CLINTON — Each passing day brings more scorn upon the Clinton City Council for its proposed use of new road use tax fund (RUTF) revenues -- dollars the city will receive on July 1 when the new fiscal year starts.
On April 7, five of seven council members voted "yes" on a proposal that would allocate some of the new $470,000 funding toward hiring three new street department equipment operators. Before state Legislators approved a 10-cent per gallon increase to the RUTF, Clinton already budgeted $2.6 million from its state allocation, of which $374,000 in "old" gas tax money was fixated on the current six full-time employees.
But the new revenues shouldn't be spent that way, says Iowa Department of Transportation director Paul Trombino, who added the dollars should be poured directly into critical infrastructure needs. State Rep. Josh Byrnes, R-Osage, chairman of the Iowa House Transportation Committee, agrees, and on Tuesday, the congressman's words appeared in several print media outlets. So dismayed was Byrnes, he also took to Twitter to voice his disapproval of Clinton.
Read the full statement issued Wednesday by Mayor Vulich in response to critics of the proprosal: http://www.clintonherald.com/news/mayor-asks-council-to-delay-action-on-use-of-gas/article_bd286f2e-e3cb-11e4-b5c6-c3f1e6d5e7ff.html
"Shame on Mayor Mark Vulich of Clinton and the city council members who approved RUTF for hiring staff," Byrnes tweeted on April 14. He included the hashtag "appalled."
Tweets only allow for 140 characters. That's hardly enough room to mention how RUTF is currently used in Byrnes' home district, nor adequate time to quote Iowa Code 312, the law that defines RUTF.
Subsection 6 of the chapter states: "Funds received by municipal corporations from the road use tax fund shall be used for any purpose relating to the construction, maintenance, and supervision of the public streets."
Rich Brumm, Worth and Mitchell County Engineer (which incorporates Byrnes' hometown), said that allows government agencies to pay for staff. Or so he thought.
In fact, that's one way Brumm said he applies his counties' state allocations. At least the "old" version of the RUTF revenues, anyway.
"Everybody needs bridges and roads fixed. Sometimes you need people to do it," Brumm said in a phone interview on Wednesday. His RUTF is put into the counties' secondary roads fund. There's no way to say if property tax dollars or RUTF dollars go into employees' pockets, though Brumm said RUTF likely is paid to workers.
"If (cities) feel like they can provide the public better service with those new funds by hiring staff, that seems like what the funds are intended for," he added. "If you don't have the staff to do the work, either way that money is going to pay someone -- maybe a contractor."
However, Mitchell County is 200 miles away from Clinton in north central Iowa. But Clinton isn't the only eastern Iowa city that funnels RUTF toward staff.
The city of Davenport finance office confirmed on Wednesday that it allocates $5.7 million (more than double Clinton's total RUTF collection) toward public works staff. That pays wages and benefits for 49 full-time employees. Clinton city administrator Jessica Kinser -- who drafted the April 7 RUTF proposal -- is hoping to boost her street department staff from six to nine, with $225,000 going to new hires.
Davenport's current RUTF use covers $116,000 per employee between wages and benefits. Clinton's proposed allocation is $75,000 per new worker.
Kinser said on Wednesday that she based her recommendation on what the Iowa League of Cities said municipalities could do with the new money. After legislators approved the new bill in February, the league issued a statement to its members.
"Cities are allowed to use the revenues on any road-related expense, including employee wages for those who perform work on the city’s streets," the league's February newsletter states, adding that the new bill is "league-supported."
LOC director Alan Kemp corroborated that sentiment on Wednesday, even citing Iowa Code Chapter 312, Subsection 6. While the Iowa Legislature stated its "intent" for the new revenues, verbiage in the bill doesn't specify how cities "must" allocate the increased funding.
"(The bill) didn't mention anything about the city street fund," Kemp said. "That intent didn't go to us... As long as (Clinton) is hiring someone who is doing something to address streets, yes, legally they're OK."
Vulich doesn't feel OK though. Outlets throughout the state have picked up on Clinton's alleged "abuse" -- Byrnes' words. Since the news broke, Vulich admitted his phone at city hall has been ringing more than usual, and he has received a flood of emails urging against the council's decision.
Before making remarks on the gas tax proposal during the April 7 meeting, Vulich said he intentionally requested a legal opinion from city attorney Pat O'Connell.
"My biggest concern, and the biggest frustration is, I do not want to be accused of breaking any rules," Vulich said on Wednesday. "I asked the city attorney for his interpretation of 'is what we're doing right or wrong?' At that time he felt there was no issues with it."
Last week, O'Connell's interpretation of the law was that "new" RUTF fell under the definition of "old" RUTF. Vulich (a non-voting member of the council) then remarked that it would be wise for the city to add to its "woefully understaffed" streets department.
