Representatives Jacoby of Coralville, and Lensing of Iowa City met with Iowa City leaders  to discuss legislative priorities affecting the area this coming 2012 session.

From the Iowa City Press Citizen

Officials lay out county’s legislative priorities to state leaders

10:26 PM, Dec. 15, 2011  |  IC Press Citizen

The Johnson County Board of Supervisors presented Thursday its most pressing legislative priorities — property tax reform, the state’s mental health and disability services overhaul and the Road Use Tax Fund — to a group of state legislators whose districts include portions of the county.

“Our perspective is, we furnish them this document as a reminder of what we’re thinking, where we’re at,” board chairman Pat Harney said. “It keeps it fresh in their minds.”

Of the 10 legislators who represent Johnson County, four were present at the meeting, including Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville; Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City; Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville; and Rep. Vicki Lensing, D-Iowa City.

The key property tax issue the board outlined is that commercial and industrial property taxes are disproportionate compared with residential or agricultural taxes, which hits small businesses especially hard. Supervisors say the best plan they’ve seen is the bipartisan measure passed by the Iowa Senate 46 to 4, which provides a state credit geared toward relieving the tax burden on smaller businesses without interfering with the process of local governments.

Bolkcom said Senate File 538 will provide a more than 40 percent reduction in commercial property taxes to 83 percent of commercial property taxpayers. A major discrepancy between that and Gov. Terry Branstad’s proposal is his support for giving “big box out-of-state corporations” tens of millions of dollars in tax relief, including a $7 billion reduction statewide for Walmart, Bolkcom said.

“We don’t think that Walmart needs a $7 billion reduction. We think they ought to contribute to our local schools and local government services,” he said.

Jacoby said the Senate bill is a good starting point but said the bold move that needs to be made is decoupling agriculture and residential property valuations, a move supervisors touted as a way to make the property tax system more equitable for all property classes. As the system currently exists, the two always are taxed at the same level, which doesn’t account for good or bad growing seasons for farmers, Harney said.

A priority list provided by the board also detailed recommended adjustments to the tax increment financing system, including limiting TIF districts to 20 years and requiring support from all jurisdictions within a local government before approving a TIF district.

On another topic, the board told legislators that the state is not providing Johnson County with the funding it needs to handle a growing mental health system. To fix this, supervisors asked the legislators to work to remove the cap on the amount of property taxes counties can collect for the services. The current levy has been in place since 1996 and draws about $3.1 million, but supervisors argue that’s now inadequate because the county’s population has increased nearly 18 percent from 2000 to 2010.

Supervisor Janelle Rettig said that more people come to an urban area such as Johnson County specifically for its mental health services.

“You can move to Iowa City, Coralville, North Liberty and there are services,” she said. “You are part of the community. In smaller areas, you’d be isolated if you have any sort of illness whatsoever.”

In her argument for a higher gas tax, Rettig said the county has been at the same rate since 1989, and she calculated it at 6.4 percent the cost of a gallon of gas. In the meantime, the cost of building roads has skyrocketed, she said, and the county is forced to raise property taxes to pay for its roads.

“We are under tremendous pressure to improve the roads, and our only tool to do so is to raise property taxes,” she said.

But Jacoby said that given initial moves by Republican legislators, any gas tax increase is highly unlikely.

“I think there’s a better chance of me having a full head of hair than the road use fund seeing an increased gas tax,” said Jacoby, who is bald.

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