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Local governments spend thousands on placing information in newspapers, while state pays significantly less

Published: Sep. 27, 2021 at 7:50 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Counties and cities spend thousands of taxpayer dollars placing information, which is sometimes available online, in a newspaper. Iowa law requires cities and counties to publish proceedings of local government, like meeting agendas and public hearing notices.

However, our KCRG-TV9 i9 Investigative Team learned the same laws do not apply to the state legislature. Instead, the state legislature is only required to publish proposed constitutional amendments. The result is a wide disparity between the amount of money different types of governments pay to inform the public of government proceedings.

Over the last five fiscal years, the city of Cedar Rapids published 1,957 public notices for $178,400.96. The state legislature paid about $585. Smaller cities, like the city of Marion, also have to pay for public notices. They spent around $17,000 each of the last two fiscal years on public notices.

Lon Pluckhahn, who is the former city manager for Marion, originally thought the amount paid by the state would be much higher. He said the value of placing public notices in newspapers isn’t the same as when he started working in public administration.

“To just be perfectly honest, I think the value proposition has gone down, even since I was in public administration,” Pluckhahn said.

However, he also said there is a moral obligation on keeping people informed on local issues, along with supporting an employer like a newspaper.

“If we’re proposing to rezone a neighborhood,” Pluckhahn said. “I think we have an obligation to tell that neighborhood we’re doing a re-zoning of that neighborhood.”

Local governments pay a fixed rate on public notices, which is based on a formula. The publications must also be a certain size font, so it is readable. The Iowa Newspaper Association also puts all public notices on an aggregated online website.

Susan Patterson Plank, who is the executive director of the Iowa Newspaper Association, said local newspapers make money off public notices. But, she said spending on public notices is a small percentage of government budgets, like copy paper.

“Necessities like soap in the bathrooms, and other things like that, all those things are the cost of government,” Patterson Plank said. “And informing your citizens is probably one of the most important things you can do. So when you think about that cost-benefit ratio. It’s not very high.”

She also said the publication of public notices in the newspaper helps those who aren’t connected to the internet.

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