Rod Sullivan, Supervisor, Johnson County, Iowa

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April 19, 2018

Sullivan’s Salvos     4/24/18

In this edition:

*Conservation Bond Purchase
*Did You Know?

*Conservation Bond Purchase
         The Johnson County Conservation Board (JCCB) recently entered into a contract to purchase land near Solon from local philanthropists Dick Schwab and Katherine Burford.

         This is an amazing piece of property. Conservation experts from across the state rave about the area. It is 132 acres in all, including almost 100 acres of high quality forest, including the remnants of the original Big Grove. The forest is adjacent to land owned by the Bur Oak Land Trust and the Corps, creating valuable wildlife corridors. 

         There is some other cool stuff. It is home to an active CSA, and comes set with deer fence, a packing shed, and coolers all in mint condition. The property is home to 4 round barns, including the Celebration Barn. It is home to the largest mortarless arch in North America. There are antique tractors and cars, woodworking equipment, a house, and much more. The JCCB has a Strategic Plan with six separate goals. This purchase meets all 6 goals.

         Here is the best part: Schwab and Burford just made the largest charitable gift in the history of the JCCB – over one million dollars! The finances break down like this: The property is appraised at $3.9 million. We will be purchasing it for $2.89 million. Over $1 million is their gift!

         The transaction is not direct. The owners first sold the property to the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation (INHF), who then sell it to Johnson County. This is because the INHF can move quickly, while local governments cannot. We will then purchase the property over 2 fiscal years. 

         I am sure you have heard people screaming about this purchase. I happen to believe the purchase is a very good thing. I will explain why in a moment. But first, please allow me to take on some of the more ubiquitous arguments against the purchase.

         1.) The process was not transparent. TRUTH:Local governments can go into closed session to discuss the purchase of property. And they almost always do so. Every piece of land ever purchased with Conservation Bond money used one or more closed sessions. This is standard operating procedure.
         What’s more, the County Attorney’s Office has assured both the Board of Supervisors and the Conservation Board that all meetings have been completely, 100% legal. The only people claiming otherwise are not attorneys. And if they remain SO sure of themselves? Sue away! Bring it on! Let’s have the courts decide!
         The members of the Conservation Board and the Conservation staff are good and honorable people who represent us well. While opponents have lied, Conservation folks have been serving the public. That they have been slandered and libeled in this way is disgusting.

         2.) This purchase is not in keeping with the intent of the Conservation Bond. TRUTH:As I stated at our Budget Hearing, I know a little something about the intent of the Conservation Bond – because it was my idea! I went to Harry Graves in January of 2006 with the idea of a $10 million bond. That turned into $20 million, and passed in 2008. So far, the Bond has done exactly what I had hoped.
         Here is the language upon which the public voted
: “Shall the County of Johnson, State of Iowa, be authorized to acquire and develop lands with public access provided, to be managed by the Johnson County Conservation Board, in order to protect the water quality in rivers, lakes and streams; protect forests to improve air quality; protect natural areas and wildlife habitat from development, and provide for parks and trails, at a cost not exceeding $20,000,000 and issue its general obligation bonds in an amount not exceeding $20,000,000 for that purpose, to be repaid in not more than 20 years? All expenditures will be subject to an annual independent audit.”

3.) Johnson County paid too much for the property. TRUTH:The total price paid will end up being just under $3 million. That is about $21,000/acre. Look at land prices in the area. Lots on Sugar Bottom Road are selling for $200k per acre! And that will only continue to go up.

4.) The purchase should not include the buildings on the property.TRUTH:You buy what is for sale. The property (all parcels, all buildings) was for sale as a package deal. You either buy it all, or you don’t buy any of it. This is not unusual. Johnson County purchased the same number of buildings (including a house) and 13 parcels when it bought the Pechman Creek Delta area in 2016. No one complained about that!

         5.) Conservation does not know how to manage the Celebration Barn. TRUTH:First of all, we don’t know if the renting of the barn will continue in the long term. But if it does? Johnson County Conservation already takes thousands of reservations every year, from campgrounds to shelters and more. They have a sophisticated system and trained people in charge. By the way, Conservation staff estimate that they already host several dozen weddings every year at Conservation properties. So if they decide to go this way, it should be no problem.

         6.) The buildings are in great need of repair. TRUTH:First, opponents have no idea if this is true or not. Secondly, we have a well trained group of Building Inspectors. They can look at all the buildings involved and determine if any repairs or improvements are required. If something is too expensive to fix? We won’t fix it. We’ll store things in it, and keep the public out. So the idea of the County incurring all these extra expenses is just not true.

The Conservation Board and staff are people of great character. They have traditionally done great work, and they did great work here. I am very proud of them, and proud of this purchase!

         The Cedar Rapids Gazette recently ran an article on the tax levy rates of local school districts. (Note to the Press Citizen – people care about this, despite what you think!)

         The article noted that the levy rate in the ICCSD is going up a little under 98 cents per thousand to $14.94 – the lowest levy rate among Iowa’s urban districts, and much lower than neighboring districts. 

         This is good news. It also reminded me that this was one of our selling points last year when I served on the committee that passed the ICCSD bond issue. There were MANY people who accused us of falsifying these numbers. There were MANY people who said the current ICCSD Board would not fulfill this promise. They were wrong. We were correct.

         It may not be very nice of me to say, “I told you so.” But I laid it all out there for that Bond vote. I used up any and all political capital I may have accrued over the years. To some extent, my reputation has been at stake. So yes, I was glad to see the ICCSD deliver as promised!

Every time a local government undertakes any type of effort, there are people who simply accuse them of lying. It is happening in more than one case as I write this. It is fundamentally the same group of 10 or so people (including some elected officials) who try to undermine local government at every turn.

Members of the public make all kinds of unfounded accusations. (Sometimes elected officials join in on the unfounded accusations! That is happening now, too!) Local governments, on the other hand, cannot prove the naysayers wrong until the project is finished. So it is difficult to win one of these arguments. By the time we know the truth, everyone has forgotten about opposition lies.

Needless to say, this does NOT mean we should abdicate our duties as citizens! I plan on continuing to hold my elected officials accountable. I plan on questioning them. But I will not cross the line into making false allegations. We have too much of that, and it is caustic!

Most of us have short memories – me included. I was vindicated today. What we promised regarding taxes was right on the money. So, as you hear members of the public accuse local governments of all sorts of indiscretions, remember this example.

*DID YOU KNOW? The JCCB has worked with the INHF on almost every bit of land acquired with the bond, including Ciha Fen and Pechman Creek Delta.

Anyone interested in learning more about County government should take a look at the County website- 

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