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Johnson County Supervisors candidates discuss property taxes, Justice Center

BY STACEY MURRAY | OCTOBER 16, 2012 6:30 AM

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Oppositional ideas define political elections, and the campaign for the Johnson County Board of Supervisors proves to be no exception.

Four of five candidates vying for three spots on the board met Monday in a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters and the Iowa City Chamber of Commerce to discuss various issues and their stances before the upcoming election.  Property taxes and the proposed justice center received the most discussion amongst the candidates.

Current supervisors running for reelection to one of the three available spots include Rod Sullivan, Terrence Neuzil, and Pat Harney. David Fesler and John Ethridge, petition-nominated candidates, are also running.

Those elected will join Supervisors Janelle Rettig and Sally Stutsman, who is running for a seat in the Iowa House.

Fesler, an Iowa City native, expressed his concerns about property taxes on several occasions during the forum.

“I believe when citizens have alternative candidates to vote for, it fosters better cooperation and communication and results in more efficient government,” he said.  “This leads to more stable property tax without diminishing human service.”

According to Fesler, Johnson County needs stable property taxes because the county has the second-highest property taxes in Iowa.

Yet Sullivan, a two-term supervisor running for another four-year stint, clarified Fesler’s property-tax information.

The property-tax ranking Fesler spoke to accounts for the taxes by the county and also includes the taxing by the school districts, cities and all the other taxing entities, and divides by the total property taxes paid and county incomes, Sullivan said.

This distorts the meaning of the ranking, because of the higher property values in Johnson County and the low incomes by the mass of students located in the county.

“It’s an interesting statistic but not really relevant,” Sullivan said.

According to the Iowa State Association of Counties, on a general basic property rate, Johnson County ranks No. 36 of the 99 counties in Iowa.  The county ranks No. 69 on a rural basic property tax rate, putting the county overall at the No. 44 highest tax rate in the state.

“I just want to make sure people understand where we really rank, which is pretty much in the middle of Iowa’s counties,” he said. “Frankly I’m not a person who is afraid of taxes.  I think taxes are a good thing — they buy us the government we want, need, and deserve.”

But this issue wasn’t the only clashing viewpoint of the evening.

The proposed justice center, an issue that will appear on the ballot in November, also prompted differing opinions from the candidates.

Harney said he thinks the Board of Supervisors has prepared for the project and supported the justice center.

“I think we’ve studied the system as long as we can,” he said.  “We just get to the point where we really need a justice center.”

While Fesler doesn’t necessarily take a solid stance on the proposed justice center, he said the county should consider waiting on this investment.

“All I’m saying is that with the economy the way it is, maybe we ought to stop and table it and take a look at it and go with some reasonable answer for other funding for the $46.8 million,” he said.

This particular issue concerned Dwight Jensen, an Iowa City resident who attended the public forum.

“I’m interested in the justice center because the need for it is more than a new jail, which is what gets the most discussion,” he said.

While issue importance and stances varied across the room, Rebecca Neades of the Iowa City Chamber of Commerce said the presidential election will benefit the supervisors’ election.

“You’re going to have a higher turnout,” she said.  “That means more people will be going to the ballot and having a voice in their local elected government.”


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