A north metro watershed district’s 44 percent levy hike is making waves in Anoka County.

The Coon Creek Watershed District board, which rents office space in Blaine, raised its annual levy from $2.1 million to $3 million for 2016 to pay for a new headquarters still in the early planning stages.

But Ham Lake Mayor Mike Van Kirk says the steep tax hike, for a yet-to-be designed building at a yet-to-be determined location, amounts to a “slush fund.”

From the perspective of watershed district officials, the increase will cost the approximately 62,500 households in the district the equivalent of a cup of coffee a year and will advance their mission of flood prevention and protecting one of the region’s most valuable resources: water.

“In an age when people are looking for less government and smaller government, the water management business is a growing industry,” said Tim Kelly, the district’s director. “People want higher degrees of certainty when it comes to soil and water quality … It involves people with special skills and those come at a cost.”

The board’s five members are nominated by leaders from the district’s seven cities, encompassing most of Anoka County, and approved by the County Board. Much of what the watershed district does — preventing flooding, monitoring water quality and reining in pollution — is federally and state mandated. It’s also about training city and county public works staffers (who salt and sand roads and mow lawns) in technological changes and practices that protect water quality.

Van Kirk said he respects the watershed district’s mission but called its plan irresponsible.

“It’s not common practice to levy millions of dollars of blue sky for a building we don’t even have a concept drawing for,” he said. “None of us oppose the watershed district having its own building. But there are 6½ employees and two pickups, and they want a 10,000-square-foot building and a multimillion-dollar budget?

“It doesn’t make any sense to me. There is someone that wants to build themselves a watershed shrine.”

Under pressure from Ham Lake and some Anoka County commissioners, the watershed board held a special meeting in late December to discuss rescinding the increase. But it ultimately stuck with the 44 percent levy increase.

Anoka County long has taken pride in practicing a low-tax, small-government ethic. The County Board has cut the levy for three of the past five years. Anoka County Commissioner Robyn West is critical of the watershed’s plan even if the amount paid by each household is small.

“I just don’t agree with putting the cart before the horse,” she said. “They need to go through the process and look for the most practical and financially responsible way to find offices for themselves.”

The watershed district falls into the “other” category on property tax statements, so most folks have no idea exactly what they’re paying for it. Most households will pay between $10 and $15 a year, and residents can see and feel the results of the watershed’s work every time they turn on the faucet, said district Board Member Scott Bromley.

‘Least costly option’

“The county is redoing the courthouse for $8 million … How many people have taken showers today? How many people have been in the courthouse in the last five years?” Bromley said. “We are putting all this money into criminals but we can’t make sure we have good water?”

“The least costly option is prevention. Once a water resource goes south the cost of bringing it back … is five to 10 times,” Kelly said.

Bromley, a longtime Anoka County businessman, said board members spent several years touring other watershed district headquarters and exploring options for when their lease expires in 2017. He said that owning is the best option, and that a cash transaction rather than financing will save taxpayers money.

Van Kirk said he wants to make sure there’s adequate oversight for the building plan. He wants to sit on a building committee and get assurances from the watershed district board that it will return the levy to $2 million next year.

“I want to find a solution that saves face for everyone including myself because I was asleep at the wheel,” Van Kirk said. “They got their million dollars. We should be able to get something done with that and roll the levy back.”