Linn County is moving forward with a major new building project, but nobody can say how much it will cost taxpayers.
The Linn County Board of Supervisors voted Wednesday to authorize a lease-purchase agreement for its new public health building. A private firm will build on the county’s property, and the county would lease-to-own the building.
Few would question the value of the planned Public Health and Child and Youth Development Services building, or of its namesakes, community advocates Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris. Yet legitimate questions remain about how the project will be managed and paid for.
County leaders say the new financing scheme will allow them to employ local labor, rather than hiring a low bidder who could be from another state. The lease-purchase strategy is a response to a new Iowa law outlawing project labor agreements, which favor unions for local government projects.
The lease-purchase agreement also means the government can take on millions in public debt and drive up property taxes without seeking the voter approval usually required to borrow large sums of money.
Instead of an open bid process, the county sent requests for proposal to a select group of local contractors. Not only does that process lend itself to potential cronyism, it also raises questions about whether taxpayers are getting the best possible price on the deal.
The reported price of the project has risen from around $20 million to as much as $31.5 million.
At Wednesday’s meeting, supervisors faced a series of questions from Auditor Joel Miller, who has petitioned against the use of lease-purchase agreements. Board Chairman Brent Oleson directly criticized Miller, accused him of lying and initially refused to answer his questions before the public.
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Both sides of that policy spat have been guilty of petty political maneuvers in the past, but that doesn’t negate the validity of Miller’s inquiries. Taxpayers have a legitimate interest in knowing how the new financing scheme works.
County leaders may well decide local labor is worth paying a little more, but they owe it to taxpayers to explain how much more we’ll be on the hook for. If constituents have sticker shock at the $31.5 million price tag, it is not their own fault — it is supervisors’ fault for not communicating their plans effectively.
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