County Supervisors

Iowa Press | Episode
May 31, 2024 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Barry Anderson, Clay County supervisor, and Mark Campbell, Webster County supervisor, who both serve on the board of directors for the Iowa State Association of Counties, discuss important issues, challenges and opportunities at the county government level.

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for The Gazette, and Katarina Sostaric, state government reporter for Iowa Public Radio.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa and Iowa Bankers Association.

Recorded: May 17, 2024



Iowa's 99 county governments have a lot of power and responsibilities, but state level decisions still impact how they operate. We'll visit with supervisors from Clay and Webster Counties on this edition of Iowa Press.


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For decades, Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, May 31st edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.


Henderson: Iowa has 99 counties and dozens of people are supervisors at the county level who make decisions on behalf of the residents in their counties. We have two of them with us today. Barry Anderson is a republican from Greenville, that is in Clay County. He is a Clay County Supervisor. He is also the leader of the Iowa State Association of Counties. Thanks for being with us.

Anderson: Thank you.

Henderson: Our other guest is Mark Campbell, he is a democrat from Kalo. That is in Webster County and he is a supervisor there. Thanks for being here. You're also, I believe, on the Iowa State Association of Counties Board of Directors.

Campbell: I am.

Henderson: Our guests are going to be questioned by Katarina Sostaric of Iowa Public Radio and Erin Murphy of the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

Murphy: So, gentlemen, one thing that we know counties have been tackling in recent years are the carbon capture pipelines that are going through various areas of the state. Barry Anderson, we'll start with you on this one, because very near you in Dickinson County, that county has chosen to pass an ordinance that has to deal with the pipelines that are coming through. There has kind of been a difference in approaches from the various counties. If I'm correct, Clay County has not taken any action on these. What are those discussions like? How do you come to a point where you feel like the county needs to get involved in this process or doesn't?

Anderson: Right. I guess Clay County's view has been that we want to leave the power in the hands of the landowners. We want to make sure that things are safe, planned out well. So, we have updated our local ordinance as far as just talking through road passages, that kind of thing, drainage passages. But we want to leave the power in the landowner's hands. We did not like the eminent domain discussion, so we did send a letter into the state and the IUB that we wanted them to stay away from eminent domain, but we wanted to leave the final decision to the landowners, understanding that if the majority of landowners agree to the process and are okay with that coming through their land, then a few people cannot hold up a project, so eminent domain may have to take place in a small fraction of that. But we wanted to leave that in the landowner's, I guess, decision.

Murphy: Mark, has your county had -- has Webster County had this discussion as well?

Campbell: Very similar conversation. We mirrored Clay County and multiple other counties and what they did. Property rights is kind of the foundation of what we do in local control. And we did sign a letter asking that eminent domain not be used. However, we also recognize that carbon capture and other pipelines are industry, they do bring jobs to our area. We just need to balance private property owner's rights with these new industries that are going to come to our area.

Henderson: You mentioned new industries. Counties are also wrestling with whether to pass ordinances about the placement of wind turbines. What has been the experience in Webster County?

Campbell: So, in Webster we do have 900 acres of solar along with wind. We have an amazing partner with MidAmerican Energy. They have been very good about coming to us ahead of time, sitting down and working with landowners. And again, that is a landowner and private company conversation. They go out and lease that land for those wind turbines. In some cases, that is what helps keep some of these families on their farms. The 900-acre solar farm was actually purchased. MidAmerican came in and purchased that land, so they do own all of those 900 acres. And now that has become a habitat for all sorts of different bees and butterflies and it's a pretty neat area. So, the project has helped our county.

Henderson: And in Clay County?

Anderson: Clay County, about five years ago we had our first wind project come through. People on both sides. But again, we wanted to uphold the local landowner's rights to decide for themselves if they wanted to enter into a contract. So, then we dealt with Alliant, built a good relationship with Alliant, and then we've taken it to the next step. We have TIFed our wind project, which has allowed us to do road and bridge projects that Clay County wouldn't be able to monetarily handle for years down the road.

Henderson: And that means tax increment financing, which means that money --

Anderson: Yeah, we get to capture that increment and then use that toward specific projects.

Murphy: Barry, real quick, you mentioned the landowner rights. The state legislature has been discussing this too and considering legislation for multiple years now that ultimately has not passed. Do you feel that landowner rights are sufficiently strong as is currently write in Iowa Code? Or have you talked to legislators about the need to maybe strengthen those in state law?

Anderson: I think that we've got a process and laws in code that allows landowners to have pretty good power. Locally, we have to make sure that we stand behind those and stand behind landowners. Every county, as the pipelines or wind projects come through, can have people that take a stance maybe in a certain direction and sometimes those decisions can hinder property owners. And so, I guess that is where Board of Supervisors have to be strong enough to realize we're there to make decisions but I don't want to muddy the water or step in front of landowners.

