By Marlene Flory, Midland Times
Economic development and gas tax were the main topics discussed at a conversation hosted by Jones County Economic Development at Monticello on Feb. 8. Dusty Embree, JCED executive director, served as the moderator.
Local state legislators invited to take part in the conversation were Senators Dan Zumbach and Tod Bowman and Representatives Lee Hein and Brian Moore.
Embree asked how commercial property taxes would be addressed during the current legislative session. Hein, who serves on the Ways and Means Committee, stated that Governor Terry Branstad does not want to raise the gas tax until there is property tax reform. A bill proposed in the 2012 session did not pass in the Senate.
He mentioned that money for school districts are based on 87 percent allowable growth and 13 percent local property tax. He said that this might be raised to 100 percent allowable growth to reform local property tax. He also said that a broad based property tax is needed.
Zumbach stated that agricultural property tax is based on productivity, and this may be changed from 4 percent to 2 percent.
In a follow up question from the audience, asking about property tax relief to help downtown businesses, Hein stated that the legislature is always open to compromise and will be willing to work on this.
Bowman stated that main street businesses would be helped with a 40 percent tax reduction and there will be ways to reach out to businesses that need this. The proposal will help local telephone companies, apartment investments and similar businesses.
Doug Herman, Monticello City Administrator, commented on Tax Increment Financing (TIF) and listed some of the economic development benefits the city has received from this program. He mentioned the Community Building where the meeting was being held, the Public Safety Building, street improvements and incentives for new businesses.
He commented that unemployment is not an issue in Monticello, and at times it is hard to find employees to hire. Congressmen from other districts expressed envy of this problem. Herman stated that the city needs to continue to find other ways to retain industry and attract new industry.
He recalled the concern when the Monticello hospital closed, but now it is fully utilized with a Senior Center and Four Oaks. He stated that the police and ambulance infrastructure may not be considered economic development, but it is the high quality that makes the city appealing to businesses and new residents.
Embree asked what would happen to these programs if TIF is no longer available. Bowman said that a TIF bill was passed last year to improve reporting of community projects, and that TIF is “not on the burner” this year. He said that investment in small projects seem to give a bigger return. Zumbach acknowledged that TIF is a tool for a community to use.
Kristy Black, Dean of Regional and County Centers, commented on skilled worker shortage, re-training and academies. County and area high school students are involved so that they can see what is available at the Monticello center, and that the workforce is tied to economic development. It is more and more difficult for high schools to keep up with technological needs of the students and it is difficult to hire technical instructors, so that is where the Kirkwood Center provides help. Black explained that the Center is creating programs to enable students to go right to work when they graduate and/or to continue to obtain skills through the Work Force Programs.
Lisa Folken, Director of the Jones Regional Education Center, explained the retraining programs to help adults when they have a need to change jobs. Black stated that when a Monticello industry closed, many workers were retrained and went back into the Jones County workforce.
Hein stated that when he introduces himself as being from Monticello, the return comment usually has something to do with the success of the Kirkwood Center and he described it as a model across the state.
Bowman mentioned a similar program in Maquoketa, through the Clinton Community College, and that a large percentage of Iowa jobs do not need a four-year degree. Zumbach stated that this type of program allows schools to remain in local communities.
Embree asked the legislators their opinion on increasing the Iowa gas tax.
Moore said that he is in favor of the gas tax, and that it is underfunded at this time in the area of repairing and building new roads and bridges. The only tool in place to make these repairs and provide new roads is through the gas tax. The Department of Transportation (DOT) needs to know what funding is available. He said that the legislature is asking for suggestions for other ways to fund the DOT projects.
Bowman is chairman of the Transportation Committee. He said that everyone knows that there is a need and a shortfall. He said that there are only two options, one is to start closing roads and bridges and the second is to start funding to improve them. He said that 20 percent of the gas tax comes from non-Iowa travelers. He said that no one wants to raise taxes and he also said that legislators would listen to all suggestions.
Bowman continued by saying that there are an increasing amount of counties who borrow money to improve roads and bridges. He said that the amount of gas tax collected is not permanent and that hybrid cars will affect the amount in the future.
Hein said that the legislature needs to figure out a solution and needs to look at alternatives.
Zumbach said that he is “not ready to jump on gas tax increase”. He commented on the elaborate rest areas near Ankeny that are being constructed and feels that they are not needed. He continued by saying that the DOT has to prove they are efficient, and he knows that road infrastructure needs to be fixed.
Moore suggested that rest areas should be in the private sector. He said, “we are watch dogs” of DOT funding and mentioned that the legislature took away funding of Iowa maps.
Zumbach said that the legislature has to encourage the DOT to tighten their belts. In answer to an audience question, it was stated that 95 percent of DOT funds go to road and bridge repair and construction and five percent to administration.
Bowman later explained that the DOT Committee is a citizens group that decides on projects. Members are appointed by the Governor and approved by the legislature. He feels that it would be too political if the legislature approved projects.
Discussion on gas tax created a lively audience discussion. One comment was that agriculture creates problems to roads and bridges and that farmers should provide more revenue. Another member of the audience suggested that contractors shoulder some of the burden of high costs. In answer to the suggestion of creating toll roads was that the administration involved would not make them feasible. Also, that Iowa has many alternative roads, so toll roads would not be used. Moore stated that Iowa road infrastructure is set up for a greater population He also gave an example of the great increase in Illinois toll road prices in recent years.
Zumbach mentioned that work on Highways 100 and 30 are in the DOT plans. Bowman explained that there are federal dollars available for improving freight and passenger train infrastructure.
During introductions, Representative Lee Hein stated that he is serving his second term. He is chairman of the Environmental Protection Committee and on the Agriculture, State Government, Ways and Means and Agriculture Natural Resources Budget Committees. He said that sub committee meetings are now looking at removal of straight ticket voting, Iowa tax forms, property tax and funding for school districts.
Senator Dan Zumbach is serving his first term and described the thrill he gets when climbing the stairs and entering the Senate Chamber. He is serving on Agriculture, Transportation and Natural Resource and Environmental Committees.
Representative Brian Moore is vice chairman of the Transportation Committee and serves on the Agriculture, Economic Growth and Ways and Means Committees and on the Transportation, Infrastructure and Capitals Budget Committee.
Senator Tod Bowman is chairman of the Transportation Committee and vice chairman of the Economic Growth Committee. He also serves on the Education, Agriculture and State Government Committees and on the Transportation, Infrastructure Budget Committee.
Rep. Lee Hein
Sen. Brian Moore
Sen. Dan Zumbach
Rep. Tod Bowman