Prior to this week, addressing street-related concerns -- namely maintenance, potholes and snow removal -- was the complaint Vulich commonly heard from citizens. He said that's because Clinton doesn't have enough personnel to address immediate issues.
"If someone has taken vacation time, calls in sick, there have been times when we have one person on the clock," Vulich said on Wednesday.
"So when you have a call for service for, say, a storm," he added, referencing the street department's April 9 tornado recovery efforts, "we may or may not have very many people to put on the road to actually do any of the work. For the people who say we're slow in getting our potholes fixed, well, when you only have maybe three to five working in the department in a day, and there's 110-plus miles of roadway to cover, you can only move so fast. We have the equipment, but we don't necessarily have the bodies to move the equipment."
It never occurred to Vulich -- nor Brumm, Kinser, Kemp, O'Connell or city finance director Anita Dalton -- that the same RUTF that was used to pay street worker wages obtained a new definition after legislators improved an increase.
If it turns out Clinton can't, in fact, hire employees who would handle street repairs, Vulich said he is agreeable to that conclusion (reiterating, again, that's why he asked his attorney for a legal opinion). Clinton's new money would follow whatever the law states, Vulich added.
But therein lies the problem. Like Kemp, Vulich quoted Iowa Code Chapter 312, Subsection 6.
"The way the law was set up, and the way other cities have followed it for years, was that road use tax money was used for maintenance and the manpower that actually takes care of the roads," said the mayor. "Those are funded from the road use tax dollars. The street department has had drastic cuts in manpower because of decreased funding...
"The intent of (Kinser) was that in order to provide better service to citizens for the upkeep of roads -- such as the potholes that we receive dozens of calls per day for -- that we could use some of that money, based upon the interpretation of the rule, to hire back some of the people that we dropped a few years ago. Which then we would be providing better service to the citizens for things they say we need taken care of."
Even if the RUTF definition doesn't change, Vulich said the public feedback he now receives should possibly change the council's approach.
"I thought the recommendation to add additional personnel, based upon what road use tax funds are already used for, I thought the proposal did best serve the citizens of Clinton," Vulich said. "However, it appears that the public wants its roads fixed. Previously, people were complaining that we can't get a pothole fixed. Now they just want their roads fixed.
"We should do what the public wants. But the public needs to understand, then, that there are not going to be additional people to plow the snow and fix the streets. I would hope the council would follow what the public's wishes are."
To Kinser, there was no indication from legislators that the RUTF funding Clinton will receive will be different than any of the current funding. She was anticipating a lump-sum allocation -- per usual RUTF receipts. On July 1, she was simply expecting a larger deposit that reflected the increase.
As for the state's definition, her proposal dictates Clinton wouldn't be paying for the materials of their new street repairs -- just the hands that operate the equipment. But under that RUTF description, there doesn't seem to be anything that prevents cities from diverting "old" RUTF activities into the "new" activities.
In that case, there doesn't seem to be any legislation stopping Clinton from taking currently budgeted RUTF-funded street repairs out of the current allocation and using the $470,000 increase to tackle those projects. That could free up money in what's already budgeted (and state approved) to increase staff, Kinser said.
"When a fund is restricted, you follow the rules," she said. "It's definitely possible. If the council were to approve it, current dollars could be used for new position.
"Clearly something was excluded that said this was going to come to the city as a separate pot of money."
In the meantime, Clinton continues taking the brunt for its (not ratified) proposal. Vulich said this has led to several inaccuracies from media throughout the state.
He pointed to an editorial that printed in Wednesday's Quad-City Times, chastising city officials for using the new funds to "boost salaries." That is among the many critiques against Clinton that Vulich wants to see corrected.
"That statement is blatantly false," he said. "We are not giving raises."
Until there are clearer answers on RUTF, Vulich said he is requesting an official opinion from O'Connell as well as one from the Iowa Attorney General's office.
Byrnes has told the media he felt cities should be appreciative of the Legislature, adding he wanted to "trust other elected officials" as stewards of their new RUTF. Regarding his trust in the Clinton City Council, Byrnes said "Whoops."
There seems to be a hint of something other than mistrust, however. It's well documented that the RUTF was a heavily debated subject in the Legislature for years, prior to February's bill passage.
Vulich was asked if the recent outcry is simply fueled by something other than fixing roads: Is all of this the result of political motivations?
"It appears to be," he answered. "It appears that many of the legislators that voted for a gas tax increase voted for paved roads or asphalt poured. But I think they may have failed to understand that road use also includes many other pieces."
Kinser was asked the same. While drawing up an answer, she looked to the ceiling, shook her head and chuckled.
"It seems like a recommendation I made to our city council to address local needs is being criticized throughout the state in an unfair way," Kinser finally said.
Byrnes did not respond to an emailed request for comment and multiple calls to his home were unsuccessful.
Assistant Editor Brenden West can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org