Sostaric: We have some elections coming up and county auditors administer elections and I know there have been some heightened concerns in recent years around elections, people not believing election results, sometimes threats to election workers. Mark, what are you doing in Webster County, if anything, to make sure that election workers and voters are safe? And have you heard any of those concerns in Webster County?

Campbell: We haven't had any issues really with security or safety. Our courthouse did implement security at the courthouse a couple of years ago. Our Sheriff brought it to the Board of Supervisors. We have a metal detector. He did a fantastic job of educating the public for the need of it and actually during our hearing to implement it, we had a disturbance in one of our offices, and we had staff available. That is a partnership with the state. And I think a lot of our conversations that we talk about is the partners that we bring in together whether it is the state, federal government or neighboring counties. Education is a huge part. And then also letting people be a part of the process. A lot of times people don't understand what it takes to find workers to man our polls. So, we ask them to become part of the process, come work, come count ballots, be a person, a poll watcher.

Sostaric: And what about in Clay County? Have you seen any concerns about safety of poll workers or just concerns about elections in general?

Anderson: Not really any concerns. We want to be proactive and ahead of the game. And so, we follow any kind of security that is asked by the state. But the same thing as Mark mentioned, it's hard to get people to work elections. And so, a lot of times we have elderly, but we go through a lot of training and we try to be as transparent as possible so that people can see through their training, through the media and the radio, newspaper, we try to put things out there to show what our steps are in the process, even if there is a question on a ballot, how that is handled, so that people in Clay County can feel assured that things are on the up and up.

Henderson: Barry Anderson, maybe put your hat on as the leader of the Iowa State Association of Counties. The most unpopular tax in Iowa is the property tax. And legislators over the past few years, and even in the 1990s, have imposed limitations. How is that working?

Anderson: This past year has been an interesting year with House File 718. That put a cap on assessments. And that in turn, I understand what they're wanting to do and trying to do, property tax has been a big topic. But on the same hand, it kind of ties local government's hands. And so, I guess that is where I want to hopefully work with legislation over this coming year to clean up some things, maybe look at how it affects different counties different than other counties. And so, I don't -- I understand that we don't want property taxes to just run rampant. But I hope that everybody also understands costs, wages, roads and bridges, all kinds of expenses continue to grow in those costs. And so, for us in Clay County to be kind of hand tied as far as what our growth can be in Clay County, it can hinder us a little bit.

Henderson: Mark Campbell, do you have anything to add to that?

Campbell: So yeah, House File 718 definitely changed how we look at our budget. We were fortunate a little over a year ago to bring in a budget finance director and really start looking at how we run county government. And in essence it's a big business. And we sat down with all of our department heads who spent an incredible amount of time trying to figure out, how do we leverage our offices, get them to work together, but yet decrease our footprint? Because the reality of it is we only have a small piece of the pie here. So, our engineer looks at working with neighboring counties to see if we can help them because we're all in it together. And when that cap is put in place of what our assessments can be, we have to sit down and figure out, because we're still required by the state to perform so many services, and the state is a good partner with that, but we still are statutorily required to do a lot of different things like public health, secondary roads, run our offices, provide election security and training. So, we have to figure out how to do that, just like a business does, sometimes with a smaller pool.

Anderson: I might add into that, that as we go through this, the partnership that we have with the state, I think that is something that we need to foster and improve. Right now, it seems like --

Henderson: Adversarial?

Anderson: -- adversarial a little bit. And that can be both ways. We have to at the local level be better at coming to the table and coming up with ideas of how to work through these things. But we have to also hopefully have legislators at the Statehouse that are willing to come to the table and ask us, how is this going to affect you?

Murphy: The next thing I want to ask you about is another one that the Iowa legislature passed and I'm curious to get your perspective on how it will impact your counties. And Mark, I'll start with you on this one. The state, and for those of us who have been around long enough this is the second time in the last decade or so, the state has redesigned the mental health care delivery system, this time combining it with substance abuse, behavioral health programs. I'm just curious, Mark, if you have a perspective on what you think about that proposal broadly and specifically how the county's roles will play in this new system moving forward and if you're comfortable with that?

Campbell: So, Representative Meyer kind of, I want to say four years ago kind of started and was the architect of rearranging some of our regions and did a fantastic job of giving counties the opportunity to opt out of a region or go to a neighboring region. And then the state came in and said hey, we're going to look at another change. And I was on the CICS Board, that is our mental health provider, until the recent restructuring of that and now we're going to restructure again. Uniquely is we're trying to get all the same services across the state of Iowa. The problem is we don't have providers to provide those services. The state is funding it. It's not a funding issue, which is very rare when it comes to a lot of things we work on where we usually can't find money. In this case, the state has done an outstanding job of stepping up and getting the funding in place. We now need people. We need to find those providers that can step up and provide those services across all of our counties. And that is the challenging part. Do I think bringing substance abuse and more of these services together is going to help? Absolutely. The more we can share those services and hopefully overlap a little bit, the better it is going to be for everybody. And public health is probably going to be, it sounds like, next. So that will be even better.

