Lower taxes or expanded services?

Lower county taxes in the future may be one result of the comprehensive mental health reorganization throughout Iowa.

The large 22-county region which includes Webster County will soon have a high fund balance, which could be used to send money back to the counties and lower taxes, or for expanding mental health services, Webster County Supervisor Clark Fletcher reported to the Board of Supervisors Tuesday morning.

Mental health care in Iowa has been shifting from county-by-county to a regions-based model since 2012, when the state mandated regionalization. The large region including Webster County is called “County Social Services,” while the name of the local department overseeing these services is Webster County Community Services.

Fletcher serves as Webster County’s representative on the region’s governing board.

Much of the funding burden has shifted from counties to the federal government, Fletcher said, since Jan. 1, when many more people went onto the Medicaid system due to the Affordable Care Act.

“It’s estimated by the end of this year, County Social Services will have spent approximately $3.9 million less than last year at the same time,” Fletcher said.

Webster County levies $47.28 per capita to fund the system. As the funding has shifted, CSS is on track to have a cash reserve close to 50 percent of its operating budget. When the region was set up, the board set a maximum of 35 percent cash reserve, Fletcher said.

With the extra funds, Fletcher said money could be sent back to the counties, and less taxes could be levied next year.

“The other school of thought is County Social Services keeps that money and looks for more services to offer,” he said.

At the CSS meeting, Fletcher suggested all the representatives go back to their respective boards of supervisors to see what they want to do with the extra fund balance, he said.

All four supervisors in attendance thought lowering taxes sounded like the best option. Supervisor Bob Singer was absent.

“Basically with this new system, the $40-some we levy is apparently too much,” Supervisor Merrill Leffler said. “So I would assume all the counties in the state need to look at, do we need to decrease that so we’re not being overtaxed?”

Rod Halvorson, of Fort Dodge, asked the board what services would be affected if the region kept the money.

“Mental health has always been a traditionally underfunded program, and I understand there was a levy limit,” Halvorson said. “I’d want to hear what the potential services are and what the need is before I made my decision.”

Halvorson is running for the position of District 4 Supervisor currently held by Leffler.

Fletcher said there is a shortage of mental health care providers. However, he said County Social Services did not suggest any specific needs at this time.

“I can assure you that if there are things they had to recommend, we would consider them. At this time, they have nothing brought forward to further fund,” Fletcher said.

“If in the future we determine there’s other services that need to be offered, then we levy the taxes.”

Bob Lincoln, chief executive officer of CSS, told The Messenger no specific areas for increased spending have been identified yet.

Going into next year’s budget process, “there will be a lot of stakeholder meetings, and a lot of conversations around the gaps that still exist in the service system,” Lincoln said.