Despite urging from residents and local public officials, Supervisors take no action on contributing funds to Childcare Wage Enhancement

by Joe Moses

The Allamakee County Board of Supervisors met in regular session Monday, October 30 to address a full agenda of matters including a Public Hearing for a Zoning Ordinance Amendment, consideration of the Child Care Wage Enhancement Program funding and consideration of a letter of support for Alliant Energy’s application for a battery purchase loan. The meeting was called to order by Board of Supervisors Chairperson Dan Byrnes with Supervisors Mark Reiser and Dennis Keatley present.

During Public Comment, Larry Moore of Postville noted his support of the proposed Child Care Wage Enhancement Program and encouraged the Supervisors to consider using the $32,000 of tax funds returned to the County by Iowa State University (ISU) Extension to take advantage of the matching funds available from private donors. Becky Engelhart of Postville noted the importance of childcare availability.

Randy Johnsen, a retired band director, noted that his adopted daughter attended the Postville Child Care Center with Johnsen providing a positive review of their services and staff. Johnsen requested that the Supervisors consider supporting the Child Care Wage Enhancement Program which, he added, would be beneficial to the entire county.

Paula Enyart discussed the importance of supporting the availability of child care within the county. Enyart noted that many farming operations rely on child care providers with both parents working either on the farm or with one of the parents working away from the farm for another business or organization with their employment only possible with daycare availability close to home.

Crystal Duffy, Postville Library Director and Community Developer with the City of Postville, further discussed the need for child care availability with these services used by farm families in addition to families living within townships or communities. Duffy discussed survey results and research as part of the Our Postville Community Heart and Soul Program noting that local business/industry and education for youth are priorities for current residents with both of these factors to benefit from the proposed Child Care Wage Enhancement Program.

Following the time allotted for Public Comment, the meeting moved into the Quarterly Report for the County Sheriff’s office, which was then accepted and placed on file. The Manure Management Plan update for Distant View Farms was also accepted and placed on file, as was the First Judicial District Department of Correctional Services Financial Report for Fiscal-Year 2023.

The Public Hearing for the Zoning Ordinance Amendment was opened. Allamakee County Zoning Administrator Stephanie Runkle noted that this amendment relates to the rezoning of rural properties being developed or divided into three or more housing lots as R-1 (Rural Residential District) with specifics relating to setbacks, cul de sacs, road width and allowing neighbor input among aspects to be recommended or set by the Allamakee County Planning and Zoning Commission. Runkle noted that no public comment was received relating to this Public Hearing.

Planning and Zoning Board member Jack Knight noted that public feedback was received and used in the development of this and another amendment yet to be presented which will slow down the development of farmland for vacation homes. Keatley noted that this amendment provides a framework to be followed, slowing down but not stopping rural development. Runkle advised that the amendment has moved forward as the result of public feedback and multiple meetings.

Allamakee County Environmental Health Director Laurie Moody noted that this amendment provides for greater autonomy relating to the establishment of setbacks, separation distances, soil and water, among other matters. The Public Hearing was closed and the First Reading of Amendment #13 to Zoning Ordinance L was approved. The Supervisors set the Second Reading for Monday, November 6 at 9:40 a.m. and the Third Reading for Monday, November 13 at 9:40 a.m.

The meeting moved into the consideration of the County credit card use for the annual subscription renewal for the TCP Humanity online scheduling software program. Allamakee County Sheriff Clark Mellick noted that this expense relates to the staff scheduling software used by the Sheriff’s office.

Byrnes recommended having this expense brought before the Supervisors on an annual basis for review with this cost likely to change from year to year. The Supervisors approved the use of the County credit card for the $1,200 software renewal.

Consideration of the LA Communications Lease Agreement was next addressed by the Supervisors with Byrnes noting that this updated lease agreement relates to an ownership change from Wennes Communications to LA Communications with the lease period to remain the same. The revised lease agreement was approved.

The Supervisors next addressed the discussion and consideration of the letter of support for the Alliant Energy application for a battery purchase loan. This matter was originally introduced at the October 23 Supervisors Meeting with Account Manager Jacob Semann and Project Manager Pat O’Connor answering questions and providing an overview of this proposed project to install a 100 megawatt (MW) battery/energy storage station at the former Alliant Energy Power Plant location near Lansing.

At that October 23 meeting, it was noted that a letter of support from the Supervisors relating to the Alliant Energy/Interstate Power and Light (IPL) loan application for this project through the U.S. Department of Energy was being requested. At the October 30 meeting, O’Connor provided further details on the proposed project and loan application process via Zoom web-conferencing. Byrnes noted that the Supervisors would prefer to see the community benefits program (CBP) plan, a planning process required by the U.S. Department of Energy, prior to signing a letter of support on behalf of the County.

O’Connor requested to be added to next week’s agenda and that the Supervisors will be notified if this information is not ready in time for that meeting. Byrnes also provided an overview of several questions submitted by the Supervisors and answers provided by O’Connor via email prior to this meeting. Per O’Connor’s responses, Byrnes advised that, if approved, the project’s construction could begin in 2025 with start-up in 2026 and the project estimated at a total cost of $202,000,000 with this battery station to occupy 5-10 acres and anticipated to last a minimum of 20 years, with maintenance and replacement of core equipment to extend that timeframe. No action was taken.

