BEMIDJI-The city of Bemidji has one more hurdle to clear before it joins Beltrami County in raising the tobacco buying age to 21.

At its Monday meeting, the Bemidji City Council completed the second of three required readings to update its tobacco ordinance and raise the buying age. Monday's action followed a required 30-day notification period for retailers, initiated by the council's first reading on Jan. 22.

If approved through a third reading March 18, Bemidji would be just the latest on a list of Minnesota government units to raise the buying age for tobacco and tobacco products. So far, 23 other cities and counties in the state have raised the buying age to 21, with the movement referred to as "Tobacco 21."

Beltrami County approved the change last month, with the rule taking effect May 1. The county's ordinance does not include retailers inside Bemidji, though, as the city acts as a separate licensing authority. The city of Bemidji licenses retailers inside its limits, while Beltrami licenses all other sellers in the county, except on American Indian reservations.

During Monday's meeting, the council opened a public hearing before completing second reading. Over the course of the hearing, several medical professionals approached the podium to support the initiative, referencing the health impacts of tobacco use.

There were a few residents who raised concerns about the ordinance, though, arguing the new rule will be hard on those who've recently became addicted after the age of 18.

If the council votes in favor of the ordinance change, it would only relate to purchasing. Possession of tobacco, including electronic and vaping products, will remain legal for those ages 18 to 21.

In her remarks, Ward 5 Council member Nancy Erickson said she was against the measure.

"I see this as government overreach, so I'm going to end up voting against it," Erickson said. "It's not because I don't support the idea of it. But, if we want to talk about an age 21 ordinance, it should be done at the state level. I'm not quite sure how effective it is, either."

"I'm a pro-business guy, but I think the vaping industry, by going after children...they've done this to themselves," Ward 2 Council member Mike Beard said. "It's just wrong in my opinion. I'm convinced there's statistical proof that there will be good that comes from this."

When weighing in, Mayor Rita Albrecht noted how Beltrami County compares health-wise to the rest of the state.

"This county is listed as 86th out of 87 counties for health indicators and health outcomes," Albrecht said. "That means that the people in this county are some of the least healthy of anywhere in the state. I think any kind of small step we can make that will help people make a better choice and a healthier choice is something we should do."

If approved in two weeks, the ordinance could take effect April 22. However, for consistency, city officials have said they may implement it on May 1 to coincide with the county.

Public works projects

Action also was taken Monday on two recommendations from Public Works Director Craig Gray. The first was a $976,300 bid award to Magney Construction of Chanhassen, Minn., for refurbishment of machinery at the city's wastewater treatment plant. The project will replace equipment installed in the mid-1980s, as it has exceeded its useful life.

The project, budgeted in the capital improvement plan with sanitary sewer utility fund dollars, will come to $1.06 million when factoring in design and inspection costs. To keep the facility running as normal, the project will be done over 12 months.

Another bid awarded was to the engineering firm Freeberg and Grund of Bemidji, coming to $13,200. The services are for design work and construction management of a new paved drop-off area by the city's park on Lake Bemidji's South Shore.

The project was also budgeted in the capital improvement plan, with $225,000 set aside for the work from a construction reserve fund. The drop-off site, estimated to cost $200,000, will be located directly north of where Lake Shore Drive Northeast meets Central Avenue.

Work is expected to start after July 4, with construction taking place from mid-July through mid-August. As the site develops, council members said considerations should be made for more parking to be available closer to the park.