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Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 1, 2014

Views from across Iowa

May 15, 2014

The Des Moines Register, May 10

Cities, counties need revenue options

 

Potholes and sewers can’t repair themselves. Police officers don’t work for free. Public hospitals can’t survive on donations. Iowans expect cities and counties to provide basic services. We pay property taxes to help cover the expense and likely believe that everyone should pay their fair share.

Except that is not necessarily how things work.

In Des Moines, 13 percent of assessed property is not subject to property taxes, according to a Des Moines Sunday Register investigation. These properties, valued at more than $1.3 billion, include hospitals, colleges, government buildings and nonprofit organizations.

Churches are exempt from taxation. So are the state office buildings that run for blocks east of the city’s downtown. So is AIB College of Business, Drake University and Grand View University. So are numerous other properties.

When so many entities don’t contribute to the local government, homeowners and businesses pay more to make up the difference. Even that isn’t enough money. Des Moines and Polk County officials struggle to find enough money for police and fire departments, parks and streets and schools. As the number of tax-exempt organizations grows, the revenue problem for cities and counties is only going to get worse.

The Iowa Legislature must finally recognize this reality and muster the political courage to make alternative sources of revenue available to cities and counties to pay for government services on which the people, businesses, schools and nonprofit entities rely.

Unfortunately, many lawmakers are not keen on helping local governments find new sources of revenue. When they add to the list of tax-exempt property, legislators add to local governments’ financial challenges.

The Iowa Code contains a long list of classes of property that shall not be taxed. It includes provisions for cemeteries, religious associations, agricultural entities, charities, nonprofit nursing homes, low-rent housing, public television stations, community development organizations, Web-search portals and data center businesses.

Lawmakers should rethink whether all of these entities deserve preferential tax treatment. While many nonprofits benefit the community, it is not always clear that benefit outweighs the cost of the revenue the government body is forced to forgo. Government services funded by taxes are frequently the most equitable, transparent way to provide help to residents, businesses and other organizations.

And it’s not just the states that exempt certain organizations from taxes. These days, pretty much anyone can say they are providing a community service and be granted tax-exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service. Nonprofits are one of the fastest-growing sectors of the United States’ economy, and the number of “charitable” organizations has nearly tripled over the past 20 years. The resulting loss of revenue to all levels of government can seem unfair and have voters wondering whether some entities earn or need their preferential tax status.

Hospitals, for example, are not required to provide a specific amount of charity care to qualify as tax-exempt by the federal government. U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley’s investigation found nonprofit hospitals paying for CEOs’ country club memberships while pressuring the poor to pay their bills.

Elected officials say they care about quality of life. Yet that quality can suffer when a town can’t open its swimming pool or plow the streets as often as it should or hire enough police officers.

Rethinking preferential tax status must be part of the conversation to ensure those services are adequately funded.

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Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, May 8

Iowa loses a great journalist and a great man

 

One of the best journalists ever to come out of Waterloo passed away earlier this month.

Randy Brubaker, senior news director of The Des Moines Register, died May 3 of a heart ailment at age 55.

Brubaker had worked at the Register since 1983, holding a number of positions, including sports editor and managing editor.

In his most recent position he headed up the Register’s investigative team, which this past year exposed abuses at the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo that led to its closure by Gov. Terry Branstad.

Brubaker was a leader in the Register newsroom for many years — and he displayed those qualities early on, as a high school student in Waterloo.

A 1976 graduate of West High School, Brubaker was editor of the school paper, The Spectator, his senior year. Under his leadership, The Spectator won an “All American” rating from the National Scholastic Press Association, the organization’s top award for high school newspapers, for its coverage and content, writing and editing -- and editorial leadership.

Brubaker went on to attend Wartburg College in Waverly where he was named to the national Society for Collegiate Journalists based on academic achievement, work on student publications and “pre-professional” interest in journalism -- though we suspect he always had “ink in his blood,” as the saying goes. He was named editor of the Wartburg Trumpet his senior year.

