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Local
Local leaders miffed by Legislature's property tax proposal

Early into Thursday morning, state legislators passed a proposal that would require city councils and county officials to document and hold public hearings for residents when they plan to increase property tax revenues through higher tax rates or re-evaluated property value assessments.

If a city’s or county’s tax revenues increase by 2 percent or more, the vote would require two-thirds of the board's members instead of a simple majority.

That's despite loud, sustained opposition from city and county officials throughout the state including those in North Iowa. 

"I am always somewhat suspect when legislation is passed in the pre-dawn hours, which appears to be the case here," Clear Lake City Administrator Scott Flory said about the proposal that still needs a signature from the governor to become law.

"Ultimately, I would have to ask what the magnitude of this change will be for the average homeowner in terms of their property taxes from one year to another?"

Flory believes that legislators in Des Moines haven't put enough thought into this particular proposal and that some of the supporters' central claims, about local transparency not being strong enough, are unfounded. 

Ashley Stewart / By ASHLEY STEWART ashley.stewart@globegazette.com 

North Iowa Democrats Sen. Amanda Ragan and Rep. Sharon Steckman speak to constituents during a public forum at the Mason City Public Library.

"We do not see this apparent volatility related to an individual’s property tax payments having risen to the level that this legislation seems to suggest," Flory said.

He pointed out that Clear Lake city officials take care to hold public meetings prior to the adoption of the budget and allow for media reporting in advance of a public hearing on the budget. 

"Our process has been and will remain very transparent and fiscally responsible and this legislation will have no impact on that whatsoever."

Mason City Administrator Aaron Burnett echoed Flory's perspective and argued that the legislation wouldn't produce any material benefit. 

Burnett

"Local governments are already accountable to the taxpayers through the process of elections," Burnett said.

He went on to point out that Mason City has previously won awards for budget presentations and efforts to communicate the taxes collected from taxpayers in the community.

At the Britt City Council meeting on April 16, Britt city officials announced their opposition to changes in city finance.

One rationale they cited was that "each city has differing needs, goals, and financial circumstances; uniform caps are not appropriate" and also noted that "city budgeting and spending should be determined and controlled at the local level in the spirit of constitutional city Home Rule."

Still supporters of the legislation, which only had one Democratic vote in the Senate, have maintained that such a proposal is necessary to bolster transparency at the city level.

"This is an opportunity for the taxpayers of Iowa to have some ability, some way they can reach out and have some say in what their property taxes should or should not be,” said Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Randy Feenstra, R-Hull, who managed the proposal in the Iowa Senate.

The proposal's supporters have also argued that this move will persuade city and county officials to think carefully before collecting more property tax revenue.

"I’ve had numerous constituents concerned with (property) valuations going through the roof," said Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel. "For far too long local officials have been able to get by saying, 'We didn’t raise your taxes.'"

Neither Flory nor Burnett are buying it, though. 

They both see the proposal as the answer to a non-existent problem.

"Cities in Iowa have been for many years under various forms of property tax limitation measures imposed by the state," Flory countered. "It seems to be the omnipresent desire of the Iowa General Assembly - through yet another mechanism - to limit locally elected officials ability to spend in their own communities as they see necessary."


Ben Margot 

Money and child care are the primary barriers to postsecondary education for North Iowans, according to an online survey conducted by Mason City College Access Network, or Mason City-CAN. (AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)


Local
top story
Mason City survey identifies barriers to postsecondary education

MASON CITY — Money and child care.

Those are the primary barriers to postsecondary education for North Iowans, according to an online survey conducted by Mason City College Access Network, or Mason City-CAN, in February.

“That’s pretty much what we thought was going on, but we didn’t have the data,” said Jeanette Cink, Mason City-CAN project coordinator. “Now we found out what it is and we can use it to help people further their education.”

The survey is part of a broader push in the state by Future Ready Iowa to ensure that 70 percent of Iowans in the workforce have education or training beyond high school by 2025.

And that doesn’t necessarily mean two- or four-year colleges. Trade schools, apprenticeships and on-the-job training also fill that educational gap.

Mason City-CAN, a collaboration of area education, business and government leaders dedicated to creating opportunities for North Iowans to continue learning, was established in 2014. It has primarily focused on educating and connecting high school students with postsecondary options through mock interviews and career days.

But Cink said the survey was Mason City-CAN’s effort to determine what keeps adult learners, especially between 18 and 50 years old, from pursuing postsecondary options.

Nearly 540 individuals, including 368 from Mason City, responded to the survey in February.

Of those, 76 percent said pursuing postsecondary education after high school is important.

About 56 percent said they stopped or never started postsecondary for financial reasons, while smaller percentages said it was because of work or loss of interest.

More than 70 percent of respondents said child care was the biggest barrier for them, including cost and availability.

Cink said Mason City-CAN and its partners will use the survey’s data to determine new and existing programs and resources available to alleviate the barriers to post-secondary education, so everyone has the opportunity to invest in themselves and their future.

