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Lawmakers debate prison staffing, funding in wake of deaths

DES MOINES — The recent slayings of two state prison workers by inmates fueled a heated debate over funding for the state’s prison system Tuesday.

During competing press conferences outside the Capitol, Democrats and union leaders called for more funding for state prisons and accused Republicans of putting prison workers in danger. The Republican House speaker highlighted his party’s proposed prison funding boost and accused Democrats of betraying law enforcement officials.

Two workers at the state prison in Anamosa, officer Robert McFarland and nurse Lorena Schulte, were killed during an attack by two inmates March 23. A third worker, Lorie Matthes, was taken hostage during the attack, and one inmate was seriously wounded while trying to assist the other victims.

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During the first press conference Tuesday, a top state union leader called for lawmakers to increase funding so prisons can hire dozens if not hundreds more workers, boost funding for equipment upgrades and worker training in the prison system, allow public workers to collectively bargain for safety and health issues (those bargaining rights were eliminated by a 2017 law passed by Statehouse Republicans), and fund an independent investigation into the March 23 attack.

“Let me be clear: I believe grossly inadequate staffing inside the Department of Corrections led to the deaths of Robert and Lorena. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it,” said Danny Homan, president of AFSCME Council 61, which represents roughly 20,000 public workers in Iowa. “There’s only one way we can fix this, and that’s to hire the appropriate number of staff that we need at Anamosa and at every correctional institution in this state.”

There are 23 vacant positions in Anamosa according to state officials, but Homan argued Tuesday that number is tenfold higher because the state stops counting positions after they are left unfilled for more than a year.

According to an AFSCME report using state data, despite having almost identical state prison populations in 2009 and 2019, there were 1,594 paid full-time correctional officers in 2009 and 1,371 — 223 fewer — in 2019.

Homan also called for the termination of former Anamosa Warden Jeremy Larson as well as Anamosa’s deputy warden and security director.

Larson has been reassigned as interim warden at the Newton facility, and Randy Gibbs, the warden at the prison in Fort Madison, has been temporarily reassigned to serve as warden at Anamosa, a state corrections department spokesperson said.

Those changes were among a reshuffling of leadership posts in the state’s prison system, including a retirement and four reassignments, the spokesperson said.

Homan accused the state corrections department of playing “whack-a-doodle” by moving the former Anamosa warden to Newton.

House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, called the deaths in Anamosa “preventable” and “predictable” after what he called years of underfunding the state prison system.

Moments later, House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, held a press conference to respond to those criticisms.

Grassley highlighted House Republicans’ proposal to boost the state corrections budget by $20 million, which he said was in the works before the deadly attack in Anamosa, and criticized Democrats who voted against the proposal earlier Tuesday.

“Public Safety: largest increase in over 10 years. Department of Corrections: largest increase in 10 years. Fully funded the courts’ request,” Grassley said.

The proposal needs to also be approved by majority Republicans in the Senate — who previously proposed a $4 million increase for the corrections budget — and Gov. Kim Reynolds.

House Republicans’ proposed $20 million increase would cover delayed salary increases, budget committee chairman Rep. Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake, said during Tuesday morning’s budget hearing.

“We’re trying to bump them back up, improve staff numbers and so on there,” Worthan said. “This puts out there in big, bold letters that we support our law enforcement people, we support our justice people, we support those people who are guarding our institutions and taking care of our offenders. Call it the thin blue line or the thin brown line standing between us and anarchy.”

Homan noted that means the funding boost only covers current salaries and does not provide funding for additional staff.

Grassley said state corrections department leaders will be able to use the funding increase however they see fit.

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Campers in Iowa state parks will pay more in fees this year
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Campers looking to overnight in Iowa’s state parks this year will pay more do so.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has raised camping fees at the state’s parks this year for the first time in more than 20 years.

The move comes after the state Legislature passed a measure in 2018 allowing the department to set its own fees.

