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For the first time, Hennepin and Ramsey counties on Tuesday both approved a wheelage tax of $10 per vehicle for road maintenance.

The Hennepin County Board voted 4-3 for the tax over the pointed objections of Chairman Mike Opat and Commissioners Randy Johnson and Jeff Johnson. Commissioners Peter McLaughlin, Gail Dorfman, Jan Callison and Linda Higgins voted for the surcharge, which will be tacked on to annual vehicle registration fees beginning Jan. 1. Hennepin County expects the tax to bring in $8.6 million.

The Ramsey County Board voted 5-2 to impose the tax, with similar arguments on both sides. Ramsey County will collect $3.8 million annually.

Hennepin County maintains 550 road miles, compared with 295 in Ramsey County.

While other metro-area counties already had a $5 wheelage tax, Hennepin and Ramsey counties never levied one even though they had legislative authority to do so.

Anoka County has the $5 tax, but officials there say they intend to repeal it rather than allow it to double as made possible during the recent legislative session. Washington County has taken no action to change its $5 wheelage tax. Carver, Scott and Dakota counties have indicated they will let their tax increase. Outside the metro area, the state's other 80 counties didn't have the tax, but now can levy it — many already have voted to do so.

Pros and cons for Hennepin

Wheelage tax supporters on both the Ramsey and Hennepin county boards say the money will go toward needed repairs.

Opponents argued that the boards should do a better job of prioritizing property tax revenues.

Hennepin County's Callison voted against a $5-per-vehicle tax two years ago when the board rejected it, but she voted "yes" Tuesday, calling $10 a "relatively modest increase."

McLaughlin said the money will go for road preservation, with a goal of having 67 percent of county roads in good or better condition in five years.

Another use, he said, is efficiency — synchronizing intersection lights, for instance — as well as enhancing safety via new striping and guardrails.

Modernization would be the fourth use for the revenue, achieved by putting in more energy-efficient lights and signals.

Opat, however, wasn't pleased. "I'm disappointed that we feel we need to go to this extent just because it's available," he said, adding that the tax is the most regressive he has seen the board approve. "The poor pay more."

Jeff Johnson said that he believes that instead of making better roads a priority, the county is spending money on sidewalks, the Lowry Bridge and what he called the new "Taj Mahal" interchange project near Target Field.

"It's not that we don't have enough money, but we're choosing to spend it elsewhere," he said.

The views in Ramsey County

In Ramsey County, Commissioner Jim McDonough said: "At least for the time being, we need this infusion of new dollars."

Commissioners Victoria Reinhardt, Rafael Ortega, Toni Carter and Mary Jo McGuire also voted yes.

Opposing Commissioner Blake Huffman said: "That's a lot of money that we're adding onto the backs of our constituents."

And Commissioner Janice Rettman said she doesn't doubt that roads need work, but equated the tax to a 1.5 percent levy increase on a $160,000 home.

"There is also this angst that once it's in, it never goes away," Rettman said of the tax. • 651-925-5035 • 612-673-1747