County officials dive into state issues with legislators


All four area state legislators stopped by the Nov. 20 Jones County Supervisor meeting to visit with the board and county department heads. Topics discussed included the mental health region, criminal justice reform, and economic development. Those legislators on hand were Rep. Andy McKean, Rep. Lee Hein, Sen. Carrie Koelker, and Sen. Dan Zumbach. (Photo by Kim Brooks)
Board of Supervisors
By: 
Kim Brooks
Express Editor

     As the Iowa Legislature prepares for a new session after the New Year, Jones County’s area legislators took the time to visit with county officials during their Nov. 20 board meeting.

     The two-hour discussion involved Representatives Andy McKean and Lee Hein, and Senators Dan Zumbach and newly-elected Carrie Koelker. Aside from the board of supervisors, department heads were also in attendance: Sarah Benter (assessor), Sheri Jones (recorder), Amy Picray (treasurer), Brenda Leonard (emergency management), Sheriff Greg Graver, Kristofer Lyons (newly-elected county attorney), and Derek Lumsden (economic development).

Economic development

     McKean, who’s been a champion for rural Iowa, and he plans to encourage the legislature to invest in rural revitalization to keep small towns running.

     “It’s a statewide issue,” said Lumsden. He said small towns want to rebuild their downtowns, and state-funded mechanisms such as the historic tax credit and the Main Street Iowa program can be game changers in terms of funding. Lumsden said those grant programs need to continue to be funded by the state.

     “It gives them a step in the game and finances to do those projects,” continued Lumsden. “We need to give communities those resources now, so they’re in a position in five to 10 years to compete statewide (for tourism).”

     On the jobs front, McKean said the state has more job openings right now than people to fill them.

     “It’s important to attract and keep young people in the state,” he said. “The legislature needs to support quality of life issues to attract people to our state and small communities.”

     McKean said he would also like to see a portion of the state’s workforce housing tax credits dedicated to small/rural communities. “I’d like to see that expanded,” he said.

     Lyons said one way to attract young families to small town is the presence of childcare. He said the cost could be pretty hefty for some to manage. In addition, Lyons said childcare centers are an asset missing locally. “That could kill rural communities,” he said.

     Koelker said childcare and affordable housing were two of the issues she heard from voters while out on the campaign trail.

     “Childcare is a highly regulated industry,” spoke Lyons. “It’s hard to get into.”

     “There are regulations and then there regulations keeping people out,” added McKean.

Criminal justice reform

     Lyons also asked if there was any truth to Gov. Kim Reynolds restoring voting rights to felons. The four legislators said they have not yet heard the Governor’s platform for the in-coming session.

     “It’s a fine balance,” commented McKean. “We also want to make sure the public is protected from those who pose a risk in society.”

     Graver was not afraid to hold back in commenting on the state’s prison sentence system.

     “The state system is a joke with prison time and sentencing,” he said. “We deal with repeat offenders all the time, those who commit violent crimes all the time.”

     Graver said part of the issues stem from the “Chicago influence.

     “We’re dealing with the same thing as Cedar Rapids and Dubuque,” he added.

     Lyons said there needs to be more truth in sentencing. He explained if someone is sentenced to 10 years in prison, they’re more likely to serve three and a half years.

     “You need to get input from sheriffs and county attorneys,” he urged the legislators. “We don’t want to be soft of crime.”

Mental health

     Supervisor Wayne Manternach, who sits on the mental health regional board, said he felt, overall, that the system was working, especially for the East Central Region, that includes Jones County. He said the state’s push for more services is succeeding in the ECR. “Rural counties now have services available, more than we did going into the region,” explained Manternach.

     He said the challenge is dealing with MCOs (managed care organizations) reimbursing mental health providers in a timely fashion.

     “It’s absolutely awful,” he said. “Each MCO has its own coding and billing. There’s a lot of red tape, backlogging and doubling the billing.”

     Manternach asked the state to look into a uniform way for the MCOs to work with the providers “to get people paid.”

     McKean admitted that former Gov. Terry Branstad made a mistake trying to rush mental health reform before leaving office. He said Reynolds has acknowledged the problems.

     “It is really saving the state money?” asked McKean. He said the state auditor’s office is taking a close look at the costs involved.

     Zumbach asked whether the state is using the right tax resource to fund mental health, whether it should be income tax, sales tax, etc. “What’s the appropriate way to fund that?” he asked.

     McKean said it’s worth exploring a 1-cent sales tax increase to help fund the program. However, Manternach said the public would fight even that small of an increase in taxes. “If people see their tax bill go up 1 cent, they will not be happy,” he said.

     “One cent will bring in a lot of money,” added Hein.

     Zumbach said with the increase in the gas tax two years ago, no one bulked at that increase because it was supported by both the Democrats and Republicans. “Both chambers need to be in support,” he cautioned of an increase in tax to support mental health funding.

Emergency management

     Leonard talked about the possibility of creating a tax-free holiday following a natural disaster for people to purchase necessities following a flood or tornado.

     This tax-free incentive would be similar to the tax-free weekend for those shopping for back-to-school supplies.

     Five states in the country already offer tax-free holidays for natural disasters, namely hurricanes.

     “It saves people money,” Leonard said, particularly for building materials and generators.

     McKean said he’d be interested in seeing the potential financial impact a program like this could have on the state’s economy.

     “Local businesses would make money because people would be able to afford these items,” added Leonard. She said she could reach out to other states to get a list of particular items that would be exempt from taxes.

     She also urged the legislators to keep the flood buy-out program in place, allowing government entities to purchase floodplain property and turn it into something useful. In Monticello, the floodplain area was turned into the city’s Baty Disc Golf Course.

 

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