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Council OKs levy increases: Funds earmarked for eventual Sanford Center, City Arena repairs

BEMIDJI -- The Bemidji City Council on Monday acknowledged the fact that no building lasts forever.

The council voted 5-1 to approve a 2.2 percent property tax levy increase of $84,000 dollars in the 2015 budget to future repairs to the Sanford Center.

Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht was the sole no vote on the motion.

The four-year-old building may need repairs in the near future, after chronic rainwater leaks were reported earlier this summer. City Manager John Chattin said it likely will cost approximately $40,000 to investigate the leaks to help determine who is liable for damages and repairs.

An approximate 4.5 percent levy increase was shot down earlier in the meeting in a 3-3 vote. Council Members Roger Hellquist, Jim Thompson and Nancy Erickson voted yes on the motion, while Albrecht, Reed Olson and Michael Meehlhause voted no. Council Member Ron Johnson was not present at the meeting to vote.

"This asset is of greater value than all the other assets in our city combined," Erickson said before she made the failed motion for the first levy vote. "If we aren't good stewards of this... I believe we're being derelict."

However, Albrecht argued that $185,000 per year for potential future repairs seemed unjustified when the city has immediate needs that need funding.

"A number of current needs, to me, speak more loudly... whether that's cops on the street, or additional folks that do the plowing... so I just can't support (the motion)," Albrecht said.

In general, raising the levy itself does not necessarily mean an increase in the taxes an individual property owner pays since the levy increase is dispersed among the increase in the city's property tax base, if any.

The council also dealt with much more serious deterioration issues when they voted for a levy increase to fund repairs to the aging Neilson-Reise Arena.

Erickson and Hellquist voted no, while Albrecht, Olson, Meehlhause and Thompson voted yes.

The vote followed a review of results from a study by Stevens Engineering, which revealed just how much it might cost to replace essential functions of the 47-year-old building that serves as hockey and figure skating space for the community.

One of the major issues with the arena is the danger of refrigerant leaks. The arena uses R-22 refrigerant, which not only harms the ozone layer when leaked but is also toxic and odorless. Arena staff said the alarm in the arena that is supposed to detect harmful levels of R-22 doesn't work but the alarm in the refrigeration room itself (with a greater risk of leaks) is functional. Both Scott Ward, the engineer who authored Stevens' report, said an R-22 leak in the arena itself would be obvious to the naked eye since there would be patches of melted ice on the rink.

R-22 is being phased out gradually by the federal Environmental Protection Agency until no more coolant will be manufactured after 2020 because the substance is harmful to the environment. The cost of R-22 has increased many times over as the substance becomes more rare, Stevens' report said.

The study recommended that the city "seriously" consider replacing its R-22 coolant system with a carbon dioxide-based system that would cost $2.015 million to install. Carbon dioxide refrigerants pose one global warming potential, (GWP) a measure of how much heat a particular greenhouse gas traps in the atmosphere. They pose no ozone depletion potentials, however.

Zach Kayser
Zach Kayser covers local government and city issues for the Pioneer. He previously worked for the Wadena Pioneer Journal, and is an alumni of the University of Minnesota, Morris. 
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