The meeting moved into the discussion and consideration of the Child Care Wage Enhancement Program funding for Postville Child Care Services. As previously discussed in September and earlier in October at Allamakee County Board of Supervisors meetings, funding has been requested in support of a Child Care Wage Enhancement Program to retain skilled childcare workers by establishing a livable county wage for this industry. At the September 11 Supervisors meeting, Regional Planner Michelle Barness with Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission (UERPC) outlined the funding necessary to make this program possible including funding from private sources for a 1:1 match from Health and Human Services (HHS) in addition to a contribution from Allamakee County to make the program viable; increasing 40 full-time childcare providers from $12-13 per hour to $16.28 per hour.

At the October 30 meeting, Byrnes provided some background on this matter by noting that Iowa State University (ISU) Extension had returned $32,000 in levied tax funds to the County earlier in the year, a one-time situation due to an anticipated change in office space not taking place, with these funds initially proposed to be used as grants for youth-centered programs. Byrnes explained that there were reservations relating to the tracking of grants with the matter not moving forward and funds then being returned to the County’s General Fund.

Byrnes noted that the Child Care Wage Enhancement Program came to light around that time with Postville Child Care Services presenting a proposal shortly after to use American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds or the $32,000 returned by ISU Extension, with ISU Extension having no objections to this funding use. Byrnes advised that there has been a lot of public interest and feedback relating to this issue. Following this introduction by Byrnes, a lengthy discussion took place with the capacity crowd in attendance providing additional feedback on the matter.

Keatley discussed the use of the County’s General Fund, where that initial $32,000 was returned to. He noted, as an example of General Fund expenditures, legal fees and other expenses relating to the Veterans Memorial Hospital (VMH) property transfer as part of the hospital’s city-to-county conversion process, with that type of expenditure providing benefit to the public countywide.

Director Kristy Turner of Postville Child Care Services noted that childcare is a countywide issue and not an issue exclusive to Postville. Turner noted statistics from the Iowa Women’s Foundation indicating that there is a shortfall of 1,700 child care spaces in the county accounting for children up to 12 years of age. Turner noted research by Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission (UERPC) indicating that there is a shortfall of 290 child care spaces specific to children five years of age and under with child care providers only having spaces for  nine percent of school age children 6-12 years of age.

Turner also provided an overview of plans relating to the Child Care Wage Enhancement Program allowing a $4 per hour wage increase for 12 full-time and seven part-time teachers with funding from the program, pledges, and the County’s proposed contribution and private matching funds allowing that goal to be reached. Turner noted that any funds not used would roll over to the following years and assist in keeping this program sustainable.

Several individuals present at the meeting provided feedback in favor of the proposed $32,000 contribution by the County to the Child Care Wage Enhancement Program, with note being made of that $32,000 from the County to be matched by a pledged private donation which would, in turn, be matched by HHS funding, resulting in that initial $32,000 County contribution turning into a $96,000 impact. Of those in favor of the program, Waukon City Manager Gary Boden noted that from a county perspective, it is important to maintain or gain child care spaces and that this is a significant issue.

Boden further advised that he believes this issue has not been presented to the public strongly enough, further noting that a partnership between the public and private sector is necessary with problems from an economic development standpoint to be seen if nothing is done.

Boden discussed budget work for the City of Waukon and for other cities earlier in his career, noting that the $32,000 amount being suggested for VMH legal fees could be found elsewhere in the budget, if need be. Boden added, “Unless you convince me otherwise, that’s just a rationalization to make a case in opposition to this on a philosophical basis.”

Following additional discussion and feedback, Byrnes requested opinions from the other Supervisors. Keatley noted the personal connections those present have to this issue, his appreciation for those involved in fundraising and that it is his belief that Postville Child Care Services will succeed.

Reiser echoed similar thoughts and appreciation for those that are passionate relating to this issue and that, in his opinion, Postville Child Care Services will survive.

Byrnes summarized that the $32,000 of ISU Extension funds was intended for youth-focused programs with this one-time use fitting that purpose. He further noted that this is a good use, taking advantage of a 2-to-1 match and being a springboard to sustainability. Byrnes discussed other programs and initiatives receiving some support from the County and that he supports this contribution to the Child Care Wage Enhancement Program. Byrnes advised that he would second a motion in favor of the program.

Additional feedback in support of this program was heard from the public present at this meeting with Byrnes stating, “I would entertain a motion to support the wage enhancement program.” No motion was made by Keatley or Reiser. No action was taken.

Allamakee County Engineer Brian Ridenour addressed the next matter relating to the consideration of Fuel Margin Quotes for Secondary Roads. He advised that eight different companies were sent proposals with four companies providing bids. Ridenour noted that Hovden Oil of Ridgeway was low bidder in all eight divisions for the 2024-2025 calendar year. Ridenour’s recommendation of Hovden Oil for all eight divisions was approved with Byrnes and Reiser voting in favor. Keatley recused himself from voting on this matter.

Under Department Head Updates, Ridenour provided an update relating to concrete patching, which he advised will be finishing up. He noted that some asphalt patching may be possible if temperatures warm up. Ridenour also noted that sanders have been put on in preparation for winter road maintenance.

Prior to adjournment, Allamakee County Auditor Denise Beyer discussed election preparations for the Tuesday, November 7 election taking place next week. Beyer advised that there have been just over 100 absentee voters thus far.