She said the group is working with the Future Ready Iowa program to find out what grants and scholarships are available to address the financial barrier, and it’s looking to other organizations to help it address the child care issue.

Mason City-CAN is also working to offer a resource page on its website that connects Mason City residents with information and contacts to further their education at any level.

North Iowa Area Community College President Steven Schulz, NIACC Director of Admissions Rachel McGuire, NIACC Vice President of Student Development and Services Terri Ewers, United Way of North Central Iowa CEO Jen Arends, Rep. Sharon Steckman (D-Mason City) and Mason City Police Chief Jeff Brinkley were project partners for the survey, which was posted on the Mason City-CAN website. They'd been working on it since September 2018.

Mason City-CAN awarded four $100 gift cards to individuals who completed the survey. Those drawn were Amber Olsen, Dan Rickard, Rachel Sprecker and Stephani Tobin.

For more information about Mason City College Access Network, visit www.masoncitycan.com.

Photos: NIACC STEM Center in Mason City

Ashley Stewart / By ASHLEY STEWART ashley.stewart@globegazette.com 

North Iowa Democrats Sen. Amanda Ragan and Rep. Sharon Steckman speak to constituents during a public forum at the Mason City Public Library.


Business
Faith leaders, North Iowa business in conflict over sports betting legislation

When a proposal that would legalize sports betting in Iowa passed through both chambers of the state Legislature in the past week, there were 15-plus business groups lobbying in favor of the bill. 

In contrast, there was a smaller but more concentrated group of faith-based organizations decidedly against the move to welcome sports gambling into the Hawkeye State. 

Arian Schuessler / ARIAN SCHUESSLER, The Globe Gazette 

Diamond Jo Casino in Northwood.

Between three groups: The Family Leader, the Iowa Catholic Conference and the Iowa Conference of United Methodist Church, there were 13 individual lobbyists against the senate's sports betting bill. 

Senate File 617, which would legalize sports betting on professional and college athletics, passed on a 31-18 vote with 19 Republican and 12 Democratic senators coming out in favor. Twelve Republicans and six Democrats voted against it. 

Push back 

"(We're) generally opposed to the bill. (We're) opposed to all forms of gambling but definitely gambling expansion," The Family Leader's Vice President of Church Engagement Greg Baker said. 

Baker, who was at multiple hearings for the proposal, said that he and his organization (which he's worked at for nine years) are especially concerned about the online component of the bill. 

That particular part of the equation would need to be solved by the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission before legal, online gambling could actually be offered in Iowa.

But Baker and Family Leader are concerned with any advancements in online gambling, regardless of how closely they adhere to state regulations.

Kristin Buehner kristin.buehner@globegazette.com 

The slot machines keep pinging at Diamond Jo Casino.

"The concern with online gambling is that it is at your fingertips so if I have an addictive behavior, the online development is going to take it to another level," Baker said.

Research and reporting on whether or not online gambling is quantifiably more addictive than in-person gambling is mixed. 

The Atlantic has previously reported that "architectural design cues make people want to gamble, perhaps more than digital environments do." 

Somewhat counter to that: Researchers in a 2015 study by The National Center for Biotechnology Information found that "use of Internet gambling is more common among highly involved gamblers, and for some Internet gamblers, this medium appears to significantly contribute to gambling problems."

Their conclusion went on to say that "As Internet gambling continues to evolve and participation increases, particularly among young people who are highly familiar with Internet technology and online commerce, it is likely that related problems will emerge."

Case for

David Strow, a spokesman for Boyd Gaming, the parent company of Diamond Jo-Dubuque and Diamond Jo-Worth, argues that bringing strands of underground gaming into the mainstream to be regulated can help mitigate some of the issues. 

He also said that his group, which lobbied in favor of the Iowa legislation, supports resources to help those that have gambling issues. Revenue on the gambling profits would be taxed at 6.75%. 

Boyd has opened three sportsbooks outside of Las Vegas in the past year, including two in Mississippi and one in Pennsylvania. 

Strow indicated that if the legislation is ultimately signed into law by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, Boyd would eventually offer sports wagering in Iowa. 

"Giving a reason to visit property for the first time draws new customer segments," Strow said. "(It's) an interesting grown opportunity." 

Not buying it

Baker said he understands the idea that sunlight can be a good disinfectant for societal woes but isn't swayed by the argument.

He pointed out that there are a lot of harmful behaviors, some of which have been made legal and some of which have remained illegal, while suggesting that sports betting should stay in the latter camp.

"We find that with this one we are better off keeping it on the illegal list," Baker said.

Next up

Gov. Reynolds is still mulling over the decision to sign the legislation. 

Based on reporting from the Associated Press: "Conservative Christian organizations, an important constituency for Reynolds, opposed the bill and Iowans generally are against it, according to a February Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll."

That poll found that 52 percent of Iowa residents oppose legalized professional sports betting and 68 percent are against legalized college sports betting.