For years, county officials have warned it could happen.
On Monday, it did.
The Muscatine County Board of Supervisors voted to leave the five-county consortium that plays a vital role in providing help to people with disabilities and mental health problems in the Quad-City region.
Six years ago, Scott, Jackson, Muscatine, Clinton and Cedar counties banded together to meet the state’s requirement that counties work collaboratively to provide mental health services.
Almost from the beginning, there were problems. And most stem from this flaw: The Legislature doesn’t trust local governments to figure out their own budgets.
Thus, you have state-imposed caps on how much revenues counties can raise and restrictions on how much they can keep in surplus cash. At the same time, the Legislature has imposed demands for greater services.
We’re told the impact of Muscatine County’s exit still is being figured. But already, the Eastern Iowa Mental Health and Disability Services Region had been planning to make $1 million in cuts. We can’t imagine going from a five-county to a four-county region will help the situation. After all, Muscatine County supervisors have complained they’re subsidizing the region, particularly Scott County.
There has been disagreement over the years about how the region is financed and who is subsidizing whom. But these arguments pale in comparison to the biggest problem that the region faces: The state is pushing it to provide more mental health services but handcuffing its ability to raise the money to do it.
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To be clear, we think the Legislature was right two years ago to require regions and their member counties to help some of the state’s most vulnerable citizen by providing more services. Access centers, assertive community treatment teams and crisis intervention are all needed in our community. We also think that some regions had fund balances that were too large. But the mishmash of legislation over the years has played havoc with financial planning. First, regions were told to lower their fund balances to 20 percent of expenditures. Then, last session, the Legislature lifted that to 40 percent — all the while maintaining tight controls on how much revenues local governments could raise.
As a result, in some years counties in our regional consortium didn't impose any property taxes for mental health services, thus lowering reserves to what they thought the state wanted. Now, we're cutting services. And yet, according to Lori Elam, the region's chief executive officer, the cap on revenues still leaves the consortium $3 million short of operating expenses.
It is notable, we think, that Muscatine County is leaving our consortium for one in southeastern Iowa that will allow it to collect up to $42.68 per person for mental health services. Our region only can only tax up to $30.78 per person, according to state law.
For years, counties have lobbied Des Moines to raise the cap, warning that budget cuts would happen if nothing was done — warning that counties in our region might walk away from the consortium.
Both of these predictions are now coming true.
There doesn’t appear to be much hope to raise the property tax cap in the 2020 session, either. Elam tells us the idea is pretty much dead on arrival. After all, 2020 is an election year. Instead, she said, there is discussion about possibly raising money through an increase in the sales tax.
Who knows what will happen with this idea. A sales tax increase has been talked about for years, mostly to try to pay for clean water initiatives. Perhaps, enough interests will work together to draw sufficient legislative support. Then again, an increase in the sales tax would surely raise concerns that the burden would fall too heavily on the shoulders of low- and middle-income people.
What we do know is that this week we saw just the latest consequence of inaction and confusion in Des Moines. We wonder how long it will persist.