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Street improvements may sideswipe annexation debacle

BEMIDJI — The next round of the annual Bemidji street improvement project may be on the highway to the danger zone.

The 2014 project will focus on the southeast corner of Bemidji, specifically on Lake Avenue from First Street to Roosevelt Road. The area is located on the border of what was annexed from Bemidji Township as part of a 2004 agreement that later sparked a lawsuit from the township. The area from First until Fourth streets is in the precarious position of possibly being up for detachment back to Bemidji Township if the city doesn’t connect it to water and sewer lines. A settlement between the two sides specified that all annexed properties not serviced by city water and sewer lines are eligible for detachment, and the six parcels of land east of Lake Avenue don’t yet have access to a sanitary sewer main. There is a water main nearby but none of the properties are connected to the line.

Following the work session held Monday to discuss the project, city engineer Craig Gray said keeping the annexed properties was not a factor in the choice of Lake Avenue for inclusion in the 2014 street project. Rather, it was the poor condition of the street and lack of a storm sewer that steered the city, he said.

“The north half of it (north of Fourth Street) is falling apart,” he said.

However, Gray’s comments during the work session indicated he thought the annexation fight was still going to rear its head during the project as he anticipated getting an earful from owners of the four parcels of annexed land north of Third Street.

“I imagine we’re going to hear from (them),” Gray said. “I don’t know how well they’re tied in with Bemidji Township, how well they’re tied into the current lawsuit, but if they don’t want to be city-governed to begin with…”

As if that weren’t complex enough, there’s another potential wrinkle: the two southernmost unconnected annexed plots are the same tract of land the Bemidji Fire Department wants to buy for a new Nymore fire station, a purchase that was unanimously approved by the council later Monday. However, Gray said if push came to shove, the city could simply take a sewer main that already extends north from Roosevelt Road to Fourth Street and run a service line to the fire station property.

Heading south of Fourth Street and the future fire station land, Lake Avenue runs into an area known as the “Southeast 40” that was redeveloped in 2005. Although the streets and utilities were improved relatively recently, that portion of Lake Avenue still lacks a storm sewer.  

Council member Nancy Erickson said she frequently gets her ear bent by disgruntled Southeast 40 property owners.

“There’s nobody who I hear complain more about having been pulled into the city when they didn’t want to be to begin within and being assessed right out of their homes,” she said.

Gray also expected some serious pushback from the Southeast 40 property owners.

“There’s going to be three or four… that are just going to scream,” he said. “We’re going to have an interesting public hearing.”

A public hearing has not been scheduled, but likely will take place soon after the new year.

Sanford deficits draw council scrutiny

Council members tackled another controversial subject during its regular meeting held after the work session: the Sanford Center’s ongoing push to get into the black.  

Sanford Center CEO Curtis Webb faced tough questions from council members regarding the 2014 budget, which projects a nearly $350,000 deficit that the city will have to cover. Council member Reed Olson asked if the deficits would continue in coming years.

“Going forward, do you expect to run into as big of deficits as you have been these past years?” he asked. “Do you think there’s a possibility that that deficit will be cut in half anytime in future or will you always be running multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars (in) deficits?”

“I think at this point, the deficit is going down,” Webb responded. “I’d to see it down below $300,000 someday for sure.”

The council unanimously approved the center’s 2014 budget and business plan.

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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