IOWA CITY — A Johnson County supervisor voted against the county’s fiscal 2019 budget Thursday, saying she was concerned about the way conservation bond funds are to be spent.
Supervisor Janelle Rettig said in a statement that $3 million from the conservation bond approved by voters in 2008 will go to buy a parcel of land that has “substantial infrastructure, an event center, buildings, a home and more.”
She did not identify the land in question, though she said she did not think discussions — between supervisors and county conservation officials — about the purchase should be occurring in closed executive session.
“I believe budgets should be completely transparent, and people have every right to know how their money will be spent and for what purpose,” Rettig said. “Hiding behind a potentially incorrect executive session is exactly what the taxpayers of Johnson County shouldn’t accept.”
The board, on a 4-1 vote, approved a $127.7 million budget for fiscal 2019, up from this year’s $110.4 million.
Though the budget is increasing 16 percent, the county tax rate is going down — from $6.85 per $1,000 valuation to $6.61.
The decrease comes because several Tax Increment Finance districts are expiring, meaning more tax revenue is coming in to all the taxing bodies in Johnson County.
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Supervisor Mike Carberry, the board’s chairman, said county budgets are typically approved unanimously because of the lengthy reviews that precede the vote. Dissension “very rarely happens,” he said.
Johnson County voters 10 years ago approved a $20 million conservation bond to be spent over 20 years. Roughly $10 million has been spent or allocated, and Carberry said all of the land purchase discussions were handled in executive session.
Under Iowa law, public bodies can close meetings when discussing the sale or purchase of land and when public disclosure of the deal could affect the price the government would have to pay or the price it can ask in a sale. The actual approval of a purchase or sale must be made in a public meeting.
In the pending purchase Rettig references, conservation officials are seeking some $1.7 million in bond funds this fiscal year and $1.3 million next year.
Rettig said the county is not technically purchasing the property — that a third-party nonprofit will buy it first — and that she’s seen no evidence that discussing the purchase in public meetings would raise its price.
“Spending our limited resources on buildings is not what I voted for and campaigned for in 2008,” Rettig said. “Doing so in secrecy and closed meetings is everything I, and much of the public, detests about government.”
She did say the property has “valuable woodlands” that she supports buying.
“We should insist this money be spent on woodlands, prairies, recreational trails, wetlands, water quality projects, accessibility to natural areas, as we told the voters when they approved the conservation bond,” Rettig said.
Carberry said third parties, like nonprofits, can be used to buy and hold parcels of land because governmental budgeting often can take longer than a seller is willing to wait.
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Carberry said that while he can’t discuss details of the land planned for purchase, he trusts the Johnson County Conservation Board and its director to identify how to spend the conservation money properly.
“There’s been some serious leakage from closed session,” Carberry said. “It’s selective leakage, and it’s also putting out information that is not necessarily accurate or correct.”
All five Johnson County supervisors read written statements before they voted Thursday, addressing issues like the intent of the conservation bond, budget compromise and executive session rules.
“No transaction has been secured or finalized, and tonight’s budget vote is not a vote to approve the transaction, only to authorize the potential expenditure in the event the conservation board approves the proposed acquisition,” Supervisor Kurt Friese said.
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