He graduated from Wartburg in 1980 and worked for the Iowa City Press-Citizen before joining the Register in 1983.

A recent Register article was full of anecdotes of Brubaker’s high standards and quiet, inspirational leadership in the newsroom and compassion for his staff — not only as they pursued major breaking stories, but also during times of their own personal difficulties. He remained the genuinely nice guy everyone who knew him as a boy and young man in Waterloo remembered him for.

That compassion, to some degree, probably came out of an empathy based on his own experience. The Register noted that for years, he cared for his wife Jan, who passed away Jan. 8 after a host of ailments. They had met at Wartburg. The Brubakers are survived by two sons in their early 20s and Randy’s parents. His father, Bill Brubaker, was a businessman active in the Waterloo Jaycees.

The Register’s rule lines around Brubaker’s story Monday were widened and darkened in commemoration of his passing. He was taken all too soon from friends. co-workers and family but he has left a deep, unforgettable and lasting impact for good on everyone in his life.

Waterloo residents should be proud to claim Randy Brubaker as one of their own — not only because of his accomplishments as a journalist, but because of the kind of man he was.

He was a superb journalist. More importantly, he was a good man.

– – –

Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 9

Oklahoma shows capital punishment has fatal flaws

 

Every few years, there is a crime committed in Iowa that is so grisly, so fundamentally disturbing, that otherwise middle-of-the-road, commonsensical, purple-state Iowans start talking about reversing the state’s half-century-old ban on capital punishment.

We saw it in 2012 after the abduction and murder of 8-year-old Elizabeth Collins and 10-year-old Lyric Cook-Morrissey.

We saw it nearly a decade ago after the abduction and murder of 10-year-old Jetseta Gage.

And in the decades before that, the calls for reinstating the death penalty (at least in cases of kidnap or rape when the victim is murdered) have flared up often during statehouse and gubernatorial debates.

We’ve always editorialized against such campaigns because we think Iowa’s courtrooms need to remain sites for justice rather than for blood vengeance. (Not to mention how we always get nervous about all the unintended consequences that arise whenever lawmakers start tinkering with untried legislation in the heat of such overwhelming emotions.)

So, if there is anything good to come out of Oklahoma’s botched execution of Clayton Lockett last month — along with the delayed execution of Charles Warner — we hope it is a fuller understanding of the “cruel and unusual” nature of capital punishment. We hope the case helps illustrate that there is nothing more “humane” about an execution carried out through lethal injection than one carried out through a firing squad or a hangman’s noose.

 

As with the Iowa cases listed above, the rape and murder crimes for which both Oklahoma men were convicted mean that state has a duty to ensure that Lockett and Warner spend the rest of their lives separated from society. But that punishment is accomplished better through life in prison than through execution.

 

Among those Iowans who call for reinstating the death penalty, the primary arguments seem to be:

 

— Providing closure for the families of the victims.

 

— And providing a deterrent that would cause kidnappers and rapists to think twice about killing their victims.

 

But among all the studies produced by the legal community, the jury is still out on the question of whether the death penalty provides any deterrence whatsoever. Those studies, instead, show overwhelming evidence that death penalty laws have been discriminatory toward racial minorities as well as toward anyone who can’t afford an attorney. (The late University of Iowa law professor David Baldus dedicated his career to documenting such bias in capital cases.)

 

The studies likewise show overwhelmingly that the many trials and appeals necessary to secure an execution make it more expensive for any state (or the nation) to house death row inmates than to house prisoners who face life without the possibility of parole.

 

And, most importantly, the studies show not only that innocent people have been wrongfully convicted of capital crimes but also that innocent people have been put to death.

 

The Iowa Legislature repealed the death penalty in 1965 — seven years before the U.S. Supreme Court declared what became a four-year moratorium on the practice. Since then, all those convicted of first-degree murder and the most serious cases of kidnapping and rape in the state have been sentenced to life in prison.

