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|1/9/2013 ||Email this article Print this article |
|County leaders wary of property tax reform push|
By Jeremy Huss
Clinton County officials say past experience makes them leery of the state legislature's plans to reform Iowa's commercial property tax system; meanwhile, they called on legislators to take quick action to address funding shortfalls for mental health services and secondary roads when the legislative session convenes Jan. 14.
The Clinton County Board of Supervisors and other county department heads met Jan. 2 with state senator-elect Rita Hart (D-Wheatland) to discuss their concerns for the upcoming legislative session.
The board previously met in December with state representatives Steve Olson (R-DeWitt) and Mary Wolfe (D-Clinton) for a similar discussion.
At the Jan. 2 meeting, Hart said she will be serving on Senate committees for education, agriculture, economic development, veterans affairs and local government.
"I'm excited about that, and I know I have a lot to learn on those things," she said.
Mental health care
Hart said fixing problems caused by the reorganization of the state's mental health care system will be a top priority.
"It's something, of course, I've been hearing a lot about," she said.
Hart said legislative committees already have started work on mental health issues, but "It's going to take a lot of people at that table to ensure the transition is smooth."
Supervisor Jill Davisson said she was "shocked" to learn Clinton County did not qualify for any transition funds set aside to assist counties who are losing revenue due to new restrictions on the amount they can levy for mental health care.
The reform legislation enacted last year already has forced the county to cut $600,000 from its mental health budget, and another $500,000 in cuts will be required because the transition funding was denied, Davisson said.
Hart said one of the big issues with the reform is a provision encouraging counties to pool mental health tax dollars with other members of their region.
Supervisors Davisson and John Staszewski said counties in this region (Clinton, Jackson, Jones Muscatine and Scott) are reluctant to pool funds because they don't want taxes generated in their own counties to be spent on services in a neighboring county.
"I think the only way our region is going to function is if we have control over our own dollars," Davisson said.
Marcia Christiansen, director of Bridgeview Community Mental Health Center, said Clinton County's loss of funds has resulted in a $465,000 cut to the agency's budget and forced it to begin dipping into reserve funds.
"We're using our reserves. In a few years, that'll be gone. If the county cuts us even more, it'll be gone that much sooner," Christiansen said.
Bridgeview provided approximately 33,000 services last year to 4,000 area residents, 75 percent of whom are low-income or elderly, she stated.
"If Bridgeview closes, those people won't have the resources to go to the Quad Cities," Christiansen said.
Davisson said the supervisors want the legislature to give counties the ability to bring the mental health levy back to the rates they had prior to passage of the reform bill.
Twenty-two counties have been forced to reduce their mental health levies due to the legislation, she said.
Christiansen said Bridgeview has had difficulties recruiting psychiatrists and is beginning the process again after learning its current psychiatrist will leave at the end of January.
"Why would you come (as a psychiatrist) to the instability that is being created in the state of Iowa?" Davisson asked.
"It's kind of a domino thing. When you don't have a community mental health center, things just go down, down, down," she said.
Davisson said the legislature shouldn't treat all counties the same in regard to mental health care because they all face different issues.
Hart said the key to fixing the situation is to create a mental health care system that is flexible enough for all counties to use.
Property tax reform
Staszewski said property tax relief is a big concern for the county and asked if the legislature will make a commitment to provide funding to make up for the loss of revenue from reduced commercial property taxes.
Staszewski said he doesn't trust promises from state leaders who say they'll backfill funding to counties for lost tax dollars.
County assessor Rollie Ehm said similar promises were made when the state's machinery and equipment tax was eliminated in the 1980s.
The state promised to replace lost tax revenues but stopped fully funding the program after three years and eliminated it entirely in the 1990s.
"That's always just a really, really scary part with the commercial property tax," Ehm said.
Gas tax increase
Increasing the gas tax to fund road and bridge projects is another major county concern.
"That's a critical issue for us. For all the counties," Staszewski said.
County engineer Todd Kinney said a 10-cent increase in the gas tax would result in an additional $630,000 in direct funding to secondary roads in Clinton County, not including farm-to-market funds that are managed separately by the state and transferred to counties.
Hart said she wants to ensure roads and bridges are safe but also is concerned about the impact of a gas tax increase on drivers.
"I just think we need to be very practical about that," she said.
Kinney said an increase is needed to make up for inflation since the tax was last raised in 1989.
"Basically, we're just trying to recoup the buying power we had in 1989," he said.
Kinney also said he'd like to see a funding mechanism that adjusts the gas tax annually based on inflation.
Asked about any concerns related to election laws, auditor Eric Van Lancker said voter ID legislation is certain to be a topic of debate.
Davisson said she wouldn't have a problem presenting ID in order to vote, but Van Lancker said he opposes the legislation because some segments of the population do have difficulties obtaining ID and would be disenfranchised.
"There's a certain group of people who don't have those resources, but they still have a right to vote," he said.