To the Editor:
I’ve been contacted via email, phone and stopped in the street and asked how the Carroll County Board of Supervisors can legally spend $14 million or more on a jail when the public only voted to spend $8.95 million.
I felt compelled, as I have done in the past, to look for an answer, so I contacted the legislative services committee at the State House and the Ombudsman office. What I found was interesting. The ballot language November of 2018 stated “enter into a loan agreement and issue its general obligation bonds in an amount not exceeding the amount of $8,950,000 for the purpose of constructing, furnishing, and equipping a County Jail and Sheriff’s office.”
It states in Section 331.442 of Iowa code “the cost figure is an estimate and is not intended to be binding on the board in later proceedings related to the project.” This essentially appears, on face value, to give the supervisors an open checkbook in that, even though the public voted to spend a TOTAL of $8.95 million, they can really spend “whatever they want.”
Take this situation aside and use another project in the county or state. Say, for instance, a community decides to build a new pool, but they know the taxpayer is only willing to spend $1 million, but all of the estimates and consults suggest to the elected officials that it is going to cost $3 million. The city, by this error in our code, could hold a bond referendum election for a $1 million pool and then the City Council could turn around and spend $3 million.
In my time with the Iowa League of Cities and visiting with countless public officials, I have never heard of something like this happening. The typical practice when the bid comes in way over what it is projected is to: reject the bids, modify the plan and then go back to the drawing board. I know the City of Carroll had its feet held steadily to the fire on the library and City Hall project by Dr. Richard Collison, and they are within dollars of what was voted on.
I, just as anyone who has served in public office, understand public projects, change orders and the games that are played, but we are usually talking 1 to 5 percent over estimate. I want to make sure people know there also have been plenty of times a project comes in under budget.
While state code may allow this, due to one important word, “estimate,” the question then becomes: “Who are we electing?” and “What about ethics?” It also has been stated that due to the egregious nature of our situation with the Carroll County jail, that the Iowa Supreme Court might want a stab at ruling on this matter as well. That will remain to be seen.
I, for one, don’t agree with what is happening and hope that our state legislators may use this as an example this next year to take up a bill to fix this state code language so that future boards can’t “bait and switch” their communities. It has been said that we elect people and trust them to make the right decision, and I agree with that, but I have never seen anything like this in Carroll’s history.
In the meantime, I’d hope people are continuing to contact the supervisors to express their disgust in how this project was handled and ask for a different plan.
Former mayor of Carroll, 2011-2015