Counties decline to fund state mental health mandate

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

At least two counties are generating some pushing back against a bill Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed at the beginning of the month. House File 690 established a children’s behavioral health system and requires certain core services among the state’s mental health regions. The bill did not provide funding for the new services. A separate bill allowed individual counties to adjust their tax levy rates to meet the new needs. Dickinson County Supervisor Chairman Bill Leupold, who also serves as chair of the Northwest Iowa Care Connections mental health region, said the region has set aside $36,000 in its budget for children’s mental health care. Even with those regional funds, the Dickinson County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 Tuesday to leave the current mental health levy rate at $15 per capita.

“I don’t like unfunded mandates,” Supervisor Steve Clark said.

Clark later pointed out the legislature could potentially pass a bill funding the mandate in future sessions. Lawmakers took a similar approach after establishing an adult mental health system. Leupold said the coming election year might cause some in Des Moines to shy away from funding the children’s mental health mandate as quickly.

“The upside to all this is they can say they didn’t raise taxes,” Leupold said.

Palo Alto County also voted to keep their levies untouched, while the Clay County Board of Supervisors set a public hearing on an increase to $23.28 for May 28. The state gave counties until the end of the month to make levy changes. While Leupold felt levy rates would remain unchanged if the region’s nine counties did not agree on the matter, Clay County Auditor Marge Pitts said the region by law cannot dictate a county’s levy rate.

Leupold himself was actually in favor of raising Dickinson County’s levy Tuesday. He said it’s not often the state allows county officials to alter their levy rates after the budget process is complete, and he was concerned those in need of mental health services would be hurt if the board passed over the opportunity.

“If we leave it at $15, by the year 2022, we’ll be $515,000 in the hole,” Leupold told his board.

He went on to say some counties had considered raising the levy by $5, which would put the region only $204,000 in the red by 2022. Leupold pointed out the mathematic model assumes a number of factors, such as a static population and budget.

Supervisor Kim Wermersen said, while not increasing the levy in the short term might harm clients, unsustainable regional services would hurt clients in the long run. Even if the entire region were to increase levies to the current maximum of $30.30, the region would again see negative values by 2023, he said. Wermersen calculated the break-even point to be a levy of $43.03 per capita — more than $12 over the cap.

“If we’re seeing the alarm right now, we need to come back to the state or somebody and say, ‘Hey, we need some help.’ You can’t put it all back on the county,” Wermersen said.

Beth Will, the county’s service coordinator, took a somewhat counterintuitive stance and proposed the board spur state action by keeping the current levy. She questioned the message the region would be sending state legislators if the counties were to fund the new requirements through higher taxes.

“It’s a cost-shift back to the counties, and we’re still in the red,” Will said. “Where or when do we stop the bleeding? Is it now? Is it in 2022? What message do we want to send to the legislators?”

Supervisor Tim Fairchild agreed with Wermersen, saying the expectation shouldn’t be passed to the county-level.

“What we’re doing is being enablers to a misguided political operation,” Fairchild said, adding the situation is a product of a legislative session with which lawmakers reported they were pleased.

As chairman, Leupold sought a motion to increase the levy to $23.28 — the same rate as Clay County — contingent upon the other counties passing the same rate. However, Wermersen moved the county do as the Palo Alto board had done, and leave the rate alone. The motion was seconded, and four of the board’s five members — some with reluctant expressions — voted in favor. The chairman stuck to his guns, casting the board’s fifth and final vote in opposition.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: