After five motions and more than an hour of contentious debate, commissioners in Washington County voted 4-1 Tuesday for a zero percent increase in the property tax levy for next year.

Only Dennis Hegberg, the county's longest-serving commissioner, opposed reducing the earlier proposed 1.5 percent increase to nothing at all.

"We're reducing our options too severely," said Hegberg, who warned that the county might find itself in budget trouble later this fall if the state defaults on millions of dollars of money promised for county programs. Hegberg said he agreed with his fellow commissioners, but wanted to delay a reduction until the final tax levy deadline in December when "more information is available."

But Bill Pulkrabek, Lisa Weik and Gary Kriesel said constituents don't want a county tax increase of any amount.

"The best way government can turn this economy around is putting more money in people's pockets," Kriesel said before the final vote.

Myra Peterson paused and bowed her head before voting in favor of no increase. When Weik said she wanted to make sure a $30,000 appropriation would remain intact for 4-H, the youth development program, Peterson countered that "if we're going to do this, nothing's off the table" for future cuts.

In other metro counties, Hennepin also voted for no increase, Ramsey voted for 2.7 percent, Anoka for 1.86 and Dakota for 0.8. Carver voted for a decrease of 1.3 percent from its 2010 levy.

In Washington County, owners of a $250,000 house will see an average reduction of about $25 in the county portion of their tax bill next year, largely due to declining home values.

County managers, however, will have to find hundreds of thousands of dollars in spending cuts or revenue increases to square the 2011 budget with the commissioners' wishes.

Pulkrabek acknowledged that county managers already had cut deeply into their budgets to arrive at the original 1.5 percent proposal.

"It's basically a choice between a conservative budget and a very conservative budget," he said.

Hegberg tried twice to delay the decision but both times his motion died for lack of a second. Another motion to shave next year's levy increase to 0.4 percent failed when Hegberg, Weik and Pulkrabek opposed it.

Pulkrabek's first attempt to secure a zero percent increase stalled when only Weik sided with him. Finally, he got what he wanted after frustration mounted and board members cast their 4-1 vote.

Tuesday's preliminary levy vote is required by law. That means the board can't raise its final levy at the December deadline past zero percent, even if revenue for state programs falls short.

"We don't want to regret this decision," Hegberg told his fellow commissioners.

Kevin Giles • 651-735-3342