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Annexation discussed at meeting of officials from city of Bemidji, Northern and Bemidji townships

Tim Mountain, a supervisor on the Northern Town Board, makes a point during a joint meeting Wednesday of city and township officials involved in the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning venture. At right is John Rowles, a supervisor on the Bemidji Town Board. Pioneer Photo/Bethany Wesley

Annexation was the focus of discussion Wednesday at a joint meeting of officials involved in the joint planning venture.

Solutions to numerous issues were not identified, but methods were established that will, hopefully, lead to solutions in the near future.

Sixteen elected officials from the city of Bemidji and Bemidji and Northern townships took part in the two-hour meeting at Northern Town Hall. Combined with staff, five members of the public and media, more than 30 people attended the session.

"Relationships (are) the key to making this thing work long-term," said Cliff Tweedale, the executive director of the Headwaters Regional Development Commission. Tweedale served as the facilitator for the meeting.

The meeting covered several topics, but the majority of discussion focused on annexation and related issues.

Mainly, the group discussed the benefits of annexation and the related costs. The first phase of annexation is slated to begin in 2010.

Bemidji City Engineer/Public Works Director Craig Gray said he gets 1-2 calls a month from people living in the first ring of properties affected by annexation.

They say their septic systems are failing and they do not want to fix it or install a new system, because they believe that along with annexation comes access to city water and sewer, Gray said.

City officials and staff members said that won't be immediately possible due, mainly, to funding.

Gray explained that projects such as paving streets, adding curb and gutter, and sewer and water improvements are not covered completely by assessments.

For instance, he said, the recent Nymore street improvement project totaled about $1.5 million and assessments covered 20 percent of the total cost. Still, the assessment for someone receiving street improvements - not sewer or water - was $4,000.

City Manager John Chattin said the Bemidji City Council is even hoping that the two townships may be open to "upping the ante" and increasing the percentages of taxes scheduled to go to the city.

"We really can't afford to do this and yet staff has recommended to go ahead with annexation," Chattin said, explaining that staff believes annexation is in the best interest of the greater Bemidji area.

According to the Orderly Annexation Agreement between the city and the townships, there is a percentage split between the entities for the first five years. In 2010, the city would not receive any of the property taxes from the annexed property, but then would receive $3,500 in 2011, $58,000 in 2012, $115,000 in 2013, $176,000 in 2014 and then the full $241,000 in 2015.

Becky Livermore, a supervisor on the Bemidji Town Board, said past experience had shown her to be open to "discuss anything" with the partnering governmental units.

"We would discuss anything," she said on behalf of Bemidji Township, "but agreeing is another story."

Several township officials asked what the benefit will be to newly annexed city residents who will pay more in taxes, but not see an immediate improvement in services.

Mayor Richard Lehmann said there would be an increase in police and fire protection.

"I'm not going to sit here and tell you I don't have concerns," Lehmann said, noting that he believed that in the long-run annexation will be beneficial. "This is in the best interest of the community."

John Rowles, a supervisor with Bemidji Township, said he believed it would be unrealistic for new city residents to expect grand improvements immediately.

"Seems to me if I was going to be annexed, I don't think it would be realistic for me to expect the city to put in paved streets, lights and sewer and water," he said.

Officials agreed that a communication plan is needed that will get the correct information out to residents. A method was established in which city and joint planning staff would work with the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board to adopt a plan by mid-November and implement that plan by the end of 2009.

Jim Thompson, a supervisor on the Northern Town Board, recalled an advertisement that ran in the Pioneer listing the advantages that would be gained through the Bemidji Regional Event Center.

"It would seem appropriate to maybe do the same thing," he said.

Algoma Park

The other big discussion point during the meeting was what to do about Algoma Park, a 7-acre park in Northern Township.

According to the Orderly Annexation Agreement, the city will assume maintenance and responsibility of the park, but ownership is not specified.

"We, as a board, want it to remain green space and remain as a park," said Mike Kelly, a supervisor on the Northern Town Board.

The City Council discussed the park last month, but stated the city does not have funds to purchase the property from the township.

The park has value, Kelly noted.

Roger Hellquist, a city councilor, suggested that the township retain ownership, then, of the park to ensure it remains a park.

"The township has no desire to own property inside the city limits," Kelly responded.

Additionally, the park would be come an "island" surrounding by city property, Kelly said.

The group agreed that the issue of Algoma Park and what should happen will be left to Northern Township, which owns the property.

Ron Johnson, a city councilor, did make that the point that while Algoma Park is the only park affected by 2010 annexation, there will be another park affected in future annexation plans.

Putters Park in Bemidji Township is located in Olympic Hills and will become eligible for annexation in 2020, according to joint planning administrator Mel Milender.

Rental issues

The group also discussed the impact that annexation could have on rental properties in the joint planning area.

The city of Bemidji and Bemidji Township now have rental ordinances that are enforced and require registration. Northern Township does not.

Kelly said the Northern Town Board has not received many complaints from property or renters on the issue.

The town board, he said, is not interested in pursing a rental ordinance.

The group agreed that the issue would be discussed at the tables of the local governmental units and then brought to the JPB for discussion.