NL council balks at some additional contributions, bends for others
By Lori Lindner
North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY– As budgets everywhere are squeezed, the North Liberty City Council has been hit up for additional donations.
At a second budget work session Tuesday, Jan. 29, the council agreed to fund some requests that would help people in need, while taking a more conservative stance on others for the upcoming fiscal year.
The City of North Liberty regularly designates money in its annual budget to meet health and social services needs of residents, including donations to the North Liberty Community Food and Clothing Pantry, Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Housing Trust Fund of Johnson County, the North Liberty Family Resource Center (FRC) and other benevolent community organizations. In 2012, the city set aside $86,000 for such programs. Fifty thousand dollars of it went specifically to the FRC, a free resource that helps Johnson County families obtain food, clothing, furniture, transportation, childcare, mental health services and educational support, as well as providing assistance with many other needs. Established by the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD), North Liberty’s first FRC began in 1995 at Wickham and Penn elementary schools. The program has since expanded, adding locations at Van Allen and Garner elementary schools.
As of June 30, 2013, the federal Safe Schools Healthy Students grant program expires, eliminating money that supported case management positions at West High School and North Central Junior High, as well as early childhood positions. While the junior and senior high personnel will be funded through dropout prevention dollars, early childhood programming is not allowed through that funding mechanism. At least two district early childhood positions would likely be cut, including a part-time job in North Liberty.
The FRC is seeking a total increase of $107,573 from its main funding sources to help make up for the shortfall. For the past two years, North Liberty has given $50,000 to the organization. This year the FRC asked the city for $72,900, an increase of $22,900.
But when they looked at contributions from other Johnson County municipalities, North Liberty officials were already feeling generous.
“If you look at our numbers, we are doing well in terms of our donations compared to everybody else,” said North Liberty Mayor Tom Salm. According to documents prepared by city administrator Ryan Heiar, Coralville allocated $29,000 in fiscal year 2012, while Hills gave $15,000. The City of Iowa City has provided money for FRC capital expenditures through Community Development Block Grants, and Johnson County previously matched cities’ contributions before the passage of a SILO (School Infrastructure Local Option) tax.
North Liberty City Council member Coleen Chipman said as a former school board member, she finds it unwise to fund personnel positions with temporary grants from the federal government.
“When they are cut you have to look at other sources,” said Chipman. “If we were cut in our (city) funding, we wouldn’t go to the school district and ask them for more money. We have also had a fairly substantial cut in our budget– $130,000– so it’s not like we have extra money to put toward personnel. We are also paying more than other entities.”
Council member Gerry Kuhl agreed.
“It’s a 45 percent increase over what we currently give. We all pay property taxes to the (school) district, so we would be supplementing our own property taxes,” Kuhl said.
The council’s consensus was to leave the city’s contribution at $50,000 level for the upcoming fiscal year.
On the other hand, the council felt a $4,000 investment in the AmeriCorps program was a sound one. The organization’s Each One Reach One program works to mentor disadvantaged and troubled youth who are at risk of involvement with– or who are already involved in– the juvenile justice system, as well as mentoring for adult offenders and veterans and families who have suffered abuse and neglect. AmeriCorps hit up cities in Linn, Johnson and Tama counties in August 2013 in order to continue to serve more than 500 youths and adults when the Iowa Department of Corrections left them with a $49,000 shortfall in matching grant funds.
North Liberty council members agreed to the $4,000 request last year, and informally agreed to another $4,000 for the upcoming year.
“I think it is a pretty good investment,” said councilor Brian Wayson. “It seems like a bargain, if you can help people straighten out their ways. It’s less problems our police department will have to deal with down the road.”
Kuhl was concerned about continuing to fund the program because the Department of Corrections’ sixth judicial district had to return more than $1,600 to the State of Iowa last year in unused funding.
“The Department of Corrections and every other department in the state government is allocated so much money by the Iowa legislature,” Kuhl explained. “It is up to the board to allocate that among correctional institutions and community-based corrections services. The money they have not spent goes back to the state general fund.”
However, the partnership with AmeriCorps and its Each One Reach One program is a proposal of the Community Corrections Improvement Association, outside of the Department of Corrections’ typical service protocol, noted Wayson.
City council member Terry Donahue asked if the city’s participation resulted in a net benefit.
“Absolutely,” replied Assistant City Administrator Tracey Mulcahey. “The community work crew is at the food pantry every week to unload truck. The work crew sets up and tears down for Blues & BBQ. We will enlist them for centennial activities. They save us a lot of time, volunteer recruitment and energy in general.”
Donahue and the other three councilors voiced continued support of the city’s $4,000 contribution.
Though boosting North Liberty’s public transportation system has been an ongoing discussion, the council did not agree to put additional money in the city’s transit line item. Beyond the city’s morning and afternoon commuter bus that makes runs between Coralville and North Liberty, transit talk has turned to helping North Liberty residents access basic services and locations within the community, such as seniors and the disabled who need to get to their doctor appointments, the grocery store and the post office.
Tina DuBois, director for the North Liberty Community Food and Clothing Pantry, told the council many of her clients walk from the eastern edge of North Liberty to the pantry, located on the west side of Jones Boulevard.
“Between 10 and 28 percent of our families report they get to the pantry by walking, riding a bike or getting a ride from someone else,” said DuBois. “I know a lot of people from Ashley Court, the low-income senior apartments, do carpool, and I do know it is sometimes difficult for people to get to us, especially for seniors who have difficulty walking.”
But talk is cheap, and that is how the council likes it for now.
“There does seem to be a need, but I don’t think this is the year to do it,” said Chipman. “When we have $130,000 cut from our budget, this may be the year to tighten our belts and not propose new funding.”
Instead of putting money toward the effort, the council will ask the city’s appointed transit committee to reconvene and investigate possible ways to provide public transit within the city limits.
“I think meeting and coming up with a plan is a better option,” said Salm. Meanwhile, the council unofficially agreed to continue the city’s partnership with Coralville’s public transit system to provide the commuter bus, at a cost of $125,000.
The city must complete, approve and certify its budget with the county by March 15. The council has held two public work sessions on next year’s budget, but council member Wayson asked for another opportunity for the public to give input. Therefore, the council’s agenda for Feb. 12 will include a public comment portion specific to the budget. The official public hearing and council vote is expected to take place at a regular meeting Feb. 26.