2019 LEGISLATIVE SESSION

Iowa Mayors say 'heavy hand' of Legislature getting heavier

'Tinkering' hurting cities, the state's 'golden goose'

Mayors Matt Walsh (left) of Council Bluffs, Brett Barker (center) of Nevada, Iowa, and Terry Donahue (right) of North Liberty discuss the impact on their communities of the recently concluded Iowa legislative session during the Friday taping of Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” in Johnston. (James Q. Lynch/The Gazette)
Mayors Matt Walsh (left) of Council Bluffs, Brett Barker (center) of Nevada, Iowa, and Terry Donahue (right) of North Liberty discuss the impact on their communities of the recently concluded Iowa legislative session during the Friday taping of Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” in Johnston. (James Q. Lynch/The Gazette)

JOHNSTON — Mayors of Iowa communities see an imbalance in the relationship between state and local government that may be a symptom of the rural-urban divide in the Legislature.

Although lawmakers stopped short of their goal of capping property tax growth, the mayors of North Liberty, Council Bluffs and Nevada said Friday the final result of that effort — requiring more transparency in the budget process — is another example of the Legislature running roughshod over Iowans’ constitutional guarantee of home rule for cities and counties.

“I think the heavy hand of state government maybe has gotten a little heavier” because Republicans control the House, Senate and governor’s office,” Council Bluffs Mayor Matt Walsh said Friday during taping of Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press.”

“Some of the checks and balances that used to be in place aren’t in place anymore.”

Walsh warned that efforts by the Legislature, largely controlled by rural Republicans, to “push down” revenue for cities may backfire because Iowa’s growth is happening in its cities.

“If they continue to do that, they will kill the golden goose,” he said.

Whether the issue is property taxes, caps on rental property, traffic cameras or the minimum wage, the mayors don’t like what they see as an increase of interference in local governance.

“A lot of (the issues) don’t affect us in the city of Nevada, but we watch them because we feel strongly about local control,” said Brett Barker, mayor of the city of 7,000 in Story County.

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Even when he agrees with the Legislature’s position, Barker said, “I don’t necessarily agree with overriding the local citizens who should retain control over how their communities operate.”

North Liberty Mayor Terry Donahue said he’s been disappointed with decisions made, regardless of which party is in control, because “it’s the people’s choice … (and) these issues should remain in local control.”

In some cases, Donahue said, city and county governments act because the state hasn’t addressed issues affecting their communities.

Johnson County, he said, raised the local minimum wage because the state’s $7.25-an-hour minimum had not been increased since 2008.

“Because of living costs, someone felt something needed to be done,” Donahue said, “so Johnson County moved it up.”

In 2017, the Legislature passed legislation blocking those increases in local minimum wages, which had been adopted in five counties.

There is a need for property tax reform, but Walsh doubts the Legislature accomplished what it wanted with the transparency legislation, Senate File 634, approved in the recently concluded session.

The legislation requires cities and counties to publish one more public notice and have one more public hearing on their budgets.

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“It’s just adding maybe an extra step,” Donahue said. North Liberty has three or four public meetings where the budget is discussed before the council approves it, he said.

“I think people do pay attention, but hopefully it will help them understand the system more,” Barker said, adding that the Nevada City Council’s budget workshops are open to the public.

Walsh recommended legislators study the property tax system before doing any more “tinkering.”

“It’s a broken law that’s been broken since 1978 when they coupled together residential and agricultural (property) values,” he said. “At this point, it’s like a piece of machinery. You can only repair it so many times. It no longer works.”

“Iowa Press” can be seen on IPTV at 7:30 p.m. Friday and noon Sunday, at 8:30 a.m. on IPTV World and online at IPTV.org.

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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