County makes right call on LCEDG budget

Budgeting’s tough business.

This is our fourth year digesting city and county budgets to turn around and tell our readership what is happening with their tax dollars.

It’s one of those things that you put your reading glasses on for and prop yourself up in bed and read through at night when you can’t sleep. There are a lot of things that fit that habit at the Pen City Current fun house.

As most know, we have a daughter with some pretty serious medical conditions that take us away frequently. It happened again at the beginning of this week and we were stuck in Iowa City for about three days working with doctors.

But all is well…almost. Another side effect is that sometimes we miss coverage because…well, family first.

One thing we missed was the Lee County Supervisors meeting on Tuesday.

The Lee County Economic Development Group was in the house with an army of board members because there was talk of taking $71,000 out of the county’s current $200,000 annual contribution to the group’s budget.

That’s more than 30%. The supervisors wanted to use the money to add to its contributions to Lee County Emergency Medical Service to make that county budgetary contribution an even $500,000.

With our daughter’s medical condition’s we’ve called Lee County EMS and we know how important that service is. But the biggest impact to that group isn’t going to be the county finding $71,000 somewhere else, which they will.

It’s going to be the state changing the way it reimburses Lee County EMS Director Bill Young’s company for Medicaid patient services. You can go back to our story on that issue at this link: https://www.pencitycurrent.com/2020/01/07/lee-county-ems-asks-county-for-18-funding-increase/

The state doesn’t classify ambulance services as Essential Services, which would change the reimbursement formula. Many counties in the state are struggling with the financial health of those private/public partnerships.

But sludging up the LCEDG’s budget isn’t an answer either. Three of the five supervisors agreed to that. One was missing and Gary Folluo said that county contribution needs to be further reduced. Folluo said the group’s fundraising campaigns are successful enough to allow the county to back off.

We disagree. There has to be a public/private partnership in the LCEDG portfolio. It’s our understanding that potential investors look for that on a checklist of the “good stuff”.

The discussion came on the heels of an announcement from ConAgra that they are going to invest $30 million in the Fort Madison plant and add 91 jobs at a time when we already have more jobs than people who want to fill them.

Why would ConAgra do that? Because they like the partnerships they see and momentum they see. We don’t know this for fact, but one would also think they see value in the programming LCEDG is doing with area students to get them interested in staying right here to go to work – in good paying jobs.

Lee County already produces a quarter of a billion dollars in manufacturing payroll annually. That’s a lot of return on the investment LCEDG makes to hold hands with current business and industry.

A lot of good things are happening with that group and the principles involved have already pared expenses in payroll when Joe Steil was removed and the position wasn’t backfilled. There are things we hear whispers of, but won’t report on because it’s just the right thing to do. Just as I’m positive there are other things in the works that we don’t know about.

There are things working at that state level that could take the sting out of the county’s budget, including possibly paying for all mental health services out of the state’s general fund. That’s another huge nut to crack, but it gives a little room to breathe for supervisors going forward.

Prioritizing is tough business for elected officials and the county’s right up against the state-mandated 2% soft cap. But these two groups need the funding. So does the sheriff, the health department, the roads, the libraries, the conservation department, and everyone else keeping our county viable and growing.

The majority of the board saw fit to keep the LCEDG budget as is for now. It’s the right move. And if the state does do things to ease the pain a little, even though they’re not known for playing nice with local government budgets, that contribution should stay in place.

Hopefully, bills will be brought to the legislature to change ambulance service to an “Essential Service” so Bill and the fine team in place there can stay viable. And Folluo is right when he says the state should get involved in providing ambulances like they do sheriff’s vehicles. That’s huge purchasing power that could save these vital service budgets.

Oh, and I braved the winter to go to Middletown Thursday to cover a Trade Expo at the Armory. Neat stuff there.

Union reps were there talking about the state needing to incentivize contractors to use companies with apprentice workers. If it helps attract people to those fields that’s great, but we can’t forget about the non-union companies like Mohrfeld Electric, Seither and Cherry, Huffman Welding & Mfg, and many others, that help fund our local non-profits, volunteer hours and resources, partner with our local schools, and work closely with our local governments to keep costs down on projects that ultimately keep dollars local … but that’s Beside the Point.

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