Government

Mental health care funding fixes pitched by Iowa county leaders

The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Funding for mental health care services needs to be sustainable for the long term, according to the pleas that county officials from across the state made Wednesday at the Iowa Capitol.

With the annual County Day bringing dozens of county officials to the Capitol, many stressed to lawmakers the need for changes to the way mental health services in Iowa are funded.

Those services are delivered in 14 regions, 13 of which include multiple counties, with each region being required to offer at least a basic set of services.

The services are funded largely by property taxes, but the state has laws that regulate how much counties can tax for the services and how much money the regions can carry forward from one budget year to the next.

County officials are asking state lawmakers to lift those restrictions so they can fund the services that they want to and are required by state law.

“I don’t care how they do it, we just need the funding to do the services to help people in need. Otherwise, we’re going to have to cut services, and we don’t want to do that,” said Lori Elam, CEO of the mental health care region that includes Scott, Jackson, Clinton, Cedar and Muscatine counties. “Nobody wants to do that.”

The fiscal issues vary from county to county and region to region. Some are more constrained by the property tax cap, others by the limit on how much funding they can carry forward.

The region that includes Dallas, Guthrie and Audubon counties has the state’s lowest property tax levy, which has created challenges, according to CEO Darci Alt.

“If they don’t lift the caps on that levy authority, my budget is going to be more than what I can draw in,” Alt said. “Otherwise I’m going to have to start cutting core services, and I don’t want to do that.”

The eight-county region in the state’s southwest corner has a high property tax levy relative to the other regions, but CEO Suzanne Watson said the limit on carry-over funds can be an obstacle as well.

“We need to just finally come up with an equitable system once and for all so we can put in place those things that (the state) asked us to do,” Watson said.

Others advocating for sustainable mental health care funding Wednesday included county supervisors and sheriffs.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said he and his fellow lawmakers are aware of the need for long-term, sustainable mental health care funding and are debating how to address it. Whitver said his preference is to remove local property taxes as the primary funding mechanism and create a greater role for state funding.

That could include money from the state’s general fund, from sales tax revenue, or some combination.

Whitver said Republican leaders and Gov. Kim Reynolds will continue to have discussions on the topic.

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“We’re still working on plans and figuring out what’s possible there,” Whitver said.

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