The forest through the trees.
It’s an old idiom that says we're not seeing what’s right in front of our face because… well, it’s right in front of our face. It’s hidden by its very essence. Really kind of beautiful if you let it sink in.
The reason I bring it up is that I received nothing less than 20 phone calls and messages this week to look into the county tax rate hike that everyone got on their tax statement this week.
The statements were mailed out by a contracted provider who, for some reason, thought it would be a good idea to list everyone’s tax bill in the mailer window. Now, in theory, only everyone who handled that piece of mail could see how much my Aunt Phyllis was paying in taxes and determine the value of her home.
I reference my Aunt Phyllis because I think more people know her than me. Her last name is Anderson and her late husband Leonard was a long-time member and former president of Fort Madison Kiwanis. We lost him a few years back.
Those who know Phyllis would say she’s as lovable as you’ll find, fiercely devoted to her family, and we adore her.
But she doesn’t swear. When she got her bill…she swore. It came across as a little charming to me and I smiled when I read her post on Facebook with little symbols to hide the profanity, but typing it anyway.
I just thought she was another person upset by her tax bill but that wasn't it. She was mad that the amount of her bill was displayed for all the U.S. postal service to see. A quick message to Lee County Auditor Denise Fraise revealed that the county used a service provider to save money and resources compared to doing the printing and envelope stuffing in house. But they didn’t know the plastic window would be so big as to reveal personal information.
That’s probably not going to happen again, according to county officials.
So let’s get to the point of this…the forest through the trees. The 31% hike in the overall county tax levy rate.
I sat with a long-time Fort Madison resident in the sauna of Bracewell Stadium Friday night and we chatted about the rate increase. This guy, whose family has been in Fort Madison for generations, said what used to be a bedroom community has now transitioned into an older generation that hates to pay for development and improvement. He said he was okay paying the increase because it was helping us get to where we should already be.
He’s not wrong. How many referendums have we voted down? (I checked ‘referendums’ for a plural tense. It’s correct because the latin plural ‘referenda’ is now defunct... and a little pretentious it would seem.)
Lee County Supervisor Garry Seyb issued a statement in his own opinion, and not reflective of the board as whole, outlining how the county got into a position to set such a marked increase in the county rate.
He did a good job showing mean averages over the past 10 years and that the county had not been moving the rate incrementally. He painted a picture of the obstacles the county has had to navigate over the past two years that have added substantial pressure to department head budgets.
A county-owned ambulance service and its protracted billing process, which has been rectified. A closed hospital; an IT department that was staggeringly behind in security; wages that had not kept pace with economic indicators; a failure to incrementally raise the levy to keep pace with inflationary pressures.
County Budget Director Cindy Renstrom kind of fell on the sword a bit on several occasions when she said the levy should have been raised several years ago when the ambulance service was purchased to save it from collapsing. But the board, as is the case with any elected body, always leaned toward avoiding substantial levy increases to keep voters happy.
Those boards will say they are being good stewards of taxpayer money. I hear that phrase a lot.
But being a good steward also means making sure your funds are healthy. We can’t invest in ourselves if we don’t have money set aside to do that.
We can’t be players on the economic development front if we don’t have funds to use as incentives, or build needed infrastructure, matching funds for grants, and dealing with emergencies such as flooding, disasters, or a hospital giving 30-days’ notice and shutting down operations.
It’s harder to replace bridges, grate roads, replace vehicles and law enforcement equipment if we're not good stewards of the money..
I don’t think there is a single person who would disagree that costs are going up everywhere. You can’t even think about building something without adding about 30% to the FINAL engineer estimate, which would already include an inflationary factor.
So it escapes me that people think the county or city, Fort Madison and Keokuk also had substantial increases this year, should run static. Running without a levy increase typically will result in additional funds anyway because assessments usually increase year over year, generating proportionately more funds. But when the levy rate goes down, which it did about half of the last ten years, as well as decreasing over that 10-year period, you’re setting yourself up for disaster.
I don’t have an economics degree and math is not my strong suit. Let’s just stipulate that right now. But facing increasing costs without balancing the factors of revenue generation only makes sense if assessments go up to the point to eat up balance the inflationary pressure. That didn’t happen according to Seyb. We got behind in wages, in technology, in equipment, in improvements, and now it’s time to calibrate.
That’s what’s happening. A realistic look took place over the past 18 months at the condition of the county’s general fund. Supervisor Matt Pflug sounded the warning bell on several occasions about the deteriorating state of the general fund. Former Fort Madison City Manager David Varley was sounding the bell a bit earlier for Fort Madison’s general fund, which he said was in peril.
Calibration in the way of cuts and, now, levy increases, took place as a course correction. The county is now going through a course correction, as well. Most of us would agree that we’d rather see incremental increases rather than a 30 to 40% increase all at one time. But either way, I think Seyb is trying to show we should be where we are. This board just has to take the blame for it.
Math lesson over.
Here’s how we see it.
A calibration was clearly needed because of our insistence on keeping property taxes low. We understand that’s part of economic development, too. Companies won’t move where they think they are being crushed by taxes, but they also want quality of life and a solid employee base, good roads, parks, and schools. Look where development is occurring in this state and the cost of living there.
Hate it or not, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society. It's etched above the entrance to the IRS headquarters in Washington D.C. We are a tax-and-spend society. Should it go unchecked? Absolutely not. The system is set up so we can check it. But it also shouldn’t go neglected either. And that, according to Seyb anyway, appears to have been happening.
It's not like the county's budget woes haven't been being reported on. There are several news outlets, including this one, that have been following the budget woes of the county and publishing them for years. Very unfortunately, that may actually be Beside the Point.
Chuck Vandenberg is editor and co-owner of Pen City Current and can be reached at Charles.V@PenCityCurrent.com.
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