Iowa legislators want to cut 'full Grassley' by more than half

Proposal includes reducing the number of counties from 99 to 40

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DES MOINES — Completing the “full Grassley” might not seem so intimidating — or sound so impressive — if a proposed amendment to the Iowa Constitution is adopted.

Rep. Jake Highfill, R-Johnston, has proposed the Legislature reduce the number of counties from 99 to 40 as a way to save taxpayer dollars and modernize local government.

“I’m just trying to be a good steward of the taxpayers’ money,” Highfill said after introducing House Joint Resolution 2005. He thinks that by consolidating county operations there will be savings through efficiency.

“We need less brick-and-mortar than we did in the past,” Highfill said, explaining that many services can be done online.

It’s not a new idea. Similar legislation has been introduced in the past and years ago a blue-ribbon panel studied the issue.

The case for redrawing county borders has not gained momentum or merit, according to Johnson County Supervisor Mike Carberry.

“It’s not a particularly good idea,” Carberry said Thursday during a visit to the Capitol.

He’s all for efficiency and saving taxpayer money, Carberry said, but closing courthouses and consolidating offices can place an “undue burden” on the people who need those services. People who need services from county government have less access if they have to travel or go online to get them, he said.

While he applauds Highfill’s effort to achieve greater efficiency, Carberry doesn’t think closing more than half of the state’s 100 courthouse is the answer.

Under Highfill’s plan, the Legislature would draw new county lines by September 2021. I the Legislature does not meet that deadline, the state Supreme Court would draw the lines.

The case for fewer, larger counties is based on the fact that many Iowa counties have small populations, but pay more proportionally for their county government than larger, more populated counties. The county structure is a relic of the days when people traveled by horse and buggy. Each county seat was situated within a day’s round-trip travel distance from the farthest reaches of the county.

An example of the possible savings that was used in previous discussions of the issue was that four northeast Iowa counties — Winneshiek, Allamakee, Fayette and Clayton — together have approximately the same population as Dubuque County. However, the combined payroll for county elected officials has been higher than salaries for Dubuque County officials.

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