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Bemidji City Council: Parks funding restored; dollars to come from liquor store proceeds

The Bemidji City Council restored $18,000 to the parks budget during a work session Monday night.

The council voted unanimously to allocate $18,000 toward parks for this year with the funds coming from liquor store profits.

"I strongly believe we need to fund our parks and keep them maintained so they don't go downhill," said Councilor Kevin Waldhausen.

Liquor store proceeds, ranging from about $180,000 to $200,000 a year, had been used in the past to supplement road improvements. But about 18 months ago, the council opted to instead sell bonds to subside road work.

Using liquor store proceeds to better community amenities such as parks should be publicized to the community, said Councilor Ron Johnson.

"That could make an impact in a marketing campaign," he said.

The council's work session was a follow-up to a budget session held two weeks ago. Then, councilors made $213,770 in reductions for 2010 and $381,770 for 2011, but they also supported about $200,000 in additional cuts for each year.

The budget reductions were made in advance of expected Local Government Aid cuts. But cuts now are poised to be significantly less than what the city was anticipating.

Despite that, City Manager John Chattin said he could not recommend that the council restore too much of what was cut two weeks ago. The economy could not perform as well as expected and LGA could again be "unallotted" at the end of this year, he warned.

"Odds are, come the end of the year, you're probably going to be unallotted," Chattin said. "If there are some things in the budget that the council feels compelled to reinstate ... I'm certainly not going to oppose the council on it.

"But I would really not recommend that you reinstate $50,000, $100,000 or $200,000 expenditures."

However, parks maintenance was deemed an important budget item.

Councilor Jerry Downs said that the ongoing renovations to key city parks - such as Diamond Point Park and Bemidji City Park - combined with the upcoming development of new parks - such as Ridgeway Park and a new Nymore Beach - require the city to care for the improvements.

"We need to take care of them," he said.

Marcia Larson, the city's parks and recreation director, said that without the $18,000, parks would be closed on Labor Day and they would not be maintained this summer as well as they could be.

With the reallocation, she said, the parks will be open longer and be kept in good condition.

Project Pride

Councilors also discussed the elimination of Project Pride, an annual spring-cleaning effort usually held in May.

The program was eliminated because staff positions no longer are available to support it, said Craig Gray, the public works director/city engineer.

The council cut one position from the streets department two weeks ago, bringing the total number of full-time equivalent public works employees to 21, Gray noted. Four years ago, there were 27 FTEs.

"I can't tell you we can cut an FTE and keep doing everything we're doing," he said.

He said it's not so much the overall cost of Project Pride that is leading to its elimination, but that there is not enough of a workforce to support the program.

Three streets employees are needed to make the program a possibility and now there will be two.

"Without that FTE, there's no way that (Project Pride) can continue," Gray said.

Also, he noted that Beltrami County charges $15,000 annually to haul the items to the county's dump site.

Downs said the council considered cutting Project Pride a few years back, but decided against it because it was a "good value for the city."

He also noted that the city is beginning its Quality Neighborhood Initiative to improve neighborhoods and combat blight.

"These are tough times, but on one hand we're doing the Quality Neighborhood Initiative ... and on the other, we're eliminating Project Pride," he said.

Chattin told councilors that if they are getting phone calls from residents now, they should be prepared for those calls to increase.

"There's going to be a lot more as more cuts are felt by the public," he said.

Chattin pointed out that the cuts' effect on winter street care will not be felt until winter.

"We've hit the bottom of the barrel," he said of the city budget.