The Ottumwa Courier

January 19, 2013

Resisting an urge to merge: Legislator proposes cutting Iowa’s 99 counties to 50 in four years

CHELSEA DAVIS
Courier Staff Writer

DES MOINES — One legislator has proposed that by 2017, Iowa must cut its number of counties nearly in half, but southeast Iowa legislators are not keen on the idea.

Among 28 other bills he has filed this week, state Rep. Bruce Hunter, D-Des Moines, introduced House Joint Resolution 3, which proposes to reduce the number of counties in the state to no more than 50 by July 1, 2017.

“Such reduction shall be accomplished by the merger, in whole or in part, of presently existing counties. Newly created counties shall be composed of contiguous territory and shall be reasonably compact,” according to the resolution.

“I have a disagreement about that,” said state Rep. Mary Gaskill, D-Ottumwa. “He’s from Polk County, so it looks good up there. But a lot of things look good to them. I would prefer to keep things as much local as you can.”

Ottumwa’s Republican senator, Mark Chelgren, is “adamantly” opposed to the proposal.

“I love small-town Iowa and Iowa values, and those come from small communities,” he said. “I came from a big city; I don’t like big cities, and it’s not in the interest of Iowa to consolidate until the big cities have all the control.

“Part of what makes Iowa such a unique place is that we have small communities. I would hate to see that character be lost.”

Gaskill said it’s important not to regionalize local government as has been done with last year’s mental health overhaul.

“I don’t believe ... that it will save any money because you have to integrate all of those items,” she said. “I could see a day come when we have a lot more electronic communication and maybe be able to do some things electronically, but I don’t think we’re there yet. The court system is still trying to get their system up and going.”

Davis County could essentially be absorbed by Wapello County if counties were forced to merge, Chelgren said.

“The issue is there’s such a small population in Davis County ... they would lose a tremendous amount in trying to deal with day-to-day issues,” Chelgren said.

Cutting Iowa’s number counties nearly in half would also mean citizens would have to travel further to access local government, Gaskill said.

“A lot of times these people, particularly if they’re on disability, they don’t have enough money to take care of their home, let alone transportation to another part of the state for services,” she said.

The resolution has been sent to the Local Government committee, but Gaskill said she’s not sure it will move through.

“They’re going to have to be able to convince me,” Gaskill said.

Newcomer to the Iowa House, state Rep. Larry Sheets, R-Moulton, said he finds the proposal troubling.

“I think it’s a bad idea,” Sheets said. “I believe in having the government as close to the people being governed as possible. This approach sounds like they’re taking that away from the citizens.

“It might be efficient, but not very effective.”

But this change would require amending the Iowa Constitution since it would change county boundaries.

It would have to pass both chambers in two different legislative cycles in order to make it to the ballot in the following general election.

“If you consolidate counties, the larger and more powerful counties and the urban areas would get more power,  and the rural areas will get less,” Chelgren said.

He said the philosophy behind the proposal is less duplication of services, meaning instead of 99 courthouses, there would only be 45 or 50. But the same point has been argued for regionalization of mental health services,  and he said it’s not the direction the state needs to go.

“At the time people talked about how great it would be to have regions be more consistent to save money,” Chelgren said of regionalization of mental health services. “Now those same people are saying that’s a terrible idea because they miss the good ol’ days when they had control locally.

“As soon as you take it out of the hands of the people who are local, it’s no longer is something the people can respond to.”