150,000 at 50 cents. The council has proposed that the money raised through the increase would be dedicated to street reconstruction.

During Monday's work session department heads each turned in a budget outline of accomplishments made during 2007, goals for 2008 - and unmet needs that should be discussed.

Among the unmet needs were street repairs, internal audit functions, another attorney, in-squad computers for the police department and entry equipment for SWAT members, additional liquor store locations, and replacement of an underground fuel storage tank.

Councilor Nancy Erickson, who represents Ward 5, asked City Engineer Brian Freeberg why reconstruction for streets in the Nymore area has repeatedly been pushed back. She cited council documents that showed different amounts of funding had been delayed dating back to 2005, when the council was planning for its 2006 Capital Improvement Plan.

Erickson, who was an outspoken proponent for the 9.9 percent levy increase that avoided a double-digit increase, acknowledged that the city's budget does not include extra funds for street repairs.

Yet, she wanted to know why Nymore area street reconstruction was not being funded in 2008.

"I think (Ward 5 residents) deserve to have an equal share in what little streets we can do," Erickson said.

City Engineer Craig Gray said the council set the levy, and it voted to move liquor store profits and gas and electric fee proceeds to the general fund.

"You have allocated no other funding for streets," Gray said.

Freeberg said potential projects had to be ranked, and roads near Bemidji State University and the cross streets such as Mississippi, Irvine and Beltrami avenues had to be restructured first.

Echoing Gray's statement, Freeberg said liquor store profits and utility fees had previously been dedicated to fund street repairs.

"Next year, they are not," he said.

City Manager John Chattin said the city has in the past issued debt to pay for street improvements - and the council has directed staff to develop a budget while holding the levy down.

"That has a cumulative effect," he said.

Erickson said she understood that the city has limited funds.

"My concern is maybe the way (street projects) are being prioritized," she said.

Councilor Onen Markeson read the bulk of unmet needs aloud to his fellow councilors.

"It would have been nice to have this earlier on," Markeson said, referring to the list of unmet needs.

Perhaps if the council had known what would not receive funding in 2008, some councilors would have had a different position on the tax levy, he said.

Markeson voted earlier this year against the 9.9 percent levy increase, stating that it was a "fiscally irresponsible" increase because it would not provide money for repairs and enhancements to the city's infrastructure and properties. He also voted against the increase to utility fees because, as a flat rate applied to each property, he felt it was the same as raising taxes without considering the low-income population.

Councilor Roger Hellquist also said there were a lot of unmet needs, but what concerned him more was the lack of a strategic plan to fulfill them.

"We don't have any method of getting there and that's what disturbs me most of all," he said.

Councilor Jerry Downs said he hoped the city's financial situation would send a message to the Legislature that Minnesota cities need LGA restored.

Erickson said she hoped the city's 2008 budget also sent a message to residents:

"We know that milk has gone up, that gas has gone up," she said, explaining that it was much more important to residents that they be able to afford milk rather than new carpet for the city's liquor stores.

Markeson said the issues facing the city are larger than carpet - they involve the deterioration of the city's roads, which can damage roads and cause accidents, he said.

The council and city staff has worked hard to produce the budget, said Mayor Richard Lehmann.

"It's isn't without pain, but it is a budget that holds the line," he said, adding that the city needs to continue pushing for the restoration of LGA.

"It isn't the Senate. It isn't the House. It's the governor," Erickson said. "It's one person."