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Tensions high as County Board backs flat levy

Washington County leaders say $1.3 million in proposed spending next year may be eliminated after a divided Washington County Board voted to keep the property tax levy flat in 2011.

"Everything is on the table now," Commissioner Myra Peterson of Cottage Grove said.

Administrators had recommended that the County Board approve a preliminary levy increase of 1.5 percent to help fund county operations next year. While the levy would increase, officials said some property owners actually would see a small decrease in the county portion of their property taxes.

Commissioners last week rejected that proposal and after struggling to agree on a smaller increase, they ultimately voted to set the maximum levy for next year at the amount being collected this year -- $86.8 million. They still could lower the levy, but cannot raise it.

Commissioners Lisa Weik of Woodbury and Bill Pulkrabek of Oakdale said they would not vote for any levy increase. They are up for re-election this year.

Weik said it's an economic issue, not an election-year issue.

"I'm just not comfortable with presenting the people with a tax increase as the economy is continuing to falter," she said of a levy hike.

In addition to the staff-proposed 1.5-percent increase, commissioners on Sept. 14 also rejected a proposal to set the preliminary levy at a 0.4-percent hike. They later settled on no increase.

"It's basically a choice between a conservative budget or a very conservative budget," Pulkrabek said.

Peterson, who also is up for re-election, said she voted for the flat tax levy after it became clear that Weik and Pulkrabek would not budge.

"It's very difficult when you have people who stake out a position to begin with and they're unwilling to compromise," Peterson said.

Commissioner Dennis Hegberg of Forest Lake pushed for the 1.5-percent levy increase, arguing that commissioners could lower it later if they wanted. Until then, he said, there are a number of state and federal budget issues that could affect county finances, so commissioners should give themselves flexibility.

The County Board's vote means that Washington County would collect about $1.3 million less next year than was built into the staff budget proposal, said Deputy County Administrator Molly O'Rourke.

That could mean a revised proposal that includes $1.3 million less in spending for 2011 before the County Board approves a final levy and budget in December. Commissioners and county staff will discuss the budget over the next several weeks.

Those discussions could be tough. Prior to the vote to freeze the preliminary levy, Weik said she wants to make sure that Washington County 4-H still receives county support next year.

Hearing that, Peterson shot back: "We all have sacred cows. If we're going to (a flat levy), everything's on the table."

Later, Weik said she could support a levy freeze and maintain that 4-H should receive funding because the youth organization only is set to get $30,000. "It's a small amount of money," she said, suggesting it even could be funded through reserves.

Commissioner Gary Kriesel of Stillwater voted with Weik, Pulkrabek and Peterson, even after he had criticized Pulkrabek and Weik for proclaiming they would support no levy hike.

Still, Kriesel said he has heard from constituents who are frustrated.

"It's not so much about taxes," he said. "It's, 'reduce your spending.'"