Education

When you're the one making decisions: Students learn about local government in mock Linn County Supervisor meeting

CEDAR RAPIDS — In a mock meeting, half a dozen area high school students found out firsthand how difficult it can be to make decisions for an entire county.

In the Linn County Board of Supervisors formal meeting room, the board of seven — six area high school students and Supervisor John Harris — addressed a scenario that, while simulated, was a very real issue about a decade ago in Linn County — property tax abatements for flood-damaged homes.

The simulated meeting was part of National County Government Month, with Future Leaders of Linn County providing 26 high school students a hands-on experience with their local government.

The mock board of teenagers on Wednesday voted 4-3 against abating property taxes for flood victims. In real life, the supervisors approved the exemptions in 2009.

The lesson learned had to do with the burden of making public policy.

Chavi Parks, a senior at Prairie High School, who voted in favor of tax abatements, said the challenge was weighing empathy for residents in need against what’s financially best for the county.

“I think that made the decision difficult for us,” he said. “I’ve personally experienced financial hardships growing up, but I do see both sides.”

Meanwhile, Jefferson High School junior Juliet Bwalya said she voted against the abatements because they placed considerable financial strain on the county and — in the scenario given — significantly cut the county’s public safety budget.

Bwalya said the experience gave her a different perspective on elected officials.

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“They have to face decisions every day, and sometimes the decisions will impact you in a big way,” she said. “But at the same time you have to see the overall big picture. It kind of gives me more sympathy to the people who have to make those decisions.”

Harris, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, noted decisions like those on tax abatements often must be made by local boards and councils.

“Sometimes there is no wrong answer,” he said. “There’s just an answer.”

The Future Leaders of Linn County event began by introducing the students to county staffers and elected officials and culminated with students participating in the mock board meeting.

Students taking part were from Washington, Jefferson and Prairie high schools in Cedar Rapids, Linn-Mar High School in Marion and Mount Vernon High School.

Supervisor Stacey Walker, who spearheaded the mock government idea, said his hope was to not only educate area youth on how local government works but maybe inspire them to consider serving on public boards.

“One of my biggest fears is that our best and our brightest will take a pass on public service,” he said. “Maybe they don’t see the value, or maybe they’re burdened by the way of cynicism.

“But now I think my fears have been allayed in a way because you’re seeing just an incredible amount of engagement among young folks,” he said.

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“This is perhaps another way, a small way, to say we are going to do whatever we can do to facilitate their interest so that maybe, just maybe, one of these students is going to come back and run for office, whether it’s county board or city council or school board.”

Harris, the only Republican on the five-member county board, said the event also shows that bipartisanship does exist — at least at the local level.

“What I’m hoping the take-away is for most of these kids is to be able to watch how county government works, as opposed to what they’re hearing about the government in Des Moines and the government in D.C.,” Harris said.

“It’s public service, not party service. There are isolated pockets in this political world where Democrats and Republicans can sit down together and have a decent discussion.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8309; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

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