BEMIDJI -- Roughly an hour before President Barack Obama delivered his 2015 State of Union Address on Tuesday, Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht delivered a somewhat smaller-scale State of the City Address inside Bemidji City Hall.
"You can be assured that the state of Bemidji is strong," Albrecht said. "Our community has grown from a sleepy little college town to a vibrant, flourishing regional center."
In her speech, Albrecht covered several initiatives at the Minnesota Legislature that may directly impact Bemidji. The 2015 legislative session is expected to center on transportation, and Albrecht said one piece of legislation introduced as part of a bill earlier this month could assist the city in getting money for crumbling infrastructure.
"Bemidji was chartered in 1896, and like the state and nation, the city's infrastructure is aging," she said. "The city will not be able to fund the street reconstruction projects necessary to help keep property values stable. There is simply not enough money to fix our infrastructure on a timely schedule."
Albrecht pointed to "street improvement districts" as a solution. With the districts, the city could collect money from a zone of people who own property near a street being improved rather than assessing money from homeowners who live directly adjacent to the street.
"The tool could be used to mitigate or eliminate the need for special assessments," Albrecht said. "It would allow cities to perform maintenance and reconstruction on schedule."
Additionally, Albrecht said the city would advocate against allowing off-sale liquor stores to operate on Sundays in Minnesota. The city's two municipal liquor stores generate profits that help prevent higher taxes to residents, Albrecht said.
"Without liquor store profits, property taxes would need to be higher to provide the same level of services," Albrecht said. "The city will join other municipal liquor cities to oppose the expansion of liquor sales on Sunday if a bill is introduced at the Legislature."
Near the end of her speech, Albrecht said the city will continue to support the idea of a 1-percent local sales tax on food, beverages and hotel stays in Bemidji. The "hospitality tax" has been championed by the city for years as a means of subsidizing the city-owned Sanford Center, but the measure has so far failed to gain enough traction to get necessary legislative approval.
However, Albrecht said the hospitality tax would help more fairly spread the burden of city subsidies to the center.
"Implementing a hospitality tax is an opportunity to provide relief for individual property owners while assuring that the Sanford Center is operated and maintained as a community asset for years to come," Albrecht said.
New dehumidifier system for rink
During the regular meeting Tuesday, the council voted 5-2 to approve a contract with Stevens Engineering to design and build a new dehumidifier for the Neilson Reise ice arena, which city staff said has significant condensation problems.
"If we do not do the dehumidification soon, it is going to be challenge to keep our facility up and running," Parks and Recreation Director Marcia Larson told the council. "It's hard on the compressors, it's hard on the staff... it's becoming unmanageable."
The new machine will cost $35,600 in addition to travel reimbursements for Stevens, not to exceed $4,000.
The arena hosts a number of community hockey programs, but council member Michael Meehlhause said the building was essential to figure skating as well. Meehlhause, who provided the initial motion to approve the Stevens proposal, pointed out that the newly adopted official City Mission statement was to provide "fun" to citizens in addition to essential services.
Council member Nancy Erickson, who voted against the proposal, said the dehumidifier was an undue expense and the aging arena would continue to wrack up repair costs for the city.
"We'll be levying for that for... years," she said. "This is just the start of the cost."
Council member Roger Hellquist joined Erickson in voting against the proposal. Meehlhause and Albrecht voted for the contract, as well as council members Reed Olson, Ron Johnson and Dave Larson.
More funds for home improvement in Nymore
The council also discussed an urban renewal plan to help spruce up a portion of the Nymore neighborhood on the south side of Bemidji.
The city plans to partner with the Headwaters Regional Development Commission to offer deferred payment loans to low- and middle-income homeowners in the Nymore area as an incentive to rehabilitate their homes. More than $400,000 is projected to go toward the renewal. HRDC Director Tim Flathers said the group will apply for a grant from the state's Small Cities Development Program to help fund the Nymore project. The grant proposal is due in February, Flathers said.