CLINTON — Now the city of Clinton could be violating the spirit of the law — words spoken from the mouth of Iowa’s highest ranking political figure, according to The Associated Press. State and city officials seem to have no clarity on how that “spirit” applies to them, meanwhile.
Gov. Terry Branstad said during a Monday press conference that the Clinton City Council’s proposed use of new road use tax fund revenues is a “mistake.” His words join those shared by several state officials over recent weeks who have gone so far as to call Clinton’s intent an “abuse.”
“I think it would be a mistake to use this additional money, which is supposed to go for roads and bridges... in the city of Clinton, or any of the other cities and counties, to hire more staff,” Branstad said.
On April 7, council members voted 5-2 to approve a road use tax fund budget amendment during their Committee of the Whole meeting. The amendment (which has yet to appear on an official regular agenda for final adoption), affixed $225,000 worth of the expected $470,000 in additional revenues to go toward hiring three new street department equipment operators. The revenues come by way of the Iowa Legislature’s 10-cent per gallon gas tax increase bill (SF 257), signed into law by Branstad on Feb. 25.
In light of the criticism, Clinton Mayor Mark Vulich stated last week that the city intends to “follow the state’s rules” when it comes to the new revenues. It’s a response to several who have resisted Clinton’s proposal: Department of Transportation commission chairman Dave Rose, State Rep. Josh Byrnes, DOT director Paul Trombino and (now) Branstad.
For months, the city has received information about proper fund allocation from the DOT and Iowa League of Cities. Vulich said last week the direction from both agencies has been quite vague.
“I think that the biggest issue is that it’s not clear,” Vulich said last Wednesday. “We understand that there was an intent by the legislators that voted for a tax increase that they wanted the roads improved. Well, in that case, I feel like the piece of legislation should have been so clearly defined that we did not create this type of confusion for what the money can be used for.
“Your intent and my intent can be two different things.”
In February, the League issued a letter to cities addressing how to use the new revenues. It stated “Cities are allowed to use the revenues on any road-related expense, including employee wages...” League director Alan Kemp reaffirmed that there is nothing preventing Clinton from spending the new dollars on employees, citing the state’s own legal definition of RUTF.
Following recent blowback, the League has backed down from that recommendation. It sent a statement titled “Gas Tax — New Money and Best Practices.”
“It is the recommendation of the Iowa League of Cities that the additional revenues be used to address critical needs and critical road and bridge projects,” League officials wrote. “Each city should carefully review their road infrastructure needs and how the additional funds will be best used. We encourage cities to be mindful of the usage and the communication to your community.”
Clinton City Engineer Jason Craft joined other local officials on Wednesday, telling the Clinton Herald that he received information before the council’s vote indicating the city’s proposal was in accordance with the law. The new bill’s “legislative intent” covers the state and counties, but not cities.
Craft quoted an email he received from DOT officials on March 19: “specific legislative intent language was not included for cities.” However, the department doesn’t “believe” the intent “was intended to reflect a different intent for cities on how additional funds are used.”
Regardless of intent, DOT spokeswoman Andrea Henry told the AP on Monday that RUTF allocation is ultimately a local decision.
“Use of the gas tax funds as far as how specifically they use them are left up to the cities and counties,” Henry said, according to the AP.
The city is being told by both the League and the DOT that legislative intent doesn’t apply to Clinton — corroborated by multiple interviews and emails. Yet both organizations also are telling the city to follow the legislative intent.
Hence, Clinton finds itself in a muddled and politicized mess that now involves the governor of Iowa.
“I don’t think we’re misusing the funds, but I also understand the public’s point of view,” Craft said Monday.
Best uses of the revenues are up to the council, Craft added. The city’s proposal also calls for bolstered crack and chip sealing, microsurfacing and equipment upgrades.
As for employees, Craft said that at times the street department dwindles to three bodies on hand. It hinders the department’s ability to tackle pressing issues, such as emergency snow removal or storm recovery, he said.
When asked if the street department is understaffed, Craft said: “Obviously.”
“If people expect the city to increase its (street) work orders from new funds, we’ll need people to do the work,” he added.
Assistant Editor Brenden West can be contacted at email@example.com.