BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – With deep ties and time in the U.S. Marine Corp and the U.S. Army, ISP employee Jim Steffen wants to bring order and accountability to Lee County.
The 15-year Iowa State Penitentiary correctional officer and father of four is seeking the District 3 Lee County Supervisor seat currently held by Don Hunold. Hunold announced earlier this year that he would not be seeking re-election.
Steffen was born and raised in Lee County and has spent most of his life in uniform, either with the military, the prison, or the Des Moines Township volunteer fire department.
“I read a book about Iwo Jima when I was 12 years old and thought, ‘Wow, those people are really brave people and I’d like to do that.’.”
Steffen said at age 12 he sent in a recruiting card from a magazine and got a letter from a marine major who wrote that the Marines would love to have him, but he’s was too young. Steffen said, even after his house burned in 2007, he still has that letter.
At 17, while a senior at Keokuk High School, he joined the Marines and wanted to be in the infantry and not an officer. His ASVAB scores were high enough that the marines put him in the Personnel Reliability Program where he went on sea duty for two years on the U.S. Carl Vincent protecting nuclear weapons. He did one deployment to Okinawa and spent eight days off the coast of Iran in 1984 waiting for an order that never came to attack Iran.
He was also a member of the 101st Airborne for two years and deployed to Korea for two years in the 2nd Infantry Division. He returned to active duty at 29 and he was as old as his company commander. He left active duty after a foot injury and then in 2006 joined the Army National Guard as a combat engineer. At 41 years of age he had to reclassify and, in 2007, went active duty with National Guard as an administration non-commissioned officer.
He also served as a recruiter before starting at the prison in 2003, but when recruiting standards changed under the Obama Administration, he left recruiting and went full-time at the prison.
Steffen said he decided to run for office after he said he was seeing all these jobs coming into the country from overseas and Lee County wasn’t getting any attention from those companies.
“I wanted to run to improve the economy and saw the rest of the country bringing in all these jobs from China and everything and so I thought, ‘why aren’t we doing that and what’s wrong with what we’re doing’,” Steffen said.
“It’s all tied in together. Realtors are tied in with Board of Supervisors, which is tied within all these other people, and the economic development people. The county is paying them and they weren’t doing the job I thought they should be doing.”
He said things have changed a bit in the workforce since he first thought about running. He said now the county has some good paying jobs, but we don’t have the people with the skills to do the work.
“As we we’ve gone through the campaign, the unemployment rate has dropped and what we’re seeing now is all these factories need workers now. So we need to change tactics. I’d still like to bring in some tech jobs and some of that stuff here because we’re not keeping our children here,” he said. “We’ve been bleeding people for years. I have a son that lives in Cedar Rapids and is a finance director at a car dealership. Maybe we get that dealership to open down here – something like that to bring him back and keep others here.”
He said people don’t believe they’re being heard at the county level.
“People out where I live don’t believe that they get a voice,” Steffen said. “The people I talked to 90% of them don’t even know what the supervisors do. If you don’t know what they are doing or supposed to be doing, who’s keeping track of what they are doing? I plan to bring more transparency to it. No. 1 – they know what they do and what they’re responsible for.”
MENTAL HEALTH/LAW ENFORCEMENT
Steffen said he started at the prison when the Critical Care Unit, which has now been shuttered, was built. He said he’s seen first hand the impact mental health is having on law enforcement and the public in general.
“I started at the prison when they opened the CCU and that was 200 mental patients, but they had criminal records, too. In there we had to balance security and treatment. In there they could be actually violent to staff and each other, plus they had mental health problems. It made me more appreciative of the treatment and the confinement. They closed a lot of the mental health institution years ago and you see it, there are people out here that need help but aren’t getting it. It’s definitely something we need to fix, but how we do it I don’t know,” he said.
Steffen said he thinks the idea of converting the CCU to a for-profit jail under the supervision of the sheriff’s department and Lee County Sheriff Stacy Weber has merit.
“That building was built in 2003 so it’s still pretty new and they thought about making it a jail. This whole thing revolves around that same mental health crisis. The people you’re talking about end up committing crimes and that may be the only place they get help. You could make that a for-profit holding jail and then you could take the proceeds from that and do more things for the county,” he said. “It would be Stacy’s, but it could be run with minimal staff. They made us do the whole thing with four or five people on a shift. You got a pod of 40 and you have one officer on a pod.”
With regard to the county budget, Steffen said he thinks increased spending should be stopped until the county develops accountability among the department heads that submit budgets.
“I think they better stop where they’re at. When they do that they can prioritize. Look at what you have, what do you need, what do you need for your people who are your biggest resource. You have to treat them right,” he said.
He said as a supervisor he’d ask all department heads to plan for a 3% across the board budget cut, and would extend meetings to make sure all county business is being dealt with.
