It is becoming apparent that the terms, Emergency Management Commission (EMC) and Mahaska County, are more frequently used together now due to our county’s struggles between two government entities.
Very early on in this session, I introduced one of my first bills that I would like to highlight now. Many taxpayers do not necessarily want to get detailed on this topic but this affects all taxpayers and requires some background information in order for us to fully understand it. Here we go…
The EMC is part of the Iowa Homeland Security which is responsible for coordinating homeland security and emergency management activities across the state. By law, all counties are required to develop and sustain an EMC that will “create comprehensive emergency response plans to cooperate with and provide mutual aid to each other and the Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management during public emergencies.”
Over the years, problems have arisen regarding funding, accountability and taxpayer representation within the EMC. In one of the counties that I represent, Mahaska, taxpayers have been left with legal bills exceeding a half million dollars because of the illegal actions by their EMC. In five separate lawsuits, the court has found the EMC has repeatedly violated the law. In the most recent decision, the district court found that the EMC was misusing an uncapped county supplemental levy to tax the citizens of the county. As the situation in Mahaska County demonstrates, there needs to be safeguards in place to ensure a local EMC will use its levying power in a proper way.
Under section Iowa Code section, 29C.17(2), a local EMC can choose five different methods to fund its operations. Most of these options distribute the tax burden equitably across the county, including on a per capita basis or based on a relative share of the total assessed valuation of each jurisdiction within the county. However, one funding source is particularly problematic. Under 29C.17(2)(a), the EMC can require a county board of supervisors to impose a countywide special levy. Because this levy is uncapped, a local EMC effectively has a blank check to impose as much taxation as it sees fit. This is particularly problematic because voting membership on the EMC is not based on population but the total number of political subdivisions. Under section 29C.9, a commission is composed of one member of the board of supervisors, the sheriff, and a mayor from each city within the county. Each member receives one vote regardless of how many people they represent. A city of 100 people has the same voting power as a city with 10,000 people. The problem this creates is that a minority of the citizens can impose a levy on the majority. Coupled with an uncapped levy, taxation without representation becomes a real threat. This has not always been the case. Prior to 2012, a local EMC could not use a countywide EMC special levy without the board of supervisors’ approval. This ensured that EMC funding was born equally by the citizens of a county.
HF117 seeks to restore balance in taxation. Under this bill, the approval of the board of supervisors would once again be needed to use a countywide levy to fund EMC services. For those counties who already have a funding structure for their local EMC that works, this bill would not require any changes. However, when an EMC tries to use a coutywide levy to unfairly tax the few to pay for services of the many, this bill will provide taxpayer relief.
It is important to note that even when a board of supervisors refuses to authorize the use of a countywide EMC levy under HF117, it does not mean they have a veto over EMC budget. Rather, the EMC can still use any one of its other four funding sources but code section 29C.17(2) would require each local political subdivision to distribute the tax burden equally among all taxpayers.
In contrast, SF41 and it house companion bill, HF126 only furthers the current funding problems with EMC. While proponents of these bill argue that the new code language enhances public safety, in practice it does nothing of the sort. Rather, this legislation seeks to remove the last check the board of supervisors has when an EMC seeks to use the countywide levy in an illegal way. Under current law, section 331.424 gives the board of supervisors the power to certify supplemental levies. This is an important provision because if the supervisors believe the EMC is seeking to impose an illegal (rather than an excessive) levy, it can refuse to certify. When this happens, a local EMC can bring a lawsuit and the district court can decide the matter before the levy goes into effect. This is exactly what happened in Mahaska County. There, the board of supervisors refused to certify the EMC levy because it was designed to fund activities that were not permitted under chapter 29C. While the district court agreed with the board of supervisors, without this certification provision, the illegal levy would have been placed onto the tax roles with no one to stop it. At that point, the only remedy would be an expensive and time-consuming taxpayer lawsuit.
If HF126 or SF41 becomes law, the EMC would become the only non-political subdivision to have an uncapped (i.e. unlimited) levy. Moreover, there is no limitations on the amount of funds a local EMC can carryover from year to year. As a result, it is my strong belief that HF126 and HF41would only result in less accountability and with more taxation.
I would encourage you to support HF117 to restore a proper balance in funding the important work of local EMCs. In contrast, I would strongly urge you to oppose HF126 and HF41 which would only make the EMC more unaccountable to the electorate.
These bills have passed subcommittee in both chambers and will soon be brought in to the House and Senate Local Government Committees. If you have concerns about what you have read here, please out reach out to the Chairs of these two committees listed below as soon as possible. Your county supervisors are also available to answer any questions.
Chair of House Committee on Local Government – Shannon Latham: [email protected]
Chair of Senate Committee on Local Government – Senator Jesse Green: [email protected]