Murphy: Barry, how about your perspective?

Anderson: I'm the Board Chair for the Care Connections of Northern Iowa mental health region. So, as Mark said, to put substance abuse and treatment together with mental health just makes sense. Co-occurrence, most of those cases are co-occurring. It's going to be interesting. We have taken pride in watching over the governance of those boards. And so now we're going to step into an advisory role. I don't necessarily say that that's wrong. And job one is not me and not my board, it's the people that need serviced. And so, we have to make sure, if that means that this is the best solution for the state to kind of come in and watch over this and have us as an advisory role, then more power to it, let's get that done because it's not about me. But I think we're moving in the right direction. We've made some good steps. It's going to be a little different because my region runs from Osceola County over to Winnebago and Worth. So, we're long and lean through the middle there. Three of those counties will probably get split off with CICS. And so, it will be interesting to see how those things happen. But Mark is exactly right, the challenge to us is the providers. It's tough in the rural areas to get providers to pick up on some of these very expensive services.

Sostaric: So, the legislature also passed an immigration enforcement law this year and if the courts let it take effect, county sheriffs and county attorneys could be arresting and prosecuting immigrants who were previously deported or denied entry to the country. Barry, is Clay County law enforcement and courts ready to take on an immigration enforcement role?

Anderson: Clay County law enforcement working along with Spencer Police Department I think have always been a good working force together. As far as the immigration goes, we will handle any challenges that come forth. Our sheriff has always been willing to step up and handle things. We have a very good law enforcement in Clay County. So, it won't be anything that we can't handle, it will just be another challenge.

Sostaric: What about in Webster County? Do you think there's going to be more training for handling immigration issues that weren't previously handled by local law enforcement, more funding that is needed for that too? How do you see that playing out?

Campbell: So, our sheriff, Sheriff Fleener has done a fantastic job of building a team with Fort Dodge PD and our other local law enforcement agencies. Obviously, they're going to enforce the law if implemented. We haven't had specific conversations on this. But again, between Fort Dodge PD and the sheriff's department, I don't see this being a burden in our area.

Henderson: Real quickly, we've got a lot of questions to ask. The legislature passed and the Governor signed an increase in the pension benefits for sheriffs and deputies. Do you think that is going to have an impact on recruitment, which we hear is an issue? Is it an issue in Webster County?

Campbell: So, we've been fortunate, one of our new projects is we're going to use some of our opioid dollars to build a drug task force specifically focusing on the opioid crisis. We're also going to match that locally with some gambling dollars. But every opportunity that we have to improve upon the offerings that we can give our law enforcement, we need, because a lot of people don't realize we don't just compete with a neighboring county, we compete with neighboring states. And one of the challenges, and I'm sure we'll talk about it more, is we need people in Iowa. We need to get people to realize the quality of life that we have here, the industries that we have available, and really the opportunities that sometimes living here we take for granted. But yet, when we have family that come and visit us, they're like wow, I kind of forgot about this and how cool some of these things really are. So, every opportunity when they're going to increase a benefit or an opportunity for law enforcement, it's going to benefit us long-term.

Henderson: Erin?

Murphy: I'm going to ask both of you about this, but Mark we'll start with you. Talking about building new jails and I ask you first because Webster County recently had a referendum that was unsuccessful. There is also a movement out there to try to reduce the jail population on the law enforcement side of it. So, tell us why in counties like Webster County you feel that new jail buildings are needed.

Campbell: So, for us ours is an older building that has become extremely expensive. And we talk about not having the ability, our valuations are going down, our budgets are going to get smaller, but yet our jail cost to house inmates doubled last year roughly from about $350,000 and I think this next year we're projecting between $600,000 and $700,000 that we're going to pay other counties to house our inmates. And that is just the overnight cost. That is not the expense to have somebody and the safety concern to be hauling these inmates back and forth, the road time. So it is, it's important for two reasons. One, we need a safe place for inmates and we need a safe place for our staff. And do I think that is a long-term solution? No. But we're going to continue to do our best to provide not only a safe atmosphere for everybody, we've got to figure out how to do it in a cost-effective manner too.

Murphy: Barry, what is the situation in Clay County?

