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Levies, liquor, lawsuit headline 2014 Bemidji State of the City address

Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht gives her State of the City speech before the City Council meeting Tuesday at City Hall. (Zach Kayser | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- The annexation lawsuit facing the city of Bemidji, municipal liquor stores and the lack of a city levy increase all turned up in Mayor Rita Albrecht’s 2014 State of the City Address on Tuesday.

Resolving the lawsuit was in Albrecht’s list of challenges ahead for the city, which also included developing the south shore of Lake Bemidji, rallying support for another try at a hospitality tax to help fund the Sanford Center and fundraising for the Save the Carnegie campaign.

But Albrecht kicked off the speech on a positive note by emphasizing the fact the city didn’t have to increase its property tax levy this year, largely due to an increase in state aid. Albrecht thanked the League of Minnesota Cities and the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities for their lobbying efforts in the Legislature.

The city would have had to cut employees or services by 7 percent if the additional aid hadn’t come, she said.

During highlights of what each city department had done in 2013, Albrecht opened with praise of City Finance Director Ron Eischens’ management of the city’s municipal liquor stores.

“Our liquor stores continue to be highly profitable and perform in the top of all municipal stores in the state,” she said.

Albrecht noted the stores make more than $600,000 annually.

“These revenues are used to reduce property taxes, pay for park and trail capital improvements and subsidize street improvement projects,” she said.

When it came time to talk about City Attorney Al Felix’s year, Albrecht couldn’t help but mention how the annexation lawsuit brought by Bemidji Township was pulling him away from normal duty.   

“Unfortunately, much of the city attorney’s valuable time was diverted to the ongoing defense of the Orderly Annexation Agreement and Joint Powers Planning agreements,” she said.

Albrecht also listed “bright spots” for Bemidji over the past year, one of which was born out of the controversy that erupted when she and other city leaders took issue with a MNsure advertising campaign’s TV portrayal of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. After the spots were unveiled last summer, Albrecht and others said the ads, which featured Paul and Babe getting into humorous mishaps, trivialized the two Bemidji icons.

Local media coverage of the comments soon got the attention of media outlets across the country. In Tuesday’s speech, Albrecht said the VisitBemidji tourism board will work together with MNsure to cash in on the attention Bemidji got during the “kerfluffle,” as she called it.

“VisitBemidji is planning a local event coming up in February with Explore Minnesota and MNsure to capitalize on the advertising,” she said.