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Council approves smaller park plan

BEMIDJI -- The Bemidji City Council approved a pared-down park improvement project for Paul Bunyan and Library parks Monday night.

Parks and recreation director Marcia Larson presented the council with a list of improvements she believes could be made to the park with the $1.4 million the city has at its disposal. That money is split between some remaining half-percent sales tax revenues dedicated to parks and a $750,000 state Legacy grant that will be available in 2015.

Parks and Trails Commission member Don Heinonen said being that Paul Bunyan Park is home one of the most recognizable roadside attractions in Minnesota, if not the country, it was prudent to redevelop it.

"There's really nothing for people to do once they come and take their picture" with Paul and Babe, he told councilors. "It's something that I think we really need to put some money into."

The council approved the plan unanimously. Councilor Reed Olson was absent.

The improvements that the Parks and Trails Commission approved before reaching the council Monday include closing off the Third Street Northwest exit from the parking lot, building a platform for the Chief Bemidji statue and a Third Street dock plaza. The plan leaves out many other planned improvements, and is less than half of the original redevelopment of that area was projected to cost.

"We kind of picked what we thought were essential, visible (improvements)" while also doing some maintenance, Larson said.

The city's voter-approved sales tax went into effect in 2006, and raised $9.8 million for improving local parks, but almost all of that money has been spent or allocated. City leaders found out about the Legacy grant, which was specifically dedicated to Paul Bunyan Park, at the end of the legislative session in May.

Meanwhile, councilors didn't decide Monday whether they would ask taxpayers to approve a bond referendum to pay for south shore beach cleanup and improvements to the adjacent proposed park.

Last month, councilors found out that cleaning up the beach of debris to allow parkgoers to swim would cost $1.2 million. Larson presented the council with an alternate park development plan Monday night that would fund about $800,000 worth of basic amenities to go along with a cleaned-up beach, including an area for drivers to drop off passengers before parking, walkways connecting the beach to the parking lot and renovating the bathhouse.

Mayor Rita Albrecht suggested holding open houses to gather input from the public.

"I don't know that we need to decide (whether to go forward with a referendum) tonight," Albrecht said. "Because I personally would like some community input on that."

City engineer and public works director Craig Gray told councilors if they wanted the beach cleanup done next year, the referendum would have to take place before May.

The ballot question, if there is one, would also need to state for how much the city is bonding and its tax levy impact. Councilors directed staff to put together scenarios detailing what could be accomplished at that park based on different levels of funding.

Councilor Nancy Erickson said she would prefer to fund the most basic features of the beach area, including its cleanup, rather than the full redevelopment plan. That would cost, at minimum, $2 million.

"I'm not in favor of the full gamut," Erickson said. "Because the park we are replacing wasn't. And people were happy with that."

2014 budget

The council heard from city finance director Ron Eischens, who is in the process of developing next year's budget. He outlined several new expenditures, which the council neither voted down nor formally approved.

Eischens recommended setting aside $24,000 for an additional staff member at the Bemidji Public Library, contingent on support from Beltrami County. County auditor JoDee Treat said Monday they are just beginning the budget process, and commissioners have not yet given approval for funding that position. She added the county's potential contribution has not been determined.

Eischens also suggested earmarking $20,000 for a possible increase in the city's contribution to the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board, in case it and Northern Township are the only local government units left. A mediation agreement signed by Bemidji Township board supervisors and city councilors in May would allow the township to leave the planning and zoning board, as well as the annexation agreement.

The police department will continue to receive money from the state to investigate auto thefts. The $100,000 grant over the next two years will be enough to cover most of the costs associated with employing an auto theft investigator.

With those and other expenses, the council still has about a $11,000 surplus for 2014. At-large Councilor Jim Thompson suggested giving $10,000 to the Friends of Lake Bemidji, who came before the council last month asking for funds to ramp up inspections at boat accesses to battle aquatic invasive species.

"It's pretty important," he said.

Eischens said due to action from the state Legislature, the city's maximum property tax levy for 2014 was reduced by $7,000 or .2 percent. He said the council will set its preliminary levy in September before final approval in December.

Editor's note: Councilor Erickson's comments about her support for beach redevelopment have been clarified from a previous version of this story.

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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