Floyd County supervisors and coalition representatives square off at state panel budget hearing
By Bob Steenson, [email protected]
Representatives of a county group accused the Floyd County Board of Supervisors of failing to meet state requirements regarding posting and maintaining public information on websites and not properly creating and approving the county budget or making the budgeting process clear to the public, during a county budget review hearing held by a state panel Wednesday evening.
The group, the Coalition For Better County Government, also said that the supervisors were planning on improperly using American Rescue Plan Act funds to help pay for increased costs on the county law enforcement center and courthouse update project, and had not properly accounted for how funds were used on the project in the 2022-23 fiscal year budget.
The hearing was held by a panel representing the State Appeal Board, and was called because the Coalition had filed a petition with 274 signatures questioning actions the supervisors had taken on the budget and alleging other improprieties.
In response, representatives of the county said every action the board had taken was properly notified to the public in advance, properly recorded when it took place and was within the duties of the county board to perform.
The Coalition was represented at the hearing by attorney Mike Byrnes of Mason City; Gordon Boge, president of the Coalition; and Scott Heinz, treasurer of the Coalition.
The county was represented by Supervisor Chair Doug Kamm, County Auditor Gloria Carr and Assistant Floyd County Attorney Randall Tilton, although Tilton said he was there “for moral support” and did not speak during the hearing.
Carrie Johnson, a representative of the state Department of Management, was the hearing officer. She said the hearing was informal but would follow a prescribed format, with each side given a certain period of time to present their case, rebut the other side’s arguments, and for public comments.
Each side had also submitted lengthy packets of information to the state panel before the hearing, including statements and exhibits.
About 30 people attended the hearing, plus the four members of the state panel and the representatives of the petitioners and the county.
Byrne began for the petitioners by saying that it is the citizens’ right and responsibility to participate in setting the county budget, but the supervisors “have failed the citizens in their right to be heard and in their right to proceed with working with county officials to make an effective and workable budget.”
“Our primary issue here has been the continuing disarray of the budget process in Floyd County, and the failure of very concise information regarding the budget to county residents,” Byrne said.
One of the group’s points regarding posting information dealt with how that information is posted on the county’s website and on the county auditor’s facebook Page.
“The key concern is that notice posting for public hearing on the budget in state code was violated. We have not had compliance with the requirements that publication be timely and appropriate on the four mediums chosen by the county in this case for pubic notice, which includes two newspapers and two public internet websites,”
Scott Heinz said he had looked for information about the “max tax” public notice online and was unable to find it.
Byrne said they had been informed that items remained on the website for only a certain amount of time and then were automatically deleted, which violated the requirements of the Iowa Code.
Auditor Carr said that important items can be posted on the county website as part of a carousel that draws extra attention to them, then they are deleted later, but information about public notices, resolutions and board minutes are still available on the website on pages designed to maintain those records.
Byrnes in his opening statement had questioned the process the board uses to change resolutions, citing instances where the board rescinded a prior resolution then passed an amended resolution, and asked how a resolution that has been rescinded can be amended.
“It is this type of inconsistency and lack of follow through that is our primary concern in the way the county officials have dealt with the public,” he said.
Carr, in the county’s response, said every action, including any items that were later rescinded or amended, are part of the official record and are on file, available for anyone to look at.
“Permanent records can be found on the Floyd County website in a document index, and old minutes are available on the Board of Supervisors page of the website,” she said.
Byrnes said the county budget is difficult to follow for citizens and the statement is unclear from the published budget which line items increased, how much and how they are justified.
“We have indicated in our protest and petition for appeal that the county be required to identify actually all of their line item increases, because it is their burden to show that those changes are reasonable and appropriate. The failure to make that clear and available to the public prior to this hearing makes it impossible to challenge those items,” Byrnes said.
As was true at a similar budget appeal last year that was filed by the Coalition, much of the disagreement had to do with how money was spent for the county law enforcement project and courthouse updates, which included a new county jail.
The cost of the project has increased from an original architect’s estimate of $13.5 million to more than $18 million.
Kamm said the board will continue to stand by its decision that going ahead with the project even after bids came in much higher than the estimates was the correct decision for the county.
“This project provides for a necessary jail, compliant elevators, ADA bathrooms and overall improvements to the courthouse. American Rescue Plan dollars allow greater enhancements to the 1941 courthouse, a structure we believe is worth investing in,” he said.
Byrnes questioned whether American Rescue Plan Funds could be used to cover cost overruns on a project that started before the pandemic, but Carr said the final rules on how that federal money can be used allow it.
The state panel consisted of Carrie Johnson, the hearing officer, and representatives from the state auditor’s office, state treasurer’s office and the Department of Management.
That group will take the testimony provided Wednesday night at the meeting, statements and exhibits submitted by the county and the Coalition in advance of the meeting, as well as any additional information submitted by either side by May 17, and make a report and a recommendation to the State Appeal Board, which will have the final say in whether any part of the county budget is reduced.
The State Appeal Board consists of State Treasurer Michael L. Fitzgerald, Auditor of State Rob Sand and the director of the Iowa Department of Management Michael Bousselot.
Johnson said the State Appeal Board will likely make its decision at its regular meeting on Monday, June 6, at 1:30 p.m. The meeting will be held in Des Moines, but can also be attended electronically, and information on doing that would be announced before the meeting.