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Bemidji City Council: Comparable cities list approved

What makes one city comparable to another?

The Bemidji City Council considered this question at different points during its regular meeting Monday evening.

Bemidji city staff and consultants often consider similar cities' practices while considering action on issues facing Bemidji.

The council was asked to consider numerous cities that would be used for comparisons in a job classification and compensation study.

Springsted, a public sector advising firm, is collecting information internally and externally as it works on the study.

Bemidji's Labor Management Committee recommended 18 cities: Albert Lea, Alexandria, Brainerd, Cloquet, Detroit Lakes, Fairmont, Fergus Falls, Grand Rapids, Hibbing, Hutchinson, Little Falls, Marshall, New Ulm, North Branch, Thief River Falls, Virginia, Willmar and Worthington.

John Chattin, Bemidji city manager, asked the council to approve that list, which it did, with the exception of excluding Hibbing and Virginia. The vote was 7-0.

Councilor Roger Hellquist had requested that edit, stating that with those cities' higher industrial activities and wages, it was no a fair comparison.

He also noted that the taconite taxes would affect the outcome.

"I think they skew it," he said.

Eight of the suggested cities, including Virginia, were suggested as comparisons by the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.

The CGMC based its recommendations, according to Chattin, on factors including population, median household income, crime rate, Local Government Aid need factor, distance from Bemidji and tax base per person.

Four other cities - Cloquet, East Grand Forks, North Mankato and Sartell - were considered, but nixed.

They are less regional centers as suburbs of larger metropolitan cities, Chattin said.

BFD annual report

The issue of comparable cities was also discussed during Fire Chief Dave Hoefer's presentation of the 2009 annual report for the Bemidji Fire Department.

The Fire Department in 2009 responded to 2,600 calls for service. This includes 77 fires, 95 rescues, 687 medical call and 1,371 calls for airport standbys. Of those calls, 2,427 were within the city of Bemidji and 173 were in the rural service area.

At one point in the report, Hoefer provided the comparisons on call volume with other cities.

The most recent statistics available were from 2008, when Bemidji had 2,836 calls.

Comparable fire departments had:

- Brainerd: 430.

- Cloquet (fire district): 1,011.

- Crookston: 328.

- East Grand Forks: 702.

- Hibbing: 2,420.

- Thief River Falls: 174.

Those departments were chosen because they cover both urban and rural areas and have a mixture of full-time (career) and volunteer firefighters, Hoefer explained.

Hoefer noted that one of the differences between Bemidji and other area fire departments is that Bemidji covers a large area.

"Five hundred and twenty-two square miles is huge," he said.

He also noted other differences between some of the departments, such as providing coverage in the valley.

Also, Hibbing has a larger department with about 20 full-timer firefighters compared to Bemidji's eight. Cloquet's department is a fire district that was started last year when the Cloquet Fire Department and the Perch Lake Fire Department combined.

The comparisons seemed to intrigue councilors, who asked several questions during that portion of the presentation.

Councilor Greg Negard asked if all of the other departments also respond to emergency medical calls, which Bemidji does.

There is a mix among all the departments, Hoefer said, noting that

Councilor Jerry Downs asked which departments were also transporting medical victims, and Hoefer said he was not sure, but that it seems to be the trend.

More and more fire departments are getting into transportation, he noted.