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Washington County might pull out of transit tax

Washington County's representatives on a metro-wide transit improvement board have raised concerns in recent weeks on how the board will distribute funds collected from the five contributing counties' respective sales taxes.

Wednesday morning, their collective voice was heard.

The Counties Transportation Improvement Board (CTIB) voted Wednesday to approve resolutions that Washington County commissioners Myra Peterson and Dennis Hegberg believe, at the very least, will allow their county to "buy some time" in negotiating how much of the transit tax pie Washington County will get over the coming years.

But not everyone is buying into all that is promised to Washington County in the resolution, which declares more support for including Washington County in short-term and long-term funding discussions.

Washington County Commissioner Dick Stafford said the he doesn't believe the resolution takes the county's option of pulling out of the transit tax off the table.

"(The resolution) doesn't do anything specific for Washington County," said Stafford, who in the spring cast the "swing" vote in a 3-2 board vote that enacted a quarter-cent sales tax in Washington County that would go toward a five-county joint powers agreement to establish a Counties Transportation Improvement Board. "I said then that we can't get what we need unless we were at the table.

"And so now we're at the table and it's not going our way. But it's not like we're saying I'm a cry baby so I'm going to take my football and go home.' It's more 'my God, they're not even offering half of what we're putting in.'"

The transit tax collected from all five counties (Ramsey, Hennepin, Dakota, Anoka and Washington) is expected to generate $100 million a year for transit improvements.

Washington County commissioners began to express intense frustration after finding out recently that their county would only receive $1 million a year for the next three years.

Commissioners began discussing whether to pull out of the transit tax agreement and, until Wednesday, the same sentiment was expressed by all five commissioners.

Hegberg and Peterson, however, said they remain optimistic, upon approval of the CTIB resolution, that Washington County will be able to work out a more fair distribution.

"As in all things, there's got to be negotiation and we weren't happy with the initial response (by the CTIB)," Peterson said. "But I think we're on our way to finding some sort of compromise so we get our fair share of investment in Washington County and, quite frankly, in the east Metro."

Peterson added the east Metro as a whole has been neglected for too long when it comes to transit improvements.

Hegberg agreed, but acknowledged that until recently Washington County's population growth had trailed the other counties involved in the transit tax agreement.

"We recognize the importance of a regional system and we want to be a part of that," Hegberg said. "We have not invested the same amount of monies that Dakota (and) Anoka counties have in their systems, because, of course, our growth has been in the last five years or before this slow down took place.

"But we think (the resolution means) CTIB is recognizing that we need to have more coming back to our county and transit ways."

But Stafford believes that until Washington County sees numbers more in its favor, the option to pull out of the transit tax is still on the table.

"Pulling out is an option and we're not hiding that," Stafford said. "We're not going to lie to these people. We'll put everything on the table and they've got to recognize some of our problems and find a way to deal with them."