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Bemidji City Council: Meuers withdraws her support for proposed city fee on street lights

Bemidji City Councilor Barb Meuers announced Monday that she would be withdrawing her support for the proposed street light fee.

"I don't think the residents of this community should be paying for this tax or fee," Meuers said.

The council last week voted unanimously to support a recommendation from city staff that the city implement a Street Light Utility Fee this year to cover the cost of operating and maintaining the city's street lights.

If adopted, residents would be charged $2.50 a month while businesses would be charged $5 a month; fees would be billed per taxable parcel.

"I wish I hadn't voted yes," Meuers said. "I think people are really upset and I don't blame them."

The council on Monday held the first reading of an ordinance needed to implement the fee. A second reading is scheduled March 16, during which the council will host a public hearing.

Final approval could come as soon as April 6. If approved, the fee would not be implemented until 30 days following the final council vote.

Meuers said those on fixed incomes could not handle another fee or tax increase.

Councilor Jerry Downs said he would be happy to entertain other ideas, but the city had to identify cuts for 2009.

The street light fee has been considered as part of a plan for cutting more than $550,000 from the city's 2009 budget and $600,000 from 2010.

The city is now expected to be lose $1 million in Local Government Aid throughout the next two years, which is in addition to the "unallotment" of $230,000 in 2008 LGA funds that Bemidji lost in December.

"With the LGA cuts, it's simply isn't possible to maintain the city's level of services without an increase," Downs said.

Downs said any suggestions would be appreciated.

"I'm willing to list to any ideas you have," he said. "Where are we going to cut?"

The city now spends about $185,000 for electricity for the city's street lights, $3,000 for bulb replacement and $19,000 for maintenance.

Meuers said the council could consider the utilization of $180,000 a year that now goes toward the operation of the airport, but will no longer be needed once the Bemidji Regional Airport Authority begins exercising its taxing abilities.

"I think staff can come up with ideas," she said. "They've come up with ideas before."

Councilor Ron Johnson has asked City Engineer Craig Gray to look into whether the city's street lights could be turned on later and turned off earlier.

He suggested that the city should approve the fee, but review it annually.

"I think it is something we should remove once LGA funds are (restored)," he said.

Gray earlier had estimated that such measures might save about $20,000, but was unsure if the city's lights, which work on light sensors, could be adjusted.

Councilor Roger Hellquist said the Public Works Committee was asked a few years back about the possibility of using just every-other street light to saves costs. But the idea was not implemented, he said.

Hellquist also noted that the city funds now used to help fund the airport will not be available until 2010, at least.