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SOUTH SHORE: Council says no to referendum

BEMIDJI-- The Bemidji City Council voted Monday to delay the cleanup of part of Lake Bemidji’s south shore by as much as two years in order to avoid a referendum and a potential tax increase.

The 5-2 vote also cancelled the bid process for hiring a contractor to clean up part of the south shore, which is polluted with byproducts from wood processing plants that used to operate on the site.
Voting for a referendum were council members Ron Johnson and Jim Thompson; voting against were Mayor Rita Albrecht, council members Reed Olson, Michael Meehlhause, Nancy Erickson and Roger Hellquist.

The city still plans to eventually clean up the area, potentially for a public swimming beach to replace the one it sold to developers. Had they voted in favor of the referendum, Bemidji residents would have decided in May whether the city would take out bonds and raise property taxes to gradually pay the bonds off.

Opponents of the referendum said that grant money could be available in the months ahead, which to them was worth delaying the bid process.

“This, I believe, is a regional project,” Albrecht said. “The burden for this project, I don’t think, should fall on the… taxable properties in our community.”

Albrecht said one potential source of grant funding comes from the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, part of the Legacy Amendment. There’s also grants from the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, or LCCMR. Bemidji-area legislators with close ties to both sources have given their support to a potential attempt to get funding,  Albrecht said.

The disadvantage with seeking the grants is it will be months or even years until the city knows if they’ve secured them.

Thompson was strongly in favor of putting the funding question to a referendum. The pollution makes it more difficult to sell nearby city-owned plots, he said.

“We’ve made promises,” he said, referencing a perceived commitment by the city to replace the Nymore beach.

He also said there had been a de facto referendum with a survey conducted in December that showed 51 percent of respondents were in favor of cleaning up both the shore itself and the nearby lakebed even if it meant a property tax increase.

Johnson also was for acting now rather than waiting on potential grant money. The lack of a cleanup is hurting chances of selling or developing the land, he said.

“So far… we’ve struck out up to this point,” he said of prior grant applications. “Now we can try it again, but in two years… the cost of doing this project isn’t getting any cheaper, either.”

City Engineer Craig Gray said prices for contractors would be higher if the City Council waited, but that would be due to natural inflation.

“In all likelihood, your bid prices will be higher two years from now than they are today, just like in all likelihood a loaf of bread is going to be higher a year from now than it is today,” he said.

Gray added there were no engineering advantages to delaying, just financial advantages. It would cost about $10,000 for a new bidding process, he said.

“The worst thing we can do is proceed with bidding and not have a plan in place to fund it,” he said.

Gray said that the council’s decision to wait for the Lessard-Sams grant would mean a full two year’s delay in the project.

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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