BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – They’ve been described as the hidden treasures of the county and they handle the purse strings on taxes for more than $770 million in assessed valuation, but what is it be a county trustee in Lee County?
On Thursday, the Iowa State Extension University held a training and education session for the county township trustees and clerks.
The session was sponsored by the Lee County Board of Supervisors and moderated by Shelley Oltmans of the ISU Extension office.
In addition to a lengthy true-false battery of questions, an open forum panel discussion was held with Lee County Attorney Ross Braden, Lee County Auditor Denise Fraise, Lee County Sheriff Stacy Weber, and Lee County Engineer Ben Hull.
Fraise said the positions of township trustee and clerks are not easily filled as people in the townships are reluctant to run for the offices and some who win by write-in decline to serve. However, the room was filled with about 45 trustees and clerks, most of whom had held their positions for several decades.
Fraise said townships control a large amount of the county valuation and, this year particularly, several townships have seen large increases in valuations due to the fertilizer plant and Dakota Access Pipeline valuations seeing substantial increases in 2018.
The IFC valuation went from $6 million in 2017 to $63 million in 2018, and the Dakota Pipeline was assessed for the first time in 2018 at $60 million.
The total amount for township valuations in Lee County went from $625.8 million in 2017 to $770.1 million in 2018, an increase of more than 23%.
Green Bay Township’s valuation increased almost $60 million as the Iowa Fertilizer Plant valuation jumped almost $63 million. But the township gets part of a payment plan reached with IFC in lieu of tax payments, so they don’t yet see the full value of that assessment.
Montrose Township increased $18 million, Franklin Township increased $14.4 million, and Cedar Township increased $12.5 million, all due to the Dakota Access Pipeline assessment coming online in 2018.
“Some of these valuations are huge now, so these people are responsible for a lot of money,” Fraise said. “Some of these people have been doing this for for forty years and for some this was their first training.”
Fraise said trustees and clerks are responsible for managing things like cemeteries and fire protection and handling fence and other property disputes, and are required to do a minimum of three meetings per year.
“Our office keeps pretty close ties with them and they know they can come in or contact us with any questions they have,” she said.
But she said despite the full room at the training session, it’s difficult to get people to run and serve on trustee boards.
“Oh Lord, yes, it’s hard to get people to take these positions. Sometimes when the names are written in and they win, they won’t do it,” Fraise said. “So it’s tough to get them filled.”
Steve Newberry, a Des Moines Township trustee for several decades, said people don’t want the responsibility anymore.
“We don’t get paid for this, it’s a volunteer job and nobody wants to take any responsibility to have anybody hollerin’ atcha,” he said.
“I’ve been told your term expires when you’re dead. I hope that’s not the case.”
Newberry said volunteers are needed in the townships to help with funding and keeping the townships efficient.
“Volunteers is what we need to help in the communities. We need them to help with fundraising because you just can’t tax enough to take care of all this stuff.”
He said one thing hurting the townships’ budgets right now are hunters who are buying up land and putting it into federal reserves where they don’t have to pay taxes on it.
“Then they have five acres of CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) land in the middle of it and they burn that off and then want us to come out and put the fire out,” he said.
Newberry and fellow Des Moines Township trustee Joe Bryant agreed that fire protection was the top priority with township funds. Newberry said the townships don’t like to borrow money because they’re just not confident in how it will get paid back.
Bryant, who’s also been on the township fire department for more than 30 years, said that’s a big drain on county budgets.
“Keeping the fire departments funded and up and running is the biggest priority right now. We have to manage the cost of trucks and fuel, the buildings, you have to keep them up and running and protect the communities. And then you have to make sure all your people are trained,” Bryant said.
He said the work is not hard and the training sessions help keep everyone up to date on changing laws and funding formulas.
“I don’t believe it’s difficult work,” Bryan said. “But with the budgets the way they are and everything getting more expensive, you have to spend your pennies wisely. These meetings are very helpful as laws change and you might pick up something where if you get out in a fence dispute or something, you can use this information.”
Weber said it’s important for his department that trustees have all the information possible to help them mitigate situations of property that regularly arise.
“It really helps our guys when these guys know what they’re doing,” Weber said. “A lot of times, it’s not our jobs to solve the issue like on a fence line. My guys are very reasonable out there and they know what they should and shouldn’t do. I’ll tell deputies to defer those types of things to the township trustees.”
Fraise said the training sessions take place every two years to help newly-elected trustees and clerks understand and capitalize on new information considering the vast square miles and budgets they have to deal with.
“They’re about the best kept secret in the county,” she said.