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Bemidji City Council to continue discussion on Lake Avenue utility project

BEMIDJI – After some debate Monday, the city council decided to continue discussion next week on a proposed utility installation project on Lake Avenue Southeast.

Beltrami County will be doing a street repaving and full depth mill project on Lake Avenue, starting at First Street Southeast and running north past the Mississippi River bridge, in 2013.

Craig Gray, the city’s director of public works, recommended installing water and sewer utilities on Lake Avenue from First to Fifth streets while the county works on the street. The 11 parcels on the east side of the street are part of Bemidji Township and within the proposed 2015 annexation area. The properties on the west side of the street already have city sewer and water services.

While Ward 1 Councilor Kevin Waldhausen said he didn’t see an immediate need for the project, it made sense financially while the county is working on the street.

“We know it’s going to eventually need to be done,” he said. “With not having to pay for the ripping and repaving of the road, it does save us a lot of money now.”

Installing city water and sewer along that first segment would cost about $300,000. Should the city wait to install the utilities after the county has completed its project, the cost would be about $450,000 for the city, Gray estimated.

“A ‘no’ decision tonight would not prevent you from changing your decision in five or 10 years,” Gray told the council. “Except, (if) you change your mind in five or seven or eight years … you’re paying to replace the road, where in this case, the county will be paying for replacing the road.”

The sanitary sewer portion of the project from First Street to Fifth Street could be paid for by projects already within the capital improvement plan, Gray said, because the county will not be doing a project it had planned on Irvine Avenue in 2013.

Gray said connection charges could be used to help recover some of the cost of the project, but those charges would be voluntary and only paid for by property owners who wanted to connect. There was some concern that it would take a while for people to hook up.

“It’s appropriate that Craig would bring this forward at this point because of the county road project,” said City Manager John Chattin. “But it’d probably be 20 years before you’d have enough connections to actually pay for this project.”

City attorney Al Felix said it could be possible to assess the benefited properties for the project after they are annexed. When and if those properties will be annexed is somewhat up in the air, as some legal action is pending with Bemidji Township.

Felix added that there might be some contention from residents if the city tried to assess for the project, based on the experiences with the Birchmont Drive case. In that case, dozens of property owners in Northern Township have sued over assessments for a utility improvement project that was completed in 2008. That issue has yet to be resolved.  

The council expressed interest in extending the project to Mill Street Northeast as well, which would bring the cost up to $680,000 total. But doing that would likely require larger rate increases than is already projected. The city would also likely have to hire a consultant for the design of second segment of Lake Avenue from Fifth Street to Mill Street, Gray said.

The council will wait until Monday to hear back on how high any rate increases and engineering fees would be before making a decision on the project.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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