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Lamenting inflation, Linn Supervisor Louie Zumbach calls for collaboration with local governments
County must consider ‘needs over wants,’ work with other communities to avoid ‘reinventing the wheel' and save tax dollars
CEDAR RAPIDS — Linn County Supervisor Louie Zumbach pitched streamlining services with area governments in this week’s State of the County address, while lamenting record-high inflation and downplaying the role of state property tax reform in the fiscal woes facing the county.
The Republican chair of the three-member Board of Supervisors organized a slate of top county officials for the 2023 address, delivered Thursday at the Jean Oxley Public Service Center, to share how growing costs fueled by inflation pressure key services the county must provide to ensure public safety and fund other necessary items.
Facing this budget crunch, Zumbach advocated for reducing the scope of certain functions of county government by collaborating with municipalities in Linn County.
“The overwhelming message I wanted to convey as your board chair is that trickle-down politics is real,” Zumbach said of the federal government, where Democrats control the White House and Senate while Republicans hold the House majority. “The politics of the federal government trickle down to affect us all. Unprecedented inflation is crushing our budget — just like it’s slightly crushing your personal budget at home.”
Grappling with inflation, property tax reform
Zumbach said people may debate whether state policies enacted under the GOP-led Legislature and governor’s office are crushing local governments’ ability to provide services. While he acknowledged policies may cap local governments’ taxing powers, such as House File 718, which passed with bipartisan support, Zumbach said this doesn’t go against the will of the people.
County general services cannot exceed a levy rate of $3.50 per $1,000 in taxable value and county rural services are capped at $3.95 per $1,000. Counties may use supplemental levies for purposes such as elections, benefits to its employees and the Emergency Management Agency, though Linn County has not needed these levies.
Municipalities’ future general fund levies can increase no more than 3 percent, regardless of growth in property tax assessments.
County Attorney Nick Maybanks, a Democrat, said the attorney’s office has been “victims of some of the (budget) cuts forced upon us and some of the services we provide” while serving a record number of victims — a projected 2,104 for 2023 — as violent crime rates rise.
“We need more staff and we need more help in order to continue to provide the high level of service that we do for public safety in our community,” Maybanks said. “We're asking our attorneys to do more with less.”
On the heels of Iowa lawmakers passing HF 718, Finance Director Dawn Jindrich said she is less confident in fiscal 2026 — the budget year spanning July 1, 2025 to June 30, 2026. But the prior year, fiscal 2025, may be a status-quo budget year, she said, as properties are assessed during odd-numbered years so there will be potentially more property tax revenue without changes to the levy rate.
Inflation and wage growth will provide major challenges to future budgets, Jindrich said.
“What could happen then is we have to look at what we can cut, and if it's a mandatory service that we provide, that would mean longer wait times,” Jindrich said. “ … If we have rapid inflation continuing, those kinds of things, how do you deal with that if you're only growing your tax revenue by 3 percent? That's a conversation for the (fiscal) ‘25 budget.”
In addition to the passage of the property tax reform package late in the legislative session, municipalities also had to respond to Senate File 181, the bill that corrected a state error that left local governments down millions in expected revenue. Linn County had to reduce spending by about $1.74 million for fiscal 2024, which starts July 1, from what it had expected.
As a result, Budget Director Sara Bearrows said, the supervisors were unable to fund job offers through the offer pot, a process where departments compete to add new roles if there’s additional revenue. There was $2.2 million in offer requests from county departments for 20.75 full-time equivalents. The county also was not able to fund $500,000 requested for vehicles.
Funding ‘needs over wants’
Zumbach didn’t mention specific services that could be consolidated, but in previous meetings has hinted at wanting to redesign the Sustainability Department — a function the city of Cedar Rapids also provides. At the time, he asked Bearrows about shifting funds in the budget if departments were moved or changed in some way.
“What is yet to be seen and tested in future county budgets is your board's ability to fund needs over wants, and to perhaps work creatively with other local governments to provide services throughout the municipalities in Linn County without reinventing the wheel and saving tax dollars,” Zumbach said.
For any changes to county spending, Zumbach would have to find an ally among the two other Democratic supervisors.
Asked if there were areas besides sustainability that he would look to consolidate with other municipalities, Zumbach told The Gazette there’s already collaboration on solid waste management and road agreements, for example.
He declined to specify budget items he considered “wants.”
“I'm not advocating that we cold turkey get rid of anything, but I think it needs to be looked at, especially as the money gets tighter and inflation keeps going up, and we just have to look at … what we have to do by law and consider those things first,” Zumbach said.
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