Rental code, ARP funds and city manager review top topics at Bemidji City Council meeting

Following the mayor’s State of the City address, the Bemidji City Council discussed three key topics during its meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 21.

Bemidji City Hall
Bemidji City Hall. Pioneer file photo

BEMIDJI — Tuesday night’s Bemidji City Council meeting featured a busy agenda, starting the evening off with the annual State of the City address given by Mayor Jorge Prince.

In his speech, which highlighted the city’s work and progress over the past year, Prince emphasized both 2022’s successes and the ongoing challenges facing Bemidji as 2023 begins.

“2022 had its share of highs and lows as our community navigated the ebbs and flows of life,” Prince said. “It would be impossible to all the successes nor all the challenges remaining.”

One of the positives Prince brought attention to in his address was the city’s financial condition. Despite the unprecedented inflation over the past year, Bemidji ended the fiscal period with a budget surplus.

“Our city was able to finish with an approximate $150,000 to $180,000 surplus at the end of 2022, despite the unplanned inflationary stresses,” Prince shared.


As for challenges facing the city, Prince highlighted two concerns: the future of Bemidji City Hall and the Bemidji Fire Station, and the retention and recruitment of city employees.

“I believe an even more important issue for our community will be recruitment and retention of personnel,” Prince shared. “(This need) has been very evident in our police and fire departments.”

Prince closed with a statement on embracing progress and change, even through discomfort.

“We’re not perfect and there are challenges in our path, but I’ve learned firsthand that to build a better community we must be open to opportunities and the change they bring,” Prince said. “Remaining in the status quo, though comfortable, very rarely leads to improvement.”

American Rescue Plan funds

Following the mayor’s address, the council moved on to its regular business, which included a discussion on how to use the city’s remaining $1.5 million of funds provided by the American Rescue Plan.

These ARP dollars, originally amounting to $1.7 million, were part of a federal program to help reduce the negative economic impact of COVID-19. So far, the city has spent $207,000 on the restoration of the Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues and on Phase 2 of the Natural Playground in North Country Park.

The remaining funds are required to be spent or have contracts in place by the end of 2024.

During Tuesday’s meeting, the council heard recommendations from staff on their top priorities regarding how the ARP money should be spent.


The first priority was a one-time inflationary adjustment check for city employees, amounting to $2,000 for full-time staff and $500 for part-time staff who work 20 or more hours a week.

The second priority was a pay scale study, to determine how Bemidji compares to similar cities in its compensation for city staff.

This tied back to the mayor’s earlier comments on the recruitment and retention of employees, particularly firefighters and police officers.

Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin shared that the pay range for the city’s police officers is 24% below the average and that several officers have left in pursuit of higher-paying positions in other cities.

Bemidji Fire Chief Justin Sherwood also shared his department’s need for more staff, explaining that the number of career firefighters employed by the city has not increased for more than 20 years.

“Our numbers have been the same since 2000,” Sherwood said. “Our people are getting beat down. They’re run hard and they burn out.”

Council members supported these initiatives and stressed the importance of a long-term solution related to the city’s pay scales.

“We really need to get a handle on what we’re paying,” said Ward 3 Councilor Ron Johnson. “The long-term fix is the most important thing.”


The final priority presented to the council was using the remaining ARP funds for the city’s long list of capital improvement needs, which could include the proposed city hall and fire station project and street reconstruction.

Plans were made for a work session that would allow further discussion.

Rental Code

Another part of Tuesday’s council meeting was the ongoing conversation about updating the city’s rental code.

The council has been working on adopting a new rental code for several months, a process that began after an original draft created by a special committee was presented to councilors in October.

The ordinance experienced several delays, however, and the reading process was ultimately terminated in December to allow for a public listening session that took place last week.

During Tuesday’s meeting, a draft including changes related to public feedback was presented to the council for their input. This included changing occupancy limits so that they’re defined by bedroom square footage, something that had been advocated for during previous meetings.

Some councilors still expressed hesitancy about the draft and shared their concerns that it left some issues unaddressed.

To this concern City Attorney Katie Nolting noted that adjustments can also be made after the ordinance is put into effect.


“Sometimes you have to put it out there,” Nolting said. “We may find something we never thought of in a million years that becomes an issue, and then we need to go back and add it in.”

This perspective was echoed by Ward 4 Councilor Emelie Rivera.

“We aren’t going to know the effectiveness of this ordinance until it’s put into place,” Rivera said.

The council agreed to schedule a work session to examine the draft in more detail and discussed the possibility of planning regular reviews of the ordinance once it’s been passed.

City Manager review

The last item on the agenda was to examine a proposed review process for City Manager Nate Mathews and provide feedback.

This discussion continues a contentious topic that started when At-large Councilor Audrey Thayer proposed scheduling a discussion on Mathews’ continued employment through a surprise addition to the agenda during a meeting in January.

After receiving public pushback and determining that the original wording was inappropriate, the council agreed to hold Mathews’ regular review on March 29 with a process that would be agreed upon by both parties.

Presented to the council on Tuesday was a proposed process from Mathews, who was not present during the meeting due to illness. It included a list of several questions alongside individual meetings with each councilor before a larger group review.


The idea of individual meetings was not favored by some council members, with Prince explaining his personal reasoning.

“I have no issue with most of what’s in here, (but) I also do not favor individual meetings,” Prince said. “The reason for that’s pretty simple for me. The spirit of the City Charter is that we as a group manage our city manager, not individually.”

Thayer, who also did not favor individual meetings, brought up the topic of once again bringing in outside legal counsel. During the last meeting relating to Mathews’ review, the law firm of Flaherty and Hood was brought to provide the council with legal advice.

“We’re all so closely related, in one sense, here,” Thayer said. “It would be helpful to have an outsider review this.”

Nolting emphasized that as the city attorney, she works for the best interest of Bemidji rather than any one individual, but did say that if the council wanted outside legal counsel she would be able to coordinate that.

“I don’t represent Nate Mathews, I don’t represent any of you individually, I represent the city,” Nolting said. “I take my ethics very seriously. I do my best to give you the best legal representation that I can and that it’s unbiased. Do I feel like there’s a conflict and I can’t do it? Absolutely not.”

Thayer did say that before deciding to bring in outside legal counsel, she would like to see the cost. Nolting said she would look into getting a quote from Flaherty and Hood for the council.

Nicole Ronchetti is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on local government and community health.
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