 

We don’t think that system needs to change in Iowa. And we hope any debate sparked by the Oklahoma incident persuades the 32 states that continue to practice capital punishment to impose their own moratorium on executions. Moreover, we think it’s time for the U.S. Supreme Court to declare such executions in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

 

___

 

Mason City Globe Gazette. May 10, 2014.

 

School budget cuts a messy, painful situation

 

School days, school daze, things are changing every day in our schools daze.

 

That’s education for you in 2014, the year of cash-strapped school districts that are forced to do more with less.

 

Extraordinary, sometimes-painful changes are occurring, necessitated by a shortsighted Legislature that — for whatever reason — seems to have no clue of the results of its insufficient, inconsistent funding. It’s all a matter of politics, and it’s sickening to have to go through these cuts time and again.

 

We dare not lump all legislators in that same light. State Rep. Sharon Steckman, a former teacher, lamented on her Facebook page: “Feeling sick about all the cuts to MCCS and public education. It is so sad that public education has become a political issue and if we want change we need to let our voices be heard.”

 

Those changes she refers to are the position eliminations in the Mason City School District, part of some $3.2 million in general fund spending cuts for 2014-15. The general fund is primarily designated for salaries, thus the major cuts come from that area. Reductions are being made by eliminating positions and not replacing those who have resigned or are retiring early.

 

These reductions will hit hard, and we can’t help but think students will suffer for it in one way or another, and that is most painful of all.

 

So, it’s all led to gloomy days in our school buildings recently, learning which teachers will stay and which will go. It also led to an extraordinary situation involving activities director Bob Kenny.

 

Superintendent Anita Micich informed him Monday his position of associate high school principal was being eliminated. Kenny was told it was nothing personal; he took it otherwise and sent a mass email statewide. Word got out and the School Board meeting that night drew a big crowd, some pro-Kenny supporters, some pro-extracurricular activity supporters, some both.

 

We wonder if the position elimination might have been a slam dunk, or at least been far less controversial than it turned out to be, had Kenny not been forewarned in time to send out that email. As it was, the meeting turned emotional.

 

“A 4A program with no activities director? That’s unheard of,” said Clint Thomas, a volunteer high school football coach. “Honestly, I’m embarrassed.”

 

High school instructor John Lee, also a city councilman, said cutting the athletic director position sends a message to the community that sports aren’t important. That message, he said, might cause people to send children to Newman or Clear Lake.

 

Said School Board member Scott Warren: “I just don’t know that the cut makes much sense to me. I have a real tough time seeking to eliminate him.”

 

And thus, the board voted unanimously to not eliminate the position.

 

Supporters of extracurricular activities were relieved, yet the whole thing didn’t look good for the district, and we suspect repercussions will be felt for some time.

 

In the meantime, there’s still a question of $120,000 in cuts to be made. No more teachers can be cut because it’s too late for more certified staff reductions. Micich said administrators have accepted pay freezes but might be open to pay cuts, which we would call a most noble gesture -- one which might also quiet the critics who always complain, often without knowing the facts -- about administrators being overpaid.

 

Some suggested that Micich go. That’s far-fetched. In fact, we find it troubling that in many cases when the person hired to make tough decisions does so, he or she often becomes a target for criticism.

 

In this case, we believe state government should have done more. Jobs have been lost, tempers ignited, harsh words spoken, all creating ill will and painful situations.

 

There will be help in the next budget year when local voter-approved levies start infusing cash into the district. But for now, these cuts must be dealt with. The district has until May 15 to make decisions on administration cuts. Not everyone will like the final decisions but something must be done, and done so that students feel the least impact possible.

 

Then if you’re angry and upset, there’s an election coming up and you can do something about it in the ballot box. Remember Steckman’s advice: “If we want change we need to let our voices be heard.”

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