Anoka, Ramsey counties approve transit sales tax; Carver says 'no'

Tracks
Tracks along the Hiawatha light rail line.
MPR file photo/Art Hughes

But that sales tax didn't really become official until Tuesday morning, when two of the seven Twin Cities metro area counties voted to enact it.

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With those votes, people in Anoka and Ramsey counties will pay a higher sales tax, starting in July.

Carver County Commissioners also met this morning, but voted against the tax.

By the time Ramsey County commissioners voted Tuesday morning to raise the sales tax, it was clear how the vote was going to go.

"If I didn't believe this in my head, my heart and my tummy, I could not vote for it," noted commissioner Janice Rettman. "But I believe this is the right thing to do for the Ramsey County property owners."

"If I didn't believe this in my head, my heart and my tummy, I could not vote for it."

Her argument is that the sales tax will spread the tax burden. Instead of just property taxpayers footing the bill for transit, now everyone who shops in Ramsey County will contribute.

The tax also passed in Anoka County, but not before commissioner Rhonda Sivarajah cast one of two "no" votes.

She said politicians like sales taxes, because people don't notice them as much as property taxes.

"When you don't have to actually write out a check, people forget it's being paid," she said. "This is a hidden tax."

Sivarajah didn't like that supporters have pitched the sales tax as tax relief. If it's really a relief, she said, then the county should lower the property tax by the same amount that the sales tax will generate. But her motion to do that failed.

One place people won't pay the higher sales tax is Carver County, where a 5-0 vote was cast against enacting the tax.

Commissioner Randy Maluchnick said tax increases for any purpose are usually a tough sell, but it's especially hard to sell public transit in such a rural area.

Ramsey County Board
Members of the Ramsey County Board discuss a transit sales tax at Tuesday's meeting. The board voted 6-1 for the tax.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

"The root of Carver County's opinion, I believe, is that we're a roads and bridges county, and we're more pro-funding for roads and bridges than we would be for transit issues."

Carver County could still raise the tax in the future.

The remaining four counties - Hennepin, Dakota, Scott and Washington - will vote next week. Scott commissioners appear ready to reject the tax. Hennepin is the most likely of the remaining counties to approve the tax, while Dakota and Washington are too close to call.

Washington County Board Chair Dennis Hegberg said it will likely be a 3-2 vote, he just doesn't know which side will get the three.

The concern there is that because all the sales tax money gets put into one big pot, smaller counties like Washington might not get back the same portion they put in for transit projects.

Dakota County stands to gain funding for a 16-mile rapid bus line along Cedar Avenue from the Mall of America to Lakeville. That's a project that could cost nearly $150 million to build.

Northstar route
The proposed route for the Northstar commuter rail line, from Minneapolis to St. Cloud, is scheduled to open in 2009. Some costs associated with construction or operations could be paid for with the sales tax.
Image courtesy of Northstar Corridor Development Authority

But even with the incentive of more funds, Commissioner Tom Egan said he has no sense of how the board will vote. In fact, he's still not sure how he'll vote.

"Why should we fall on the sword if other counties that face similar situations were unwilling to?" he asked "It's good to hear that Ramsey county voted in favor of it, and Anoka was a safe bet.

"I think Washington County is a county we're going to be looking at very carefully."

Another issue is that all the counties that do join the sales tax will be part of a new board that will have the sole task of doling out that new money. Because of that, counties that don't raise the tax at the outset won't have representation when that board's rules are drawn out.

Egan said that might persuade him to vote for the higher tax if he's not sure it's worth it for his county.

Tuesday's vote in Anoka County was 5-2, while Ramsey commissioners voted 6-1 for the tax.

Sales taxes will go up July 1 in the counties that approve the tax.

(Reporter Bob Collins contributed to this report)

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