Webster Co. EMA budget under dispute

Funding for the Webster County Emergency Management Agency may be affected by questions of who should pay and how the agency should be administered.

The county Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to fund the agency at a level of $29,907 for fiscal year 2015, which begins July 1, at a Monday budget meeting.

At the other budget meetings Monday and Tuesday, the supervisors heard budget recommendations but did not hold votes.

This is only a portion of the agency’s needed budget for the year, said EMA Coordinator Tony Jorgensen. The rest of the funding will come from towns in the county and from a federal grant, he said.

“My budget is built on a lot of assumptions, including that the communities are going to pay,” Jorgensen said.

The existence of a county EMA is mandated by Iowa code, said Supervisor Merrill Leffler, but the law is very vague on how it must be funded. He said all towns should pay their “fair share,” but towns can legally decide to pay less than recommended by the EMA board, or even nothing at all.

“There are no teeth in the the law,” said Leffler, who serves on the EMA board. “If we all refused to finance (Jorgensen), he’d have $0 for his budget.”

By law the EMA board is made up of a board of supervisors member, the sheriff or the sheriff’s representative, and the mayor or the mayor’s representative from each city within the county.

There are multiple ways to fund the agency, Leffler said, and last year the board decided to have the county pay it all.

“I argued that wasn’t the fair way,” he said. “The city, and everyone else should pay into the pot.”

This fiscal year the board intends to divide funding among the towns and county based on relative share of assessed valuation. With a total funding level of $58,500, the county’s share would be $29,907, and Fort Dodge’s share would be $24,375.

The next highest amount paid would be $890 from Gowrie; most towns would pay only $125 to $500.

Fort Dodge Mayor Matt Bemrich said a problem arises since Fort Dodge and the county pay more than 90 percent of the budget, but do not get proportional representation on the EMA board.

“I’m a commission member and I’ve been very vocal, about the fact that if we’re paying that much, we should have a weighted vote and so should the county,” Bemrich said. “We’re paying the majority of that cost, but have the same vote as somebody who only pays $200.”

He said the board should operate more like the board at the North Central Iowa Regional Solid Waste Agency, which gives more say to entities that pay more.

“For my opinion, if our taxpayers are going to have to fund it at that level, then the taxpayers need to be represented on how that money is being used,” Bemrich said. “I understand most of that is going towards wages, then we should have some oversight of how that person spends their time.”

The $58,500 total will only partially fund the EMA. Leffler explained that the EMA will also need a grant it gets every year of about $30,000, and may have to dip slightly into its fund balance to fully fund this fiscal year. If the grant isn’t received for some reason, or if communities decline to pay the figured amount, the agency will have to use nearly all of its fund balance of roughly $38,000.

Fort Dodge did not levy for the EMA last year, Bemrich said, but there was a countywide levy, so citizens in town paid for it too.

Even if the city paid less than the board recommended, or nothing at all, it can’t opt out of the EMA, Jorgensen said. Iowa Code says the city is part of the agency, and the agency is required to help out in an emergency regardless.

Supervisor Clark Fletcher said one of the purposes of the EMA is to handle disaster funding. Funding flows from the federal level to the state, and the state distributes it through county EMAs.

The agency is used frequently, Jorgensen said.

“We had a presidential disaster declaration last summer which brought pretty close to a quarter million dollars just to the county,” he said.

Bemrich said the city is still deciding how it wants to approach the issue. The City Council will discuss the EMA budget on Feb. 3.