BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – County officials are leaning toward not putting an emergency services levy in front of tax payers this year to pay for a county-run ambulance service.
Lee County Auditor Denise Fraise told supervisors during a workshop following Tuesday’s regular meeting that an election wasn’t mandatory.
Fraise said she spoke with officials at the Iowa Department of Management who informed her the county could just pay for the service out of the county’s general fund.
What that amounts to is instead of holding a $10,000 special election, or adding the question to the November general election, the county could literally just buy the service and take it over.
The move would likely require the county to go past the 2% revenue growth soft cap put in place by the state in 2019, by surpassing the $3.50/$1,000 maximum allowable general fund tax levy.
To surpass the 2% soft cap on revenue increases, supervisors would need at least 4 of 5 votes in favor of increasing revenues during the next budgeting cycle.
The county has appropriated $900,000 of county funds in the upcoming fiscal year budget to subsidize the operations of Lee County EMS Ambulance, Inc., the county’s only ambulance service.
The county agreed to increase the subsidy earlier this month as part of a 12-month extension of the ambulance services contract with the county.
Lee County EMS Director Bill Young told the county in May they need to look at other options after this year. One of those options was having the county buy out the service and run it as a public ambulance service.
“You would be running into the 2% cap next year and that will have to be approved by four of the five of you,” Fraise said Tuesday. “If you want to do a special election the second week in September, I need to know now. I’m just looking for your opinions here.”
Board Chairman Ron Fedler said since the county is already appropriating money to offset the shortages of the service, the county should just account for that in the general fund, and take over operations.
“We’re already taking money out of that fund for ambulance service. It would be, I would think, the best way to do it to take over the service.”
A bill that passed the state House of Representatives prior to the adjournment last week, would have given counties authority to assess a tax for ambulance service as an essential service defined by the state, but that bill was not called for a vote in the Senate prior to the session ending.
State Rep. Jeff Kurtz (D-Fort Madison) and State Sen. Rich Taylor (D-Mt. Pleasant) both thought the legislature was going to pass the bill.
“All the Senate democrats were asking where it was,” Taylor said.
“I didn’t hear it called for a vote and I just kept thinking it would be called. Then all the Senate Democrats were asking where it was at and what’s going on. The next thing I know we’re adjourned.”
Senate President Charles Schneider (R-W. Des Moines) said he had no role in pulling the bill and deferred comment to Jake Chapman and Jack Whitver. Chapman is the chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee where the bill would have come out of, and Whitver is the Senate Majority Leader who would have had the final say on the billing coming to a full floor vote.
Neither Chapman nor Whitver returned calls or messages on Tuesday.
“I thought it was done deal,” Kurtz said Friday. “I actually let some people know in Lee County that I thought it was done. I honestly don’t know what happened. You’ll have to talk to the Senate about that.”
Taylor said he believes another bill will be introduced next year and if either the House or the Senate gets flipped to Democrat control, the bill will get passed.
County Budget Director Cindy Renstrom said there would be extra publications and hearings that will be required if the county wants to forego the election and increase property taxes over the state caps.
Supervisor Matt Pflug said an election would be rolling the dice.
“You’re not sure how taxpayers would react to that. The disappointing piece is that the people in Des Moines don’t consider this an essential service.”
Fedler said the county had to move in a direction that is best for all county residents.
“Just like any other decision, people agree with us and people disagree with us. I try to do what I feel is best for the entire county and that’s all we can do,” Fedler said.
Supervisor Gary Folluo said he still believed the county voters should have a say in the direction the county takes.
Fraise said county staff, including herself, will be meeting with Young Wednesday to get a closer look at the company’s financials, to start getting some figures together on what it will cost the county to run the service.
In other action, the board:
• approved 5-0 to enter an agreement to for watershed protection on Valley Road west of Keokuk near the Des Moines River. The county will pay the $400,000 cost of the rehabilitation but will be reimbursed close to 80% from USDA dollars.
• approved sending letters of support to Southeast Iowa Regional Planning Commission and Southeastern Community College regarding a joint educational center in Lee County.