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Amid citizen complaints, Washington County commissioners defend five-year spending plan

Washington County officials heard criticism from the public last week during a hearing announcing a five-year plan for spending on capital and road improvement projects.

Matt Behning said in the seven years he’s lived in the county, his taxes have been increasing about 2 percent on average every year, but the county’s debt has grown from $54 to $167 million.

“First thing you think of the roads must be getting massive improvements,” he said.

But he added the opposite is true and there seems to be a downward trend in road conditions throughout the county. Landscaping on roads like Woodbury and Radio drives also seems “a little excessive.”

The Washington County Board has reviewed the five-year Capital Improvement Plan at previous workshops and meetings and was scheduled to approve the document following the Dec. 17 public hearing.

The hearing drew comments from one other resident in addition to Behning who went on to say that county spending on capital projects like the proposed $17 million public works building in Stillwater are unnecessary expenses.

“The real culprit seems to be government building expenses,” he said.

Behning criticized the county’s involvement in future transit projects including the Gateway and Red Rock corridors which are being studied by committees who will recommend feasible options.

“I don’t like this trend and respectfully ask ‘please stop,’” he said. “Pay for these projects before adding to the debt.”

Lake St. Croix Beach resident David Pergande encouraged county officials to consider adding buses instead of taking the risk with new infrastructure and rail lines that may not produce the return on investment planners are hoping to gain.

Washington County commissioners justified the county’s spending plan and were all in agreement that future projects aren’t listed in the plan as a result of “knee-jerk reactions.”

Commissioner Gary Kriesel,  said although the board is in agreement and supportive of future transit projects, the results will ultimately come from various studies currently under way.

Kriesel said the $17 million budgeted to renovate the public works shop is crucial after two fires broke out in the walls due to electrical issues. Also, workers do not have a proper plumbing system and the building no longer is energy efficient.

“We just don’t look at where can we spend the money and where can we put a smile,” he said, adding, “We have a burden to approve this stuff and we take that burden very seriously.”

Commissioner Autumn Lehrke, who represents south Washington County, said the county continues to work on improving pavement conditions with long-term planning as she explained why the county borrows versus paying cash for certain projects.

“The people that are using these roads for the next 10 years should be paying for them,” she said. “That’s why we bond.”

Commissioner Fran Miron of Hugo said the county has always been prudent with its finances and explained that cities play a large role in road design.

He added that since the state allowed the county to opt in the “wheelage tax” which allows the county to collect $10 from tab renewals starting in January, the extra $1 million in revenue will go toward road improvements.

“I think we’ll start to see the downtrend reverse,” he said.

Board chair and Woodbury representative Lisa Weik pointed out recent survey results that show local residents’ satisfaction with the quality of life in the county.

The discussion concluded with the County Board unanimously approving the CIP document, the 2014 budget with a $96.7 million levy and a 0.66 percent increase.

Riham Feshir
Riham Feshir is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. Her coverage includes Woodbury City Hall, Washington County Board of Commissioners and business news.  Follow Riham on Twitter @RihamFeshir for the latest updates.