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Bemidji City Council: Annexation delayed until 2012

The Bemidji City Council came within one vote of again delaying a decision on annexation.

Following a 3-3 tie to wait until March 1 to make a decision, the council Tuesday night voted 6-0 to formally affirm a straw poll from last week to hold off until 2012 on annexing the first ring of properties in the orderly annexation agreement.

The agreement, signed by the city of Bemidji and Bemidji and Northern townships, makes specific township properties eligible for annexation in 2010, 2015 and 2020.

The council last week met with Bemidji and Northern township officials and the overwhelming majority of participants indicated their preference to hold off on annexation until 2012.

But the poll taken that night was not legally binding.

Bemidji City Councilor Ron Johnson, a vocal supporter of annexation plans, on Tuesday said he would like to wait before taking a formal vote.

His reasoning was based on a recent conversation with a representative from the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.

During that conversation, Johnson said, the two men discussed the impact annexation could possibly have on the amount of Local Government Aid Bemidji receives from the state.

The conversation followed the publication of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposed budget, which includes a plan to cut $250 million in aid to cities and counties. Under Pawlenty's proposal, Bemidji would lose $581,323 in LGA yet this year and about $302,000 for 2011.

Johnson pointed out that one of the factors in determining LGA is population - and Bemidji's population would be increased through annexation.

Even if LGA continues to be cut, Johnson reasoned, the city could gain some lost dollars, perhaps, through the increase in population from annexation.

"I'm just not so sure we shouldn't think about our own taxpayers," he said.

Neither Johnson nor anyone else on the council stated any support in pursuing annexation of properties in Northern Township, which is entangled in a reassessment process for Birchmont Drive. Discussion instead focused on the Bemidji Township properties that became eligible for annexation in January.

"I think we should take every possible moment to look at this before we make a final decision on this," said Councilor Kevin Waldhausen. "We do owe it to our taxpayers to take that time."

Councilor Jerry Downs, Johnson and Waldhausen voted in favor of holding off until March 1 to make a decision on annexation; Mayor Richard Lehmann and Councilors Roger Hellquist and Barb Meuers were opposed, which resulted in a 3-3 tie. Councilor Greg Negard was absent.

Lehmann said that while the straw poll was not legally binding, it did seem to be an agreement.

"I think that kind of sent the message from the council on what to expect," he said.

Meuers, who did not attend last week's joint meeting, said she was concerned that the relationship between the city and townships could sour if the city backs out of the apparent agreement made last week.

"Now it's going to change the whole atmosphere, the camaraderie," she said.

City Attorney Al Felix noted that if the city wants to expedite the tax distribution stated in the joint annexation agreement, which also was apparently agreed to by all three governing bodies last week, the joint annexation agreement needs to be signed by the Bemidji City Council, Bemidji Town Board and Northern Town Board.

He speculated that obtaining Bemidji Township signatures on the agreement might be more difficult if the city now chooses to pursue annexation of Bemidji Township properties.

Following the 3-3 tie, all six councilors voted to delay annexation until 2012 with the intent of revising the annexation agreement with Bemidji and Northern townships.