January 30, 2011

Population Shifts, Budget Woes May Bring Consolidation of Local Governments

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Something is amiss in the Adams County Auditor’s Office.

Usually, election time means active citizens will barrage county auditors with filings and petitions to run for office.  But for Nancy Carmichael, the county auditor, it means she has to coax people to stay in their post and fill the ballot.

“There are vacancies that will be chosen by write-ins on only one or two ballots,” she said.

Mark Olive, the chairman of the Adams County Board of Supervisors until recently, agreed.

“We’re drawing names out of a hat,” Olive said in an IowaWatch interview late last year before his term as chairman expired. And if those chosen refuse? “We guilt them into it,” Olive said.

Similar situations are common in rural Iowa. As farms grow larger and need fewer workers, shrinking countryside communities struggle to find enough people to form a government.

Loomis Avenue Bridge on the city limits of Corning, Iowa, which many residents drive over to enter the town. There are remnants of pavement that once coated the rotting wooden platform. Insert picture: A hole in the bridge's platform shows the water below. Source: Alex Schuman

Further urbanization also shrinks tax bases in these areas, making local governments unable to pay for basic services. The upkeep of roads, bridges and sewer systems is becoming increasingly expensive as the price of goods goes up and construction machinery ages.

In Adams County, the Loomis Avenue Bridge on the outskirts of Corning exemplifies the dangerous situation Iowa’s rural infrastructure is in.

“That one’s good compared to [bridges] I’ve got out in the country,” Olive said.

“There are narrow bridges built in the 50s that’s decks are starting to break-up,” said Eldon Rike, Adams and Taylor County engineer.

These local budget woes then work their way up to affect every Iowan as politicians appeal for funds in the straining economy.

“We’re dealing with a horrendous government budget in 2012,” Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds said shortly before she was sworn into office. “Hopefully I can bring both parties together to start a discussion on a holistic solution.”

But every suggested remedy requires a consolidation of services, which some see as a threat to their lifestyle.

Consolidation Seen as Dirty Word

“People get very territorial,” said Reynolds. “I’ve been in government for 19 years, and this has never gotten done.”

Several state and county officials agree that population shifts and their affect on budgets will demand drastic changes in the make-up of governments in low-populated sections of the state.

Consolidation, considered by many to be a dirty word in Iowa politics, is when government entities merge.  County consolidation and countywide consolidation are the two most seriously considered forms of these mergers.

County consolidation would combine multiple low-population counties into a regional government. In countywide consolidation, a county absorbs the power of all cities within its border.  The goal of both is to decrease spending and increase efficiency of services by eliminating unnecessary governments.

“It’s not a new issue,” said Jack Kibbie, president of the Iowa Senate. “People think they get better services by having decisions made closer to home.”

Kibbie said consolidation in some form is inevitable, but highly unlikely to come from the state level.  Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Story County, agreed.

“The state can’t force them together,” Quirmbach said. “Shotgun weddings don’t work too well.”

Quirmbach said the initiative must come from the local level. Otherwise it will lack legitimacy.

County consolidation is too extreme for rural Iowans to accept, and for change to be legitimate, it must come from the lowest level of government, said Olive, the county supervisor in Adams County.

A Local Control Issue

“You need to start from the bottom and work your way up,” he said.

Olive’s opinion is important because Adams County is a likely target for any kind of consolidation test run. With a population just over 4,000, it is Iowa’s smallest county.

“People have got to feel they have some control over their lives,” he said. “With local government they do.”

If state legislators keep their word and do not act from the top, it would narrow the discussion to countywide consolidation. In the current setup in Adams County, each township or village has its own clerk and board of trustees, which is similar to a city council.  A clerk submits financial reports to the state, arranges the mowing of cemeteries and handles snow removal.  The board of trustees helps the clerk and listens to citizens’ grievances.

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A major concern with consolidation is that people in those townships would lose immediate access to officials, resulting in a longer drive-time for basic services.

“They can feel disconnected,” said Carmichael, the Adams County auditor. “I keep hearing from people how grateful they are for local access.”

However, when Olive was asked if clerks are effective, he turned beet red and pursed his lips, as if suppressing a laugh.

Merging Services May Be Answer

County officials already do a substantial amount of work for clerks, according to Carmichael. She knows the work they are suppose to do, because she clerked for Corning and Osceola before becoming auditor.

“There are a lot of the same responsibilities that could be handled by the auditor’s office,” Carmichael said. “I feel like I had as much power as a city clerk as I do as an auditor.”

She and Olive described a reality where the clerks and board of trustee members operate as a façade of localized governance while the county made the real decisions.

“These little towns do it as efficiently as it can be done,” Olive said.

