Peterson, Lehrke diverge on rail, 4-H fundingCommuter rail, 4-H topics at Thursday night debate
Disagreements on future commuter rail in south Washington County and funding for 4-H programs were highlighted during Thursday's debate between Washington County Commissioner Myra Peterson and Autumn Lehrke, her challenger for the board’s District 4 seat.
The pair of candidates was part of a Washington County Board of Commissioners candidate debate at Woodbury City Hall that also featured candidates from districts 2 and 5, representing areas as far north as Oakdale.
Both Peterson, 71, on the Board since 1993, and Lehrke, 28, a newcomer to local politics and county government, have focused on the huge difference in experience in Stillwater, with each positing the disparity benefited them.
On Thursday, they painted sharp differences on two issues that have consumed county officials: the planning for future passenger rail service through the county's southern quarter and the future of Washington County's support for 4-H, which lost most of its funding last year.
Now may not be the time to invest heavily — in time nor funding — in securing high-speed and commuter rail through the area, Lehrke said, saying most won’t ride commuter rail to jobs in the core of the Twin Cities metro while “everyone will pay for it.”
The vision for high-speed and commuter rail through the area — linking south Washington County to downtown St. Paul and the Twin Cities to Chicago via train — “is astonishing,” Lehrke said. But with the economy still slowly recovering, and federal dollars for the project not yet guaranteed, she said, "to me, that sounds like it’s not a great idea right now."
Peterson, on the other hand, has been a tireless proponent of the plan, leading the county’s involvement in the Red Rock Corridor Commission that has planned for the rail line, and has championed its potential benefits.
Investing in rail now, she repeated during Thursday’s debate, would have a three-for-one payoff, benefiting a future commuter rail line, potential high-speed rail and existing freight rail.
“It will give us an immediate relationship with our sister areas,” Peterson said.
The pair also disagreed on what the county’s role should be in funding 4-H youth programs in Washington County.
In the face of mounting budget challenges and disappearing state aid, County Commissioners last year voted to discontinue funding to the program, offering $30,000 in what the board called “bridge funding” to help Washington County 4-H become self-sufficient.
The Washington County Historical Society and the Washington County Fair are two organizations that became self-supporting when county funding was cut off, Peterson said.
With 4-H membership falling to around 500, well below that of some surrounding counties, funding 4-H — which she called “a great program” — at former levels doesn’t make sense, Peterson said.
“Sometimes organizations need a little hit to jump-start themselves,” she said, though those involved in 4-H have said in the past that the lack of county support could cripple the program in Washington County.
Lehrke said on Thursday she supported continued funding for 4-H. Her stance followed earlier statements that the county needed to “find efficiencies” in its budget.
“The 4-Hers aren’t asking for much,” she said. “Kids involved in the program are too busy trying to fundraise to reap all the benefits of 4-H involvement,” she said. Supporting the program is the county’s responsibility, she intimated, saying its charter required it to fund such programs.
Peterson and Lehrke are set to debate again Monday during a League of Women Voters forum at Woodbury City Hall.