“We need to identify what are real problems, not just jumping at whatever people say. Let’s be more proactive than reactive. A budget is a plan for the next year,” he said.
“I’ve purposely not went to meetings. I didn’t want to get in that drama, but I have read all the minutes. There’s no way you can have a meeting in less than 15 minutes. They’re doing stuff outside. They have to be. If you do even a half hour meeting and an hour workshop, you’re not getting the county’s business done. Unless you’re letting your department heads do their work, but I don’t see that happening.”
ECONOMY (Editor’s Note: Mr. Steffen’s interview was conducted prior to the Lee County Economic Development Group restructuring and eliminating the CEO position)
Steffen said the economic development efforts of the county could be restructured and future efforts need to be evaluated on a yearly basis, including the current makeup of the board to exclude ex-officio supervisors on the board.
“We have to look and see what the results are and they should be doing that yearly,” he said. “From the outside looking in it looks like a racket. Two of the supervisors are on the committee, that’s almost a conflict of interest to me. You’re paying them, why are you on the board? By being on the board you have a vested interest in what they are doing.”
Steffen said his figures show that 75% of the state budget goes to education, but the state has to draw a line somewhere in regards to what you do with the rest of the revenues.
He also said the current conversations about exposing students to vocational programming, instead of always pushing the path of a 4-year degree is a positive step, regionally and nationwide.
“I don’t know if the supervisors do anything with education, but they are in a perfect position to do something with education. They could go to the school districts instead of sitting back and being more reactive,” he said. “They need to promote Science Technology Engineering and Math. We don’t have that now, we have a skills gap and we need to fill it. Not every kids needs to go to college. If you look at the statistics 50% of kids are going to college only 25% of them are graduating. A lot of them that are graduating aren’t getting jobs because then you get into the whole thing of the liberal indoctrination in college. You see it, they’re not teaching them anything, they’re just getting them to take the classes.”
He said Central Lee has a top notch agriculture program and Fort Madison has built a great building trades program.
“We want to keep all these kids here and we need to do more to keep them here.”
The current rumble between the Lee County Conservation District and hunters seems to be a pretty simple thing to Steffen, but he quickly admits that he doesn’t think hunting should be licensed in the state at any level. County duck hunters and the LCCD are at odds over duck blinds and where they can and can’t be placed on county property.
“They’re only talking about what you can do on county property. Not being a duck hunter I don’t know everything about it, but I’ve seen the most recent proposal,” he said. “So they’re telling you can do this and you do this, it seems pretty simple. I grew up on the river so I was used to duck blinds all year. Truthfully, I think they think it’s more of an eyesore issue more than anything. I didn’t see a whole lot in the proposal that was really bad. It was reasoned. What I did see, to me, it didn’t seem like they were restricting a whole lot, and it was common sense stuff.”
“It’s better than the way the state does it, the state just says this is what we’re doing. They were also talking about making changes to deer hunting. Just keep what you got and let it go. I don’t even think you should have to have a hunting license.”
“There’s some kind of dysfunction here,” Steffen said. “Coming from the outside I’ve got ideas, but I can’t say this is the problem or that’s the problem. I want to fix how it works. Like I’ve said, transparency. One example is the all-terrain vehicle thing. The problem is there was like 800 people who wanted to do it, but the rest of the county was against it. But nobody else brought up preemption, which is the county can’t make a law that violates state law. There are seven counties that have done it and they are actually in violation of state law. The vehicle manufacturers even say you can’t ride them on the road.”
“The county shed issue – the back story is that those people want that property. I went to the county and talked to the maintenance people about the shed and they said they still used the shed but the door had fallen off. It comes down to leadership. It comes down to people not doing what they say. I’ll go to the people behind the scenes and find out from the experts.”
“One of the first things I would do is go to department heads and tell them to come up with a 3% across the board cut. Not that we’re going to do it, but that you know what you would have to do if we did. So you’re in charge of the budget, meaning I would want them to prioritize.”
“In leadership, your span of control is four or five people. You have these department heads and you have to make them responsible and accountable and you have to support them. But if they’re not doing the job you need to train them or get rid of them. But the supervisors aren’t using them.”
“I’m going to bring transparency to the county and leadership to the county. I bring experience at running organizations, mostly in the military. They’re going to have to clean up the way they do their budget. It’s a plan. There will be changes to it, but it’s your plan. You have to go to the people that are doing the job first. Find out what they’re doing. They should have an evaluation. They should be saying this is what your job is and this is what you did. Which would trickle down to the people. That’s what we don’t have. Who’s accountable – well who knows. They have to be responsible and accountable. That’s one thing about me, you ask me I’ll tell ya. I don’t care.”