In a setting that looked like a night class on city government, Brainerd and Baxter city councils met Thursday and moved forward with a merger study.
Council members and city administrators sat around a U-shaped table in a Central Lakes College classroom. Don Bargen, Deerwood, facilitated the meeting. Brainerd Mayor James Wallin began the night asking members if they could remember what they were doing two years ago on May 24. No one answered.
"Let that set the tone for this evening," Wallin said. "We are not going to look back at anything. We are going to look forward."
At the end of the session the council members agreed by consensus to go back to their respective council chambers and vote to initiate the merger study using the Minnesota Board of Innovation and Cooperation. A representative from the board of cooperation will be asked to make a presentation before another joint meeting of the city councils.
Under the board of cooperation, the study duration is one to two years. The councils determine the size of a local commission that studies a possible consolidation or combination. Approval of a merger goes to a referendum vote.
And matching funds -- up to $10,000 -- exist to assist the study. Brainerd and Baxter previously voted to go ahead with a study and each city placed $10,000 aside for costs.
Estimates for the study, based on state information and earlier studies, range from $12,000 to $15,000. However, there were concerns that a study with detailed information from a professional firm on how a merger could actually be accomplished could cost more.
Other funding options, including money from the Little Falls-based Initiative Foundation, also may be an option.
Thursday's meeting involved the entire Brainerd council and all but one from the Baxter council as Mary Marana was absent. For 90 minutes, both city's council members and city administrators talked about factors that encourage a merger study and barriers to it.
Things encouraging a merger study were possible cost savings, coordination with services and calls from citizens. Barriers were identified as a possible loss of independence and identity, public opinion, study costs and votes in the respective councils.
But Jim Dehen, Brainerd council member, said beyond study costs the list covered barriers to a merger not to the actual study.
"I would try to argue there isn't any barrier," Dehen said. "We were all hired to be CEOs or corporate board members of two large corporations," Dehen said, adding a study is looking at proper fiscal management and gaining information. "... We are just doing the appropriate research here."
Gary Scheeler, Brainerd council member, said he hoped the merger study was not an easy way out for two cities -- Brainerd with resources and Baxter with growth -- instead of "figuring out a way to take care of your own city."
Barb Wells, Baxter council member, said there are citizens who do not want to see a merger happen.
Of barriers, Mark O'Day, Brainerd council member, said: "Maybe it is our own opinions as council members or mayors and not the people we represent."
Several council members agreed that citizen groups who have gone out and actively sought petitions for a merger study are an encouraging factor.
Citizens can initiate a merger study through Minnesota Planning. The petitions for each city must be signed by at least 5 percent of residents who voted for governor in the last general election. Council members from both cities expressed little doubt that there would be enough signatures to move a petition forward.
Darrel Olson, Baxter council member, said if petitioners see a negative for a merger from the study, they may go away.
Even if Brainerd has no growth or small growth and Baxter has explosive growth that is still the equivalent of an average Twin Cities suburb, Dehen said.
He said there is the potential that local government aid from the Legislature could be reduced when representatives look at two neighboring cities with two of everything, particularly as more decision-making is based from metro representatives.
Mark Cross, Baxter council member, said he thought the study was necessary and he concurred with the majority in favor of seeking help from the board of cooperation.
Wells said: "I think we've come this far, we need to proceed with it. My own feelings about everything aside ... I'd like the citizens I represent to feel they have a voice in it so I am in favor of a referendum."
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