Under the agency’s new four-tier pricing structure, out-of-the-way parks that get fewer visitors won’t see a rate increase. But larger parks that draw more visitors see nightly fee increases from 25% to 55%.

For example, at Lake Macbride State Park near Solon, fees for a site with electric, water and sewer service went from $19 a night to $26 per night.

“The more amenities people have, the fee will reflect that,” Todd Coffelt, chief of the State Parks, Forests and Preserves bureau, said.

The extra money raised by the increases will go toward renovations of state parks, upkeep, staffing and promotions of lesser-visited parks, Coffelt said.

The fee increases follow the state park system’s windfall from last year, when COVID-19 led many to look for nearby outdoor vacations. The Iowa DNR brought in nearly $2.3 million in camping fees between July 1 through October 30, 2020 — a 33% increase over the same period in 2019.

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Report finds 'significant increase' in force by Iowa police
  • Updated

IOWA CITY — State police officers in Iowa drew their guns and used force against suspects significantly more often in 2020 than previous years due to a major increase in resistance, according to an internal report obtained by The Associated Press.

Suspects fled in vehicles and on foot from officers working for the Iowa Department of Public Safety far more often in 2020 and were more likely to punch and kick officers and to threaten them with weapons, according to data in the department’s annual use of force report.

Officers, who include members of the Iowa State Patrol, responded by drawing their handguns, shotguns and rifles 269 times in 2020, an 83% increase from the prior year, the report found. They also took or ordered suspects to the ground in dozens more cases compared with 2019.

While rare, officers also fired their weapons, deployed chemical spray, shot nonlethal munitions such as rubber bullets, intentionally struck vehicles and used stun guns more often in 2020 than 2019, the report found.

Officers discharged their weapons in two cases in 2020 compared with none in 2019, killing one person, an armed Black man who had allegedly threatened to shoot a female hostage in Webster City. He was the only person killed in any of the incidents, while at least three dozen other suspects suffered visible injuries. Twenty injuries to officers resulted in at least some medical treatment, while many others were categorized as minor.

“Officers reported a substantial increase in subject resistance in 2020, resulting in a significant increase in officer force from the previous year,” according to the report, which was approved March 24 by Public Safety Commissioner Stephan Bayens and obtained under the open records law.

The 22-page report did not seek to explain what was causing more suspects to resist officers and did not mention either the pandemic or the nationwide protests against racial injustice and police brutality. The increase in force cases began in January 2020 and continued most of the year across the state, decreasing only in April compared with 2019, according to the data.

Just like 2019, Blacks comprised a disproportionate number of those involved. Blacks make up about 4.1% of the state population, but represented about 30% of those involved in the incidents, the report found.

The data comes from detailed reports that officers must complete whenever they use force, regardless of whether injuries result.

The report highlights that force cases represent a tiny fraction of the 214,000 calls for service officers were involved in and that relatively few officers or suspects were seriously injured. Less than 1% of the incidents were determined to be violations of department policy.

“DPS officers continue to use the minimum amount of force necessary to establish control while keeping subject injuries low,” the report said. “Officers report high effectiveness rates for most force options and use sound decision making in lethal force situations.”

Most of the increase involved cases in which officers drew weapons or threatened to use force but did not actually do so, corresponding with the increase in fleeing suspects, the report found. Officers are expected to display their weapons during vehicle pursuits until they determine the suspect is unarmed and can move to other force options, it said.

The increase in force came during a year in which Iowa lawmakers sought to decrease tensions between officers and the citizens they serve. A bipartisan law approved in June restricted the use of chokeholds by officers and required all law enforcement officers to attend annual training on de-escalation techniques and bias prevention.

The report said all sworn officers will complete training courses on those subjects, and that de-escalation will be incorporated into required defensive tactics training.

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Senate OKs shift in mental health funding

DES MOINES — The Iowa Senate on Tuesday evening passed a massive overhaul of Iowa’s mental-health services delivery system that is currently funded by local property taxes.

