Iowa County may soon have a new architectural wonder to compete with the House on the Rock. The Iowa County Board is building a new office building to house the Department of Health and Human Services. Unlike the House on the Rock, the only people that seem to want the new building are eleven members of the County Board.
In January 2008, the Iowa County Board passed a resolution to build a new building for ‘not more than $7 million’ for the agency. The county board changed its mind in October of that year and voted to kill the project. The project came up again, and it failed on a 10-10 tie with one member of the board absent.
In October 2009, the issue came up again before the board, and this time all of the board members were present. The new $6.477 million building passed by an 11-10 vote.
Iowa County decided they needed the new building after Strang and Associates conducted a study for the county. The same company is now getting paid a commission for designing the building.
To pay for the new building, the Iowa County Board voted to issue $6.1 million in general obligation county building bonds. From the State Trust Fund, the county would borrow $789,000. To reduce the interest costs of the borrowing, the county will receive a subsidy of 45% of the interest cost of the State Trust Fund loan each year from the federal stimulus money, $87,562 over ten years.
The cost of the debt gets passed onto the taxpayers. They can expect a property tax levy increase of $.40/$1000 of assessed value. The average family will see an increase in their taxes of $900 over ten years.
More importantly, the tax will fall hard on commercial and agriculture properties, already hit hard by the depressed real estate market and poor economy. Walnut Hollow, a Dodgeville-based company that distributed woodworking items and tools through the Internet, has already had to cut back their workforce, leaving an empty 12,5000 square foot building. Walnut Hollow will end up paying $28,000 over ten years in new taxes on the empty building if they cannot sell.
And remember the House on the Rock? According to Marketing Manager Matt Schneider, this famous tourist attraction (and employer of 200 people during the peak season) will pay an additional $10,000 per year in taxes. They have plans for expansion, but will have to scale them back if the Iowa County Board continues its course.
In response to the Board’s decision, a new citizen group formed, Concerned Citizens of Iowa County. They attempted to force the issue to referendum last fall. They believed they needed 900 petition signatures. In less than four days, the group gathered 2151 signatures, 26.4% of the voters in the last election for governor. County Supervisor John Meyers (an opponent of the new Health and Human Services building) says, “We had people calling all over looking for the petitions to sign.”
They thought the petitions would be enough to force the issue to referendum. However, the County Board has so far avoided even considering the petitions.
Supervisor Meyers said they tried to force the issue for consideration by bringing it up at the Land Conservation Committee. However, the issue was delayed after it was to be referred to Corporate Counsel, and then to outside counsel, by County Board Chairman Mark Masters.
Meyers said there is a strong reason why they won’t allow the new building to go to referendum – it would not pass.
“You know you don’t have the support but still you go ahead. It’s just crazy.” He added, “They figure it fail in a referendum, so they don’t want public input at all.”
Concerned Citizens of Iowa County filed suit to stop the bonds from being issued, and that part of the project is on hold until the lawsuit is settled. However, construction continues because the county decided to press ahead with the money borrowed from the State Trust Fund even though the entire project may be in doubt.
Putting the project even more in doubt are the elections in April. Six of the county supervisors who voted for the new Health and Human Services building are not seeking re-election. Opponents are confident that they will take enough seats to kill the project entirely. Still, the construction continues even though the county has not issued the bonds to pay for it.
But the issue has had one positive effect, a new activist group to watching over county government. Local activist Dan Curran says Concerned Citizens of Iowa County is a “cross-section”of the public: some Tea Party activists, two county board members, business people, and people that are just mad at what the county board has done.
“They’re just fed up because no one was listening to us.”
The County Board is listening now, even if they afraid of what they are hearing.
By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute