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Northern Township debates becoming a city

Residents of Northern Township came together during two meetings on Wednesday, Nov. 2, to discuss the potential of incorporating into a city, an idea recently brought forward by the township board.

Northern Town Hall
Northern Town Hall is located at 445 Town Hall Rd. NW north of Bemidji.
Daltyn Lofstrom / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI — Residents of Northern Township met on Wednesday to further discuss the possibility of incorporating the township into a city after the idea was recently brought forward by the township board.

Around 60 people were in attendance at the meeting, one of two held at Northern Town Hall on Wednesday, Nov. 2, which was organized to bring township residents together to learn more about what incorporation would entail. It also aimed to provide an avenue for feedback to the township board on the idea.

“We want to get your feedback,” said Chris Lahn, a member of the Northern Township Board. “We’re all a community, it isn’t just us making this decision.”

Lahn began with an overview of why the board was considering incorporation, centering around a few main points.

“It would really help us control our own future,” Lahn said of the township. “We want to be able to determine how and where we grow.”

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Becoming a city would provide Northern Township with more opportunities for funding through programs that are only available to municipalities, such as Local Government Aid and Municipal State Aid.

Another benefit of incorporation would be the end of further annexation by the city of Bemidji, something that has been a hot topic at previous meetings.

In a joint meeting on Monday, Sept. 26, between the Northern Township Board and the Bemidji City Council, Northern Township presented a formal notice to opt out of the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board.

“If we don’t become a small city, it leaves us wide open (to annexation),” said Mike Kelly, a Northern Township board member. “If we don’t make the effort now, we don’t have to worry about making it 10 years in the future.”

The process would begin, assuming the township residents support it, with a resolution made by the Northern Township Board. After that, the township would ask neighboring municipalities for support and gather the necessary legal and financial documents.

Once preparations have been made, the township’s case would go in front of an administrative law judge, who would decide whether incorporation would continue. If successful, the township would hold elections for a city government and begin writing a city charter.

The entire process would likely take one to two years, and the cost to incorporate would come in at around $50,000, the majority of which would come from legal fees.

“We wouldn’t come to you if we thought (the chances for success) were bad,” Lahn said. “I think that we stand very, very good chances.”

Based on Lahn’s research, Northern Township has a lot of similarities to other townships in the state that have recently become cities. Alongside this, both its population and the types of services the it already provides place Northern Township in a good position to move toward incorporation.

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“We’re already functioning as a city, (and) we’re a big township,” Lahn said. “We would be in the top 20% of cities (by population) in the state.”

Northern Township's future

If incorporation is pursued, Northern Township would naturally experience some changes. However, the board stressed that many of the most important aspects of the township would remain the same.

Most of the changes would be structural, such as the election of a city new government and hiring a handful of employees for city positions.

Northern Township residents also wouldn’t have to worry about taxes increasing exponentially because of incorporation, according to Lahn, who explained that the hope is for taxes to remain in the same range they are currently.

“We’re a small community, we’re not the size of Bemidji,” Lahn said. “We fully expect we’ll stay that community.”

The idea of retaining Northern Township’s rural character was brought up throughout the meeting.

“We’re going to keep things pretty much the same. No one’s looking to make this Bemidji 2.0,” said Gary Barnard, a member of the township board. “We’re not looking to grow that way.”

Of those who attended the meeting, the majority seemed in favor of incorporating. An impromptu and informal vote was held toward the end of the meeting, which saw nearly every individual supporting becoming a city.

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“There’s been a whole lot of people interested enough to attend one of these two meetings, that in itself says a lot,” Barnard said.

While nothing is official at this point, the meeting provided an important opportunity to discuss what Northern Township’s future might look like.

“Nobody has a crystal ball, (but) what happens 10 years down the road if we do nothing?” asked Northern Township resident Nick Thompson. “I applaud the efforts to try and move forward towards becoming a city.”

Related Topics: GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS
Nicole Ronchetti is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on local government and community health.
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