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Counties balk at Iowa House mental health funding plan
 Tom Thoma  / 

DES MOINES — An alternative plan to help counties that say they need to boost their mental health care funding was met with a chilly reception Wednesday during a hearing at the Iowa Capitol.

But it may be the best the Iowa House can do this year, conceded state Rep. Linda Miller, R-Bettendorf, who is running the bill and represents a portion of Scott County, which is one of the counties that says its mental health care funding is insufficient.

The bill approved Wednesday by a House subcommittee would extend by one year, through June 2018, the state mental health care property tax levy implemented as part of the state’s regional redesign.

County officials said they favor an Iowa Senate proposal that would allow counties in need to increase their mental health care property tax levy.

Miller said she, too, favors the Senate measure but is unsure enough House members would support its passage. She said she expects the House proposal to pass that chamber.

“We have to come up with a solution. The problem is it’s an election year, and I can’t get either (political) side,” Miller said. “I prefer the bill in the Senate, actually. (But) I can’t pass it over here.”

A state cap designed to equalize how much property tax revenue counties can dedicate to mental health care actually has created inequities under the new regional delivery system, county officials say.

They say the cap has left some counties lagging behind others in their region, forcing those other counties to cover the difference to make the region’s budget whole.

The issue has led some regions to begin discussing whether those lagging counties should be removed from their regions.

Originally with the redesign, the state made equalization payments to the counties. But no state dollars have been allocated for equalization in the past two fiscal years, and none is planned for the upcoming fiscal year.

Under the Senate plan favored by counties, those counties could raise their mental health property tax levy to equalize it with other counties in the region.

County officials at Wednesday’s hearing described the House proposal to simply extend the levy by one year as kicking the can down the road.

A Polk County official said 1,300 people could lose mental health care services if the county is not able to fill a $7 million budget hole.

“I think we all uniformly agree (the statewide mental health care redesign) has been successful in achieving everything you wanted it to be,” said Amy Campbell, a lobbyist for the Polk County supervisors. “The last thing we haven’t addressed is the property tax, the financing piece, which did drive a lot of the inequities in the system because of the dollar cap. … I’d encourage you to look for a permanent solution; the sooner the better.”

John Miller, a Black Hawk County supervisor, spoke at Wednesday’s hearing even though Black Hawk County is not one of the counties that finds itself in a mental health care budget crisis. Miller said he nonetheless thinks the funding inequity threatens the state’s new regional delivery system.

“I can’t get angry any more. I just want to cry because what I’m seeing is a system that is working and is beginning to unravel,” Miller said. “My plea to you (legislators) is to not do this and kick this can down the road any farther but leave us to do what we need to do.”

Lawmakers revisit unpaid court obligations
 Tom Thoma  / 

DES MOINES – Iowa lawmakers are looking to strengthen efforts to collect delinquent court debt but concede that much of the $682 million in unpaid fines and fees dating back decades will never be recouped from convicted criminals with no or limited ability to pay.

“It’s a big deal,” said Sen. Tom Courtney, D-Burlington, who chaired a Senate Appropriations subcommittee that approved a measure (Senate Study Bill 3182) designed to bolster upgraded efforts to enlist county attorneys and a private collection agency in trying to collect past-due obligations.

Court debt — including unpaid fines, penalties, court costs, fees, forfeited bail and surcharges — is deemed delinquent if it is not paid within 30 days after the date it is assessed. Other obligations collected by the courts include victim restitution, court-appointed attorney fees or expenses for a public defender with restitution for victims of crime at the head of the payment priority order.

According to a report by the Legislative Services Agency, outstanding court debt has grown considerably since fiscal 1998, when it stood at $143.4 million to $682.2 million at the end of fiscal 2015. Iowa court Administrator David Boyd told subcommittee members Wednesday that total may be approaching up to $800 million now.

“No matter what we do that debt is always going to be growing,” Boyd noted, saying much of it is criminal debt owed by offenders incarcerated for terms up to life in prison and that by law the state cannot write off debt that will not be collected until after 65 years.

Of the current $682.2 million in debt, $152.8 million is two years old or less. More than $490 million, or nearly 72 percent, of the total outstanding court debt is criminal debt and $155.8 million, or about 23 percent, is traffic debt.

Efforts to beef up collections helped slow the growth rate of unpaid court debt to 1.6 percent from fiscal 2014 to fiscal 2015 — after past years of double-digit increases. LSA analysts attributed the lower-than-normal growth to court efforts to remove debt owed by deceased persons and because total case filings in general have declined.

Several years ago, the state instituted a court debt amnesty program administered by the Iowa Department of Revenue. Applications made during the three-month period ending Nov. 30, 2010, resulted in debt amnesty granted to 13,511 applicants involving 25,442 cases and a total of $3.4 million was collected with an additional $3.4 million forgiven. With a net gain of $2.8 million deposited in the state general fund minus $616,000 in program costs.

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Mary Pieper / Cerro Gordo County Jail  


Mary Pieper /