If you’ve been reading the Clinton Herald over the last several weeks, you would have read up on a common theme carrying the city of Clinton through April: State legislators, the governor, the Department of Transportation — they’re not happy with us.
Osage State Rep. Josh Byrnes has “shamed” Clinton Mayor Mark Vulich and the city council. DOT Commission Chairman Dave Rose is “disappointed.” And Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said the council is making a “mistake” regarding its proposed use of new road use tax fund revenues.
Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane. We only need to go fewer than two months back in time to Feb. 25 — the day Branstad himself signed a 10-cent per gallon gas tax increase into law. This came with some praise from officials across Iowa, including some of our own, locally in Clinton County. Iowans — especially in road departments — have been waiting for this increase to be able to address crumbling critical infrastructure. Branstad publicly stated in 2014 he would not sign a gas tax bill during an election year — a year in which his seat was also on the ballot. But he helped deliver on a new bill at the start of 2015.
As a result, cities, counties and the state will receive an estimated $215 million in increased revenue from the tax, which went into effect March 1. Clinton is expected to gain $470,000 worth. On April 9, our local council members voted to move toward using part of the sum to hire up to three new street equipment operators.
We are somewhat surprised by the strong reaction from state officials and others who seem to take issue with the council’s decision.
The street department in Clinton has six full-time employees. Common complaints heard by city officials highlight the city’s problems in tackling emergency matters like snow removal, storm recovery or glaring potholes that wear on city travelers. Iowa Code says nothing explicitly negating a city’s ability to pour gas tax dollars into hiring workers; this is something government agencies have done with the funding for years.
Maybe the five “yes” voting council members as well as Vulich, city administrator Jessica Kinser, finance director Anita Dalton and the Iowa League of Cities — whose early interpretation seemed to support Clinton’s plan — were all reading those codes approved by the legislature and overseen by Branstad. Instead, state officials seem to find fault with local leaders who want to ease their constituents’ primary concern: tackling immediate roadway troubles more efficiently with a couple extra bodies.
Many local officials have stated they want more clarity, in light of the controversy they unknowingly unleashed. SF 257 stipulates a “legislative intent” for counties and the state, but not cities. There’s no definition in the bill for what constitutes “critical infrastructure” spending, or explicitly stating money can’t go to the people who drive the equipment. Code states road use taxes can — in fact — be used on employees; there was never a change in this definition when the gas tax increase was signed into law.
Looking back, we believe if the plan had been presented differently, say by detailing how much work would be done with the money (including pot hole repair) and then hiring the people needed to do that specific work, the council wouldn’t be taking flak for filling out an employee roster decimated by budget cuts in previous years.
Add to it that the council’s discussion hit right before a DOT meeting in Davenport, and you have yourself a PR nightmare and stories with a Clinton dateline ricocheting throughout the state.
And, of course, it does lead us to ask: Why — after this issue was and is a political football kicked by every elected official at the local and state level for the last few years — would our council think any such move would not have a political fallout?
The bright spot in this is that Clinton leaders are taking a step back until lawmakers’ intent is clarified and have repeatedly said they want to follow the law — one that state officials admitted has a loophole.
If legislators and those who pushed for the bill are so strongly against Clinton’s proposal, the law should be revised to detail how the money can’t be spent.
In the end, it would be the best way to define what the state doesn’t want to have happen.