He explained that if a stop sign were broken, a clerk would replace it with his or her own tools. This local, hands-on approach to governance makes consolidation unpopular, he said.

Study Shows Support

However, a 2005 state-financed study of Adams County requested by Mayor Guy Brace of Corning found that 73 percent of the respondents were, “somewhat supportive,” or more of countywide government. Yet little consolidation has been done.

Asked to explain, Olive shrugged his shoulders and said the board of supervisors simply was not interested in taking on certain services the city offered them.

“We aren’t interested in dealing with barking dogs,” he said.

He said the city offered to let the county care for the area airport and handle dog catching, but said he believes laws have to be changed at the state level first before more consolidation can occur.

A cracked sidewalk and street in downtown Corning. City and county residents said they consider the town streets in far better condition than the country roads. Source: Alex Schuman

The study suggested changes in how healthcare is paid, road construction performed and how the county was policed. In the end, it prompted one consolidation – Corning combined its police force with the Adams County Sheriff’s Department.

Brace said he would like to see Corning and Adams County share healthcare coverage and road construction supplies.  However, he does not think eliminating the city government would be beneficial, because the costs of city services would still exist.

“I don’t see the county absorbing the functions of three city governments with the staff they have,” he said.

“I would like to see the state law redone so the cities can be better represented,” he said. “The board of supervisors is more agriculturally oriented and we have different needs.”

He, like Olive, believes some state laws need to be changed to allow further city-county collaboration.

“There are a lot of things we’d like to do, but laws won’t let us,” Brace said.

But some confusion exists over what cost-cutting consolidation measures are allowed under the law.

For example, Brace said Iowa Code disallowed the city and county from storing their road equipment in the same structure. However, Section 28E of the Iowa Code allows for such a deal, along with numerous other arrangements for local governments to cut costs by sharing services.  There are over 13,000 of these agreements between city, county, and private entities across Iowa.

When he learned of the deal’s legality, Brace said he would bring it up in a meeting with Gov. Branstad in January.

Study of Laws Needed

Nevertheless, Lt. Gov. Reynolds believes progress toward some consolidation should begin with an examination of state laws.

“We need to look through the Iowa Code and make sure there’s nothing keeping counties from consolidating,” Reynolds said in the pre-inaugural interview with IowaWatch.

Reynolds also emphasized technology and how websites have been used to consolidate services like driving license renewal.

City councilor Bert Peckham thinks a countywide government would work well for Adams County.  He is concerned about what will happen if city and county officials wait much longer.

“It’s going to be hard to hang on,” he said. “We’re going to get to where we can’t support two governing bodies.”

He put his feelings on solving consolidation succinctly.

“It’s a bitch,” he said.

Peckham, like Brace, wants to ensure Corning and the other small towns will have proper representation.

“There’s a lot of little things,” he said. “People don’t live long enough to tackle them all. We’d need guidance from the state.”

Olive, the county supervisor, said he does not think it is worthwhile to deal with the state.  State officials are becoming increasingly less accessible, according to Olive.

“They’re more of a problem than a solution,” he said.

He says he believes changing the laws will also be tough to accomplish.

State Law Makers Would Cooperate

Iowa Sen. Shawn Hamerlinck, R-Dixon, said the legislators would pass about anything the lower level governments ask them to.  Hamerlinck serves on the local government committee in the senate and describes it as a non-partisan group.

“Any request that’s made—there’s an attempt to honor it,” he said.

Outside of complaints about bureaucratic regulation and politicians with heavy feet that tend to drag, the most persistent argument against consolidation of any kind is the loss of identity.

“One of the things I absolutely love about Iowa is you come here and you have a sense of identity,” Quirmbach, the Democratic state sentator from Story County, said. “That’s typical to Iowa.  There’s huge value to that.”

Olive agreed with Quirmbach.

“People will come back,” Olive said.

American movie theater in downtown Corning, IA. The theatre closed after population left the area and business dwindled. Source: Alex Schuman

Olive spent 15 years in California until he decided to return to Adams County for a more wholesome atmosphere.  He said others have done the same, and he expects the trend to continue.

“Those who live here have been away and made their money,” he said. “You’re never going to keep the young people.  That’s just the nature of the beast.”

Quirmbach, who also moved away and returned to become an economics professor at Iowa State University, said a population shift back toward rural life is highly unlikely.

“It’s been going on for a 160 years,” he said.

State and local officials agree after many years of slowly shifting, Iowa’s system of government may no longer be efficiently serving its citizens.

“I’ve never been afraid of [consolidation] because both state and local government need to improve their service to Iowans,” Reynolds said. “I’m very passionate about playing a major role in this.”

(Alex Schuman is a senior at the University of Iowa majoring in journalism at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication)

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