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Bemidji City Council: Old topics return as discussion points

While considering possible budget cuts for 2010 and 2011, the Bemidji City Council discussed, again, issues they have previously debated.

Councilors, with all department heads present, questioned the necessity of having the Bemidji Fire Department respond to medical calls.

And Councilor Ron Johnson, a strong proponent of annexation, voiced his support for proceeding with annexing soon.

The Bemidji Fire Department responded to 2,600 calls for service, including 687 medical call and 95 rescues, which include personal-injury accident.

Councilor Roger Hellquist initially raised the question, wondering about whether it was cost-effective or medically necessary for the Fire Department to respond to medical calls.

"I think that's simply one of those policy issues that the council needs to wrestle with," responded City Manager John Chattin.

Fire Chief Dave Hoefer acknowledged that there is room for improving the cost-effectiveness of medical response.

"I'm a strong advocate for fire-based EMS response," Hoefer said.

The Fire Department now responds to medical calls within the city limits, now responding to all calls that involve the response of Bemidji Ambulance Service.

"It's very common for us to be the first on scene," Hoefer said.

Firefighters - those trained and certified in emergency response - will work to stabilize a victim until the ambulance arrives. The Fire Department does not transport victims.

Hoefer said the department now responds to all calls that request an ambulance.

That could be amended, he said.

The Fire Department should only respond to those calls that truly are a life and death situation, he said.

If the department did that, he said, medical response calls could be cut by about one-third.

"I think we can probably look at that," he said.

Hoefer, in response to a question from Councilor Jerry Downs, said response to personal-injury crashes are billed back to the insurance companies involved. Depending on the specifics of the accident, the bill would range from $150 to $250.

The Fire Department brings in roughly $10,000 a year from personal-injury crashes, noted Finance Director Ron Eischens.

Johnson wondered whether the Fire Department could then bill for all medical calls.

But Police Chief Gerald Johnson warned against that, saying that victims might say they requested an ambulance but not Fire Department response.

Fire district?

Hoefer said there could be a solution to the concerns voiced the City Council: The creation of a fire district.

A fire district would operate similarly to that of the Bemidji Regional Airport Authority. A fire district would have the ability to levy taxes to property owners within its coverage area.

The creation of a fire district would likely be modeled after the Cloquet Area Fire District, which was established last year when the Cloquet and Perch Lake fire departments combined.

"The Cloquet Area Fire District responds to all fires, medical emergencies, rescues, and other non-emergency service calls from the public," reads the Web site at "A fire district board oversees 21 full-time and approximately 15 paid on-call members that respond in unison to mitigate these emergencies."

Hoefer cautioned, though, that investigation into the creation of a fire district is in its early stages. The financial implications of such a venture are still being investigated.

"The reality is, even if all of the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, we're still looking at a couple of years," he said.


Johnson, toward the end of the 1.5-hour meeting, questioned the council's decision in not moving ahead with annexation this year.

He said that if the annexation had gone forward, the city would have gained additional dollars through Local Government Aid.

He acknowledged that LGA has been cut and that with annexation comes addition burdens, but said the additional money could have possibly helped to keep positions filled, rather than leaving them vacant through retirement.

"If we're not going to annex on a timely basis, we should just get out of this," he said.

He asked two department heads - Gerald Johnson and Craig Gray, the city's public works director/city engineer - if they would have been more supportive of annexation if it would result in a larger workforce.

Both department heads will have fewer staff people due to budget cuts.

"It would impact the Police Department if we annexed today," Gerald Johnson said, noting that Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp told him that planned annexation encompasses areas that require higher law enforcement needs in the county.

Gray said he believes the challenging are greater through annexation than through being down one employee.

He noted, and Chattin agreed, that another full-time streets employee will need to be hired when annexation does begin to occur.

Chattin said, though, that Councilor Johnson made a "valid point."

"We need to find out the numbers" on LGA, he said.