Metro counties settle on sales-tax plan

  • Article by: LAURIE BLAKE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 12, 2008 - 8:48 PM

State politics trickled into county-level transit discussions Wednesday when metro county commissioners limited the Pawlenty administration's role in choosing new busways and rail lines to be built with county sales taxes.

The $6.6 billion state transportation bill passed by legislators over the veto of Gov. Tim Pawlenty gives counties the power to impose a quarter-cent sales tax to finance new transitways.

At a meeting in St. Paul on Wednesday, commissioners from all seven metro counties made it crystal clear that they don't intend to share much of their new authority with the administration of a governor who attempted to keep them from getting it.

The counties agreed on a power-sharing arrangement for a new joint powers board that would give the Pawlenty-appointed Metropolitan Council just five out of 100 votes. They reserved 95 votes for the counties that decide to impose the quarter-cent sales tax.

If the counties are going to pass the tax, "the counties need to be assured that we have as much say as possible,'' said Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough.

He pointed out that the Met Council under Pawlenty has not advocated transit improvements.

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said Pawlenty vetoed the new taxing authority and the Met Council "didn't lift a finger,'' to create a new revenue stream for transit.

"It's basic political justice,'' McLaughlin said. "People who take the risk should decide how the resources are going to be used for the future.''

In Pawlenty's defense, Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell said "the administration has been very supportive of transit.''

Bell argued that the Met Council should have a bigger vote in selecting new projects because -- as the metro area's transit planning and operating agency -- it is likely to build and operate any new rail lines and busways.

Even without a bigger vote on projects, though, the Met Council has a check on county plans, because the law requires new projects to fit the Met Council's long-range plans.

The county representatives decided that a 63 percent super majority of the joint powers board would be required to select a project for financing. Votes would be divided among participating counties based on population and sales tax receipts.

By that formula, if all counties participate, Hennepin County would have 44.35 votes, followed by Ramsey County with 16.94 votes, Dakota County with 12.42, Anoka County with 9.33, Washington County with 6.33, Scott County with 3.39 and Carver County with 2.24. The final five votes would be the Met Council's.

The distribution of power means more than two counties would have to agree to select a project.

Counties must take individual votes to impose the sales tax. If they impose the tax by April 1, sales tax collection would begin July 1, and the first payment to counties would be made Sept. 10.

If counties impose the tax after April 1 but by July 1, sales tax collection would begin Oct. 1, and those counties would receive their first money on Dec. 10.

Under a provision of the new transportation bill that is unpopular with the counties, approximately the first $30 million raised by the county sales taxes will be skimmed off by the Met Council for a range of transit needs, which include:

• $17 million to cover a Metro Transit bus and rail operating deficit.

• $5.6 million in start-up costs for North Star commuter rail between Minneapolis and Big Lake.

• $2.7 million to operate the Hiawatha light-rail line from January to June 2009.

• $4 million to participate in a federally sponsored congestion-relief experiment.

• $1.1 million to continue until June 2009 the extra Metro Transit bus service started when the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed.

Any counties that do not impose a sales tax now but do so at a later time would be expected to pay a fair share of this $30 million with their initial sales tax receipts, the county representatives decided Wednesday.

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711

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