Senators voted 30-17 along party lines to revamp mental-health financing by shifting the cost of regional services from Iowa’s 99 counties to the state and phasing out the $152 million “backfill” to cities, counties and schools that was part of a 2013 compromise to replace local revenue lost when commercial and industrial property tax rates were cut by 10%.

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“We were elected here to do bold changes, bring big ideas and make the state of Iowa a better place. This bill today accomplishes some of those goals,” said Sen. Dan Dawson, a Council Bluffs Republican who managed Senate File 587.

The measure now goes to the Iowa House, where its outlook is uncertain.

With property assessments and valuations rising, Dawson, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said “people need property tax relief. People also come forward year after year and say we need a better way to fund mental health. We do that in this bill right here.”

Senate File 587 would eliminate the mental health property tax levy over a two-year period, with county levies reduced to no more than $21.14 per capita for fiscal 2022 and reduced to zero beginning in fiscal 2023.

To replace the mental health levy, the state would provide per-capita appropriations to counties ranging from $15.86 for fiscal 2022 to $42 by fiscal 2025. Beginning in fiscal 2026 and beyond, the previous year’s appropriation is multiplied by a growth factor indexed to sales tax growth for the preceding fiscal year — not to exceed 1.5%.

“The math works,” said Dawson, who noted the state investment for year two is $120 million. Proponents estimated the property tax relief impact of the bill at about $100 million.

“First and foremost, it reforms our mental health funding,” said Dawson, who pointed to disparities among the current 14 regions that make up the mental-health system in Iowa.

“This wipes away the property tax levy and treats all Iowans equally on a per-person distribution basis across the state,” he said. “So no matter where you are in Iowa, you will receive the same quality mental-health funding as any other place in the state and care.”

However, minority Democrats said the planned state takeover of mental-health costs was a rushed proposal that has not been properly vetted.

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said the bill was the product of private discussions that did not include a full public airing from county and local officials and the mental-health experts who will be directly impacted by the major overhaul.

Democrats have charged the legislation is a political favor for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and other conservative interests that helped deliver all but six counties for Republicans during the 2020 election.

“This bill is a shell game,” Bolkcom told his Senate colleagues. “It starts by breaking a promise that will result in a property tax increase and cuts in local essential services. It also makes a new promise that will be broken as sure as I am standing here today.

“The Des Moines takeover of our locally controlled mental health and disability services will hurt and destabilize the entire regional system that we’ve worked so hard to build and grow.”

However, Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, pointed to past “doom and gloom, Chicken Little the sky is falling” predictions by Bolkcom that have not materialized in a state with a budget surplus even during a COVID-19 pandemic.

“Your track record is zero,” Smith told Bolkcom. “Over and over again, you’re wrong.”

Sen. Jackie Smith, D-Sioux City, a former county supervisor, said she is concerned what impact the change will have on the regional service delivery that is working and will merely shift burdens among taxpayers.

The bill would amend provisions related to county fund balances by requiring all county fund balances to be pooled by the region.

Other elements would phase out the commercial and industrial property tax replacement funding for local governments while adjusting the school foundation percentage to account for lost revenue from the backfill.

The bill would eliminate the public education and recreation levy for school districts; establish an additional elderly property tax credit for those above the age of 70 who qualify; remove the 2018 income-tax “triggers” already included in a previously passed Senate bill; repeal the charitable conservation contribution income tax credit; and require the state to certify the management of property enrolled in the forest and fruit tree reservation property tax exemption program and renew the exemption every five years.

The bill would provide a state appropriation of $60 million in fiscal 2022 — $50 million goes directly to the regions on a per-capita basis and $10 million goes to a mental health risk pool fund. State funds will be distributed to the regions on a quarterly basis starting July 1.

In fiscal 2023, the bill provides an additional $65.4 million in state general-fund appropriations for a total of $125.4 million — the year that the mental health property tax levy is completely eliminated. About $120.3 million will be distributed to the regions and an additional $5.1 million will go to the risk pool.