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Bemidji police chief says parking officer not needed; Bemidji City Council gives direction on 2013 budget

BEMIDJI - Additional hours, not an additional police officer, may be enough to address parking congestion in the neighborhood bordering Bemidji State University.

Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin reported in a city council work session Monday evening that the city's two part-time parking officers believe they can dedicate enough time to effectively enforce parking rules in the neighborhood affected by the influx of BSU students and faculty during the school year.

"They feel they can do it if given the chance," Mastin said of the two officers, who work between 20 and 30 hours a week.

The council had been considering the possibility of hiring a full-time parking officer to boost parking enforcement in that area, but in a two-hour work session that was partially dedicated to discussion of the 2013 budget, Mastin said he did not believe another officer at this time was necessary.

Both part-time parking officers reviewed their current routes and devised a plan through which they would target the neighborhood between Bemidji Avenue and Birchmont Drive at least once an hour while the university is in session, Mastin said.

If anything, he said, some additional hours may be needed for the added work.

A proposal to issue parking permits for residents in that area failed to gain traction earlier this month as councilors instead opted to strengthen enforcement of parking standards.

Police staffing was a prominent discussion point as councilors considered its priorities for the 2013 budget. The Bemidji Police Department had tentatively been slated to receive funding for two additional police officers - not counting the parking officer - next year, but the council scaled back to one.

Mastin, in his first year as police chief, has spent much of his time working to fully staff his department. Of 18 active patrol officers, eight were hired this year.

Mastin, who noted that another police officer has submitted his resignation, said that by the time a new officer is hired and undergoes the 14-week training program, it will be March before he or she becomes an active member of the police force.

"Yes, we need more (staff), but at this point, I wouldn't be able to get them on the road by themselves until July of next year," Mastin said.

Perhaps the money that would be spent on hiring another police officer instead should be funneled to increasing officer pay, suggested Councilor Kevin Waldhausen.

"I don't think we're competitive," Waldhausen said.

Mastin said the last three job offers he made were rejected due to the city's pay rate. He said he was concerned that Bemidji was becoming a "training ground" for police departments throughout the state, particularly in the Twin Cities.

Mastin said he wanted to hire a BSU graduate who also wanted to work here, but was he offered a higher-paying job in Fergus Falls, which also has about half the crime that Bemidji does.

"That's what we're running into," Mastin said.

The council considered whether it should funnel some of the money that could be saved by hiring one fewer full-timer into police salaries. The council will likely meet in a closed work session in the coming weeks in advance of negotiations with the police union for its next contract.

City Manager John Chattin said the police department is not the only city department that struggles with salary ranges.

Craig Gray, public works director/city engineer, said he has had similar difficulties in hiring licensed staff positions, such as those with the Wastewater Treatment Plant or utility operators.

None of the last three hires was a first-choice candidate, Gray said, adding that, fortunately, all turned out to be good hires in the end.

The city council has yet to formally support a preliminary tax levy for 2013, but a levy increase is all but guaranteed.

The council previously indicated the priorities it wants funded in 2013, including the additional police staff, continuation of recreation programming through the Parks and Recreation Department, a 2 percent increase in the operating budget, Algoma Park improvements, and increases for the police and streets departments in response to annexation.

Additionally, a new generator is needed. It became apparent, according to the city staff, in the aftermath of the July 2 storm that a generator is needed to power the city's fire hall - which serves as the communications center - in the event of a future power outage.

Those all add up to a $350,000 increase for the 2013 budget, according to Ron Eischens, city finance director.

City staff sought direction from the council: How do you want to raise the funds?

The council ultimately chose to support a combination of property tax increases and franchise fee increases.

Already, the city had been planning on a 5.4 percent property tax increase to capture the tax capacity from annexation. This action by itself would not raise property taxes as long as a home's value remains level, city staff said. Annexed property owners would see a small increase in city taxes versus township taxes.

In addition to that, however, the council unanimously said it could support a 2.4 percent property tax increase with a 1 percent franchise fee increase.

Another long-term option was discussed as Councilor Greg Negard said he still supports the potential for a citywide hospitality tax, which could generate up to $500,000 a year.

The council has considered the idea before, but it would require legislative approval. Chattin said local legislators last session were not in favor of it.

"I don't know if they're ready to do that," he said.