Scott County commissioners are under heavy fire from both directions as they begin to publicly ponder whether to impose a half-cent sales tax for transportation.

“Our ruling class ... never appear to be hurting,” Alexandra Matyja of Prior Lake told a public hearing last week. “Instead, they keep coming up with creative and never-ending ideas for taking away more of our money and spending it on their pet projects, just because they can.”

“Good roads allow businesses to flourish,” said Robert Wagner, of Blakeley Township. “We are fiscally conservative and not fans of grandiose government projects, but roads are for the common good.”

Those sentiments — both of them — are common, Board Chairman Tom Wolf said. His constituent surveys show that the top two concerns are, first, to keep taxes down, and second, to keep roads up.

“That’s our dilemma,” Wolf said.

A recent session on the issue featured a strong showing of both elected officials and business leaders and owners supporting the idea of a tax. That included businesses whose customers could pay stiff sales taxes for large items such as cars and furniture.

“We’re a pretty conservative group,” said Tom Frazier, of Shakopee Chevrolet, speaking for the Shakopee Chamber of Commerce. “There was a lot of back-and-forth about it. But we feel this is the best option, keeping the money under local control. It’s very important to have a vibrant road system.”

Much of the support seemed based in part on the suspicion that if Scott County doesn’t adopt its own tax, it will get shoved into a regionwide sales tax that would siphon off the vast majority of proceeds to other counties.

Opponents, conversely, sometimes voiced the suspicion that a tax depicted as mainly for roads — in the sense that those are the vast majority of proposed projects listed by county officials — could end up being heavily siphoned into public transit instead.

“I don’t know anyone that lives in Scott County that cares about transit, about buses and trains,” said Jeff Schmidt of Belle Plaine Township. “They care about roads. It’s nonsense to say the state has no money for road projects; they choose to spend it on trains.”

The hearing did, though, for the first time run parallel with an online town hall forum that allows people who can’t leave work at 9:30 a.m. for a hearing to weigh in as well.

And that forum yielded an opposite point of view.

“Run the buses on REAL working hours for the people who REALLY work, not those who can make their own hours, and I might support your ½-cent sales tax,” wrote a resident who chose not to reveal his or her name publicly. “As it is, I oppose it, because it doesn’t help the people who can’t afford to drive downtown and HAVE to take the bus on REAL working hours.”

Prior Lake Mayor Ken Hedberg undoubtedly spoke for many civic leaders in making these points:

• Even with reduced growth prospects, the county still expects fairly rapid growth, yet roads are badly congested, a situation that’s not likely to improve. “We don’t have another mechanism for taking care of those needs,” he said.

• The tax will extract money from many of the millions of people who visit the county’s many entertainment attractions, offsetting the dollars that local residents spend in Dakota and other counties, contributing to transit elsewhere.

• The spending would stimulate the construction economy and “improve our quality of life for many years to come,” Hedberg said.

A highly sensitive issue

Commissioners themselves, stepping carefully through this minefield in an election year, stressed that no decision is imminent and that they will take all views into account.

“If we had even five people at our usual meetings, it would change our minds,” said Commissioner Dave Menden. “Maybe that’s why we have them at 9 a.m. when they should be in the evenings.”

Wolf said he’s “torn with the whole thing,” and colleague Jon Ulrich spoke of a need to “let this simmer.”

Bottom line, though, said county highway engineer Mitch Rasmussen in his opening presentation: “Current funding is not enough to meet our needs.”