Bill could let Iowa counties raise taxes for mental health services

The Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines, photographed on Tuesday, June 10, 2014. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
The Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines, photographed on Tuesday, June 10, 2014. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Counties could raise property taxes to generate more funding for mental health services under a bill introduced in the Iowa Legislature.

The proposal comes as some urban counties are in danger of being removed from their multi-county regions that deliver mental health services throughout the state.

“The other counties are going to divorce us,” said Lori Elam of the Scott County Community Services Department and the disability services coordinator in the Eastern Iowa mental health region. “They’re subsidizing us. ... It’s very unfortunate. We understand their frustration. We need to be able to adjust our (tax) levy and be able to come up and pay for our folks.”

Scott and a handful of other counties say a cap on how much property tax revenue they can raise for mental health services has left them lagging behind other counties in mental health delivery regions. In some cases, those other counties are contributing extra funding to make the region’s budget whole.

Under the legislation introduced in the Iowa Senate, counties that are producing insufficient revenue would be eligible to raise property taxes to boost funding for mental health.

“That’s what we’re trying to do here is have equity in the system so everyone is participating with the same amount,” said Russell Wood, community services director for Franklin County.

County officials said their budgets were made healthier by state funding for equalization, which the state has not made in the past two fiscal years. Without that equalization funding, some counties say they cannot raise enough revenue to keep pace.

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“We’re at a critical point with the regions, certainly with certain counties within those regions,” said Jamie Cashman, a lobbyist for the Iowa State Association of Counties. “If this isn’t done, some of those counties are going to be in trouble.”

County officials said the statewide mental health redesign implemented in 2014 has been successful and that they do not wish for a county funding inequity to unravel that success.

“We worked really hard over the last two years to bring counties together, to bring boards of supervisors together,” Elam said. “This is the last piece that we need for stable, long-term funding.”

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