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Linda Langston Delivers State of Linn County Address, Talks Tax Reform

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa Linn County Supervisor Linda Langston on Wednesday said that Iowa's urban cities and counties might be forced to curtail property-tax breaks as economic development incentives if the Iowa Legislature significantly cuts property taxes for commercial and industrial property owners.

Langston made the comment in answer to a question from an audience of about 200 during Linn County's annual State of the County address. The event, at the Hotel at Kirkwood Center, was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Cedar Rapids and Marion.

Langston said most of Iowa's 99 counties are rural ones and could adapt if the Iowa Legislature approved a so-called property-tax reform plan like one proposed by Gov. Terry Branstad, which she said could cut commercial and industrial property taxes by 20 percent.

Linn County's own budget would take a $7 million or 8 percent hit if such a proposal makes its way through the Iowa Legislature yet this year, she said. A property-tax measure failed to pass last year.

Langston, a Democrat mentioned as a potential 1st District Congressional candidate, said she preferred to see tax reform in the form of tax credits for commercial and industrial property owners and not cuts to local governments and school districts that depend on revenue from property taxes.

Langston titled her address, "Why Counties Matter," and she suggested to the audience that most people really don't know what county governments do.

She ticked off a long list of services that Linn County's government provides, saying, "If you vote, drive to work, get a flu shot, visit the library in Marion, Central City or Fairfax, for example, eat at a restaurant, play in the park, use the trails or call 911, you are interacting with your county government."

Langston, who is first vice president of the National Association of Counties, singled out Linn County LIFTS, which provides door-to-door transportation for the elderly and disabled, for helping in January to quickly establish a Corridor medical shuttle between Cedar Rapids and University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and the Department of Veterans Affairs Hospital after the University of Iowa discontinued the service.

"Without this transportation service, these folks may have been forced to use local emergency room services, at a much greater cost to the community as a whole," Langston said.

One questioner asked about county-city cooperation, and Langston pointed to the new $18.3-million countywide law enforcement communications system, expected to be completed this summer, that will allow emergency responders throughout the county to communicate on the same radio system.

Almost completed, too, is a fiber-optic system that will connect city, county and school buildings, she said.

Much of the focus of the 2008 flood has been on the damage it did in the city of Cedar Rapids and to the city of Cedar Rapids' public buildings and infrastructure, but Linn County's public buildings took a substantial hit, too, Langston reminded the audience.

Most of the county's rebuilding effort, she said, is now complete rebuilding that has included a new Juvenile Justice Center and a new Community Services Building and renovations to the Jean Oxley Linn County Public Service Center, the jail and the courthouse. Linn County and Cedar Rapids both have been complimented for their speed of disaster recovery by other cities that have faced disasters, she said.

Langston also reported on the county's effort to track how long people wait in line at the county's busiest office, the Treasurer's Office. The average wait is 9 minutes, 41 seconds, with the average transaction time, 7 minutes and 56 seconds.

"We want you to know that we're trying to make it as painless as we can for you to pay your property taxes and get your (license plates)," she said.

Langston said Linn County has joined a group of nine counties in a new statewide regional approach for the delivery of mental health and developmental disability services.

To date, she said the new arrangement has required the county to cut back on some services, and she said the county may have to reduce the number of residential care facility beds as part of the regional approach.

"To be an effective government, we have to be flexible, collaborative, creative problem-solvers who engage in more partnerships that reflect the changing needs of society," she said.

Wednesday's last questioner asked Langston about the Linn supervisors' decision this year to increase their salaries by 25 percent. Langston didn't flinch, but noted that the supervisors agreed to say they would be 80-percent-time employees in 2009 when the board grew from three to five supervisors. But she said the supervisors work full time, and their budget has money now to pay them as full-time employees, she said.

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