Anderson: 10 years ago, just as I was coming on the board, we went through a referendum and it passed in Clay County, so we built a new jail. At the time we were housing around three to four people a day. We built a 24-bed jail and that has been almost at max capacity since then. But it comes back to what you said, Mark, it comes back to the safety not only of the inmates but of the people working there, that we have to have something that is workable and safe and we didn't have that in Clay County before. We do now.

Sostaric: The legislature has passed several laws in recent years that restrict the decisions that county supervisors can make, things like limiting the minimum wage, can't ban plastic grocery bags, can't ban housing voucher discrimination. The Senate President Amy Sinclair said that counties as a political subdivision of the state have that right and should be regulating those things. But how has it felt to you, Barry, as a county supervisor, do you feel like there has been a lot or more than usual of laws limiting county supervisor's roles? Or do you see the state as that's fine that the state can do that?

Anderson: In code, in Section 25B I believe it is, it says that the state if they see necessary, they can make decisions that changes things. But it also says that then those costs are supposed to be fully handled from the state. And so, I guess my feeling is yes, there's been changes made, and if those changes are decided to be made, I'm okay with that. We'll move ahead with the process. But I just want to make sure that those things are funded. That puts an extra burden on the county that if they aren't funded that just tightens our budgets even more.

Murphy: One of the pieces of legislation passed this year gave counties the opportunity, the ability to get rid of their compensation boards if they so choose, and these are boards the set salaries for county officials. One of the legislators likened them to an old boy's club, just giving each other raises. Mark, is that how you see county compensation boards? And do you advocate for their role in county government?

Campbell: I appreciate their job. When you look at all the boards and commissions that counties have, the majority of them are unpaid. So, we have a group of people that are willing to take the time to come in and do the research and our comp board does. They come in, they sit down with the elected officials, they compare their wages and job responsibilities and duties, and then they make a recommendation. It's a process, not every county does that, we understand that. But it comes down to what you're willing to put into it and we do have a very good group that works hard.

Henderson: Barry Anderson:

Anderson: Same in Clay County, our board has always come in, looked at comparables, looked at where things are at, looked at inflation rates. They have done their homework. I don't hear that in every county, but in Clay County it works well.

Sostaric: Affordable housing has been an issue across the state and you had mentioned just the need to attract people to Iowa to take various jobs. What is needed on affordable housing? And what are you working on at the county level with regard to that?

Campbell: So, the city of Fort Dodge and Webster County work incredibly well together. Actually, we meet every other week to sit down and go over the projects that we have going on. We've been fortunate, kind of modeled after Spencer, we had a company come in and remodel one of our old middle schools into apartments and again, that is a great partnership with the Iowa Finance Authority, Debi Durham's office in the state, because we are not able to sometimes cover the gaps that these developers need and we can't attract some of these developers in because we don't have the opportunity to assist them with some of the infrastructure that larger cities can. So, we have to get creative, sometimes that is using our tax increment financing, which is an amazing tool when used properly, we're blessed to have that. But currently we have some rural housing going up, we have another middle school that is being redeveloped, the city of Fort Dodge was fortunate to have some private developers. We have a small town called Gowrie just southwest of Fort Dodge that has I believe it is Hubbell coming in putting five houses up because they did a tax increment financing. And as we see those small towns get those houses, a lot of people don't realize those are new students too most likely, because when a family comes in the students join the school system and that just helps everybody.

Anderson: In our small rural area, Spencer is 11,000 people of our 16,000 total. And so affordable housing is huge for us. And so not only in Spencer, but our small areas, Greenville, Dickens, Webb, those areas are shrinking. And so, if we don't think outside the box with affordable housing, those areas are going to continue to shrink. So, we've got to plan the best we can. There's no way that people are going to come back to Clay County if we don't have places for them to live.

Henderson: Thinking outside the box, a final question just real briefly. Do either of you ever think that Iowa will have fewer than 99 counties? Either of you want to answer that question?


Campbell: I try never to say never to anything because we don't know what's going to go on. We're already sharing services across counties because, let's face it, when we go after industry, we're not competing with Spencer anymore. One of the bigger industries that we went after recently we were competing with Malaysia. So, to say never, I don't know. The reality of it is, as our budgets get smaller, we're going to have to figure out ways, and that's what counties do, they figure out ways to make things work.

Henderson: Sorry, I have to figure out we're out of time. Thank you for sitting here and having this conversation with us, appreciate it.

Campbell: Thanks.

Anderson: Thank you.

Henderson: You can watch every edition of Iowa Press at For everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation.

The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure.

Elite Casino Resorts is a family-run business rooted in Iowa. We believe our employees are part of our family and we strive to improve their quality of life and the quality of lives within the communities we serve.

Across Iowa, hundreds of neighborhood banks strive to serve their communities, provide jobs and help local businesses. Iowa Banks are proud to back the life you build. Learn more at