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Fire fee fizzles out : Proposal would have charged Bemidji nonprofits for fire service

BEMIDJI — Opposition from local officials and state legislators has snuffed out a plan to fund the proposed Bemidji Area Fire Department through charging a fire protection fee, at least for the time being.

During a Feb. 20 meeting, officials from the Beltrami Board of Commissioners, the Bemidji City Council and the BAFD research committee came to an informal consensus to halt efforts at getting a bill passed in the Minnesota legislature that would allow local governments to charge a fire service fee based on building value rather than relying on property taxes.   

“We’re going to put that on hold for this year,” Bemidji Fire Chief Dave Hoefer said Monday. “We’ll figure out what a good option is to move forward after we do a little more research.”

The BAFD concept, in the works since 2010, would combine the Bemidji Fire Department, which fights fires both in city limits and in rural townships, and the Rural Fire Association, an organization made up of rural townships and cities that provides money and equipment to the BFD.

The controversy stemmed from the fact the proposed fee would apply to both regular property owners and nonprofits, like churches, schools and hospitals. In the months leading up to last Thursday’s meeting, Bemidji city officials expressed support for the fire service fee, saying more than half of the property in the city is non-taxable and it would lower the property taxes landowners pay already. However, county board members took a cooler attitude toward the measure, saying they had been left out of the potential new department’s oversight.  

“It’s taxing county residents and we are not represented,” Commissioner Jim Lucachick said at a meeting in December.

Beltrami County Administrator Kay Mack opposed the fee idea at the Feb. 20 meeting.

“I think the fee discussion is going away,” she said. “Tax exempt properties do not have any capacity to cover the cost of running government.”

She added using building value as a basis for setting the fee would put too much of the financial burden on properties within city limits.

State Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, chairs the senate taxes committee and was ambivalent on the fee at a town hall meeting in Bemidji Feb. 10.  “It’s not a for or an against,” he said of his stance. “(The fee) has to make sense, and has to comply with the Constitution… we can’t be taxing… what would essentially be a property tax onto the nonprofits.”

City Manager John Chattin said although the BAFD plan as a whole wouldn’t change, his fellow research committee members would be looking for alternatives to the fire protection fee.  

“I think it’s obvious that our legislators think we need to look at some different possibilities of making it work,” he said. “I don’t think the concept of the area-wide fire department is going to change at all, we’ve had that for years and years and it’s worked extremely well. This is… looking at how should we be funding our fire department going down the road.”

Hoefer said alternatives to the fee protection plan might be basing it on tax capacity as opposed to building value, charging by square footage or what the building is used for.

The BFD responded to 2,108 calls for service in 2013 including 102 fires, 120 rescues and 377 medical calls. The department’s service area includes 522 square miles and 18 cities and townships.