Letter to the Editor

The gathering storm

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Oskaloosa is a long way from Ocheyedan, about 285 miles. But a recent crisis there looms everywhere, as close to my hometown as Fort Dodge, in fact.

The hospital in Mahaska County has closed its inpatient psychiatric care unit. Oskaloosa hospital officials say the geriatric facility is losing hundreds of thousands of dollars each year because after completing treatment, patients age 60 and older are not being accepted by long-term care or other residential facilities. Inpatient psychiatric units have also closed in Creston, Fort Dodge, Iowa Falls, Keokuk and West Union.

What’s more, under orders from Governor Branstad, the state shuttered its psychiatric hospitals in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant.

Iowa’s mental health system suffers from its own case of depression, caused in no small part by Iowa Farm Bureau. Keep reading.

In 1996, Iowa’s 99 counties had 99 mental health programs, including services for people with disabilities. That year, the Iowa Legislature put a cap, or limit, on the property taxes that fund MH services. The property levy then amounted to about $114 million. Three years ago, lawmakers took another step designed to improve services by calling on counties to band together into regions. The charge was not just to improve services but also expand services where and when needed.

Today, MH experts say the regions will fall short at least $17 million next year in order to reach the most vulnerable Iowans, who otherwise will end up in our county jails and state prisons or out on the streets. That $17 million ain’t there, friends, not with the hundreds of millions of dollars already cut from the current budget and next fiscal year’s spending plan. Farm Bureau doesn’t want another $17 million to come from property taxes. But the organization offers no viable alternative. Never has, and in my opinion, never will.

Farm Bureau is also demanding that the MH regions spend down their ending fund balances. When those funds are zeroed out, what then?

With time running out — MH service regions could start imploding within a year — Senate File 504 might be the answer. But the bill needs to be a compromise that first and foremost serves the most important special interest: the mentally ill, Iowans with disabilities and lower-income families and children. But these special people have more than Farm Bureau as a roadblock; Republican leadership lacks "a sense of urgency" to fix the situation, one legislator-in-the-know says.

How strange it is. During a time when rural Iowans are under stress, whether from lack of higher wages or from low commodity prices, the state’s largest “farm” organization is blind to the gathering storm.

Thank you for the honor to be your voice at the state Capitol.

Like other property owners in Senate District 1, my home mail recently included the always-anticipated 2017 Real Estate Assessment Roll from the county assessor, in which it states, “THIS IS NOT A TAX BILL.” 
That makes me feel better! I mention this because some of my Senate colleagues are claiming – in, I guess, a stab at winning votes – that assessors are hiking your taxes by raising the assessed value of your property. Let's shed some light on the property-tax system:

• Assessors are required to value all property except agricultural at “market value." If the assessor doesn’t raise the assessment, the Department of Revenue will, based on sales ratio studies and equalization.

• If the assessed values would be cut in half on all property, people would see the same taxes, as the levy would need to double to come up with the same funds.

• It's no surprise that some folks might even suggest that assessors should be elected. Or like judges, have a retention vote. Be careful what you wish for, I say. Imagine the chaos (we have enough of that already in Washington, D.C.) if every four years you had a new assessor.

• One longtime assessor once told me, "I have never had a taxpayer come in and say, 'You hit my assessment perfectly.'”