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Woodbury County Courthouse

Woodbury County Courthouse

HOLSTEIN, Iowa -- After months of deliberation, the Rolling Hills Community Service Region Governance Board voted Wednesday to add Woodbury County as an eighth county to the mental health agency.

However, in a piece that wasn’t expected, the region’s board members in the 5-2 vote said Woodbury County should be added one year later than previously discussed, on July 1, 2019, rather than in 2018. For now, that change could make for an unclear limbo year for Woodbury County, in terms of what region the county fits within.

That also doesn't mean Woodbury County will ultimately be in Rolling Hills by 2019. The process is that three separate votes are required in order for Woodbury County to join Rolling Hills -- one taken Wednesday by the Rolling Hills board to forward the recommendation to the seven county boards of supervisors, a majority vote by those boards over the next few weeks, then a final majority vote by the Rolling Hills governing body.

Therefore, the Rolling Hills board will meet on March 20 to create the resolution that the seven county boards will vote on. Once that goes to the counties within roughly the next 60 days, the expectation is that they will vote on it within 30 more days, meaning a final resolution could take up to another three months.

“This has taken a long time…It took a long time because we did a good job, our due diligence,” said Rolling Hills Board Chairman Rick Hecht, of Sac County.

Also, if Woodbury County moves into Rolling Hills, a projection showed the amount the county gets from property taxes to pay for mental health will be substantially higher. In statistics obtained by the Journal prior to the meeting, Woodbury County would have provided roughly half the budget for the regional agency in fiscal year 2018-19.

For several months, there has been a high degree of uncertainty on which regional agency will be delivering mental health services to low-income and disabled individuals and other people in Woodbury County beginning July 1. That’s the date Woodbury County is set to part ways with the three-county Sioux Rivers Regional Mental Health and Disability Services, after four years of growing pains with Sioux and Plymouth counties.

Woodbury County officials have described a poor working relationship with Plymouth and Sioux counties, which they say has necessitated an exit from Sioux Rivers.

In its place, Woodbury County has applied for membership in the Rolling Hills Community Service Region, a mental health group that includes seven counties to the east -- Buena Vista, Sac, Calhoun, Carroll, Cherokee, Crawford and Ida. Some Rolling Hills board members had questions on whether Woodbury County, with a large metro area including Sioux City, would be a good fit in Rolling Hills, which has more rural, small population counties.

After a robust discussion at the December and January meetings, the Rolling Hills board members -- the board has one member from each of the seven counties -- postponed a vote. The key factor involved pinpointing how much money Woodbury County could bring into the agency in the 2018-19 fiscal year.

Woodbury County Supervisors Jeremy Taylor and county Finance Director Dennis Butler attended the Wednesday meeting in Holstein. Taylor said he would have preferred the step approved Wednesday would have been effective this summer rather than 2019, but he was nonetheless gratified.

“I am optimistic and I am very hopeful. It shows why this region is so well run and respected,” Taylor said.

With the switch on the timeline Wednesday, it is unclear what region Woodbury County will be in for 2018-19. Taylor said there is “uncertainty” on whether it is possible the county could stay in Sioux Rivers, and it will likely take input from the Iowa Department of Human Resources, which led the state's decision to switch from a county-based to a regional approach for delivering mental health services in 2014.

Representatives from Cherokee, Calhoun, Sac, Buena Vista and Ida counties voted to add Woodbury County, while those from Carroll and Crawford counties opposed it.

The board members said slowing the process down to a 2019 inclusion of Woodbury County made the most sense. Hecht said having a larger region would be a benefit overall, in terms of services and finances.

Paul Merten, of Buena Vista County, said, “I think we can do this. At the beginning, we started with five counties,” then added Ida and Cherokee counties.

Cecil Blum, of Crawford County, and Neil Bock, of Carroll County, spoke against Woodbury County. Blum gave six reasons of opposition, including that “the inclusion of Woodbury County will interject drama,” and “could undermine the positive relationship we have with the providers.”

Kim Keleher, director of a mental health institution in the region and chairwoman of the Rolling Hills Advisory Board, said she had surveyed all 22 mental health providers in the seven counties about the possibility of adding Woodbury County. Keleher said just over half of the agencies responded, and the repeated answer was “a lot of concerns…that it will cause chaos.”

Said Hecht, “This has been a difficult process, to determine what is best for us, because that is our charge, what is best for everyone.”

Woodbury County has been a member of Sioux Rivers since 2014. Late last year, Sioux and Plymouth county representatives on the Sioux Rivers board voted against Woodbury's formal request to leave the region at the end of the current fiscal year.

The group's CEO, Dawn Mentzer, of Buena Vista County, told the Journal the full budget for all combined counties without Woodbury County would be $3,467,650 for FY 2018-19, and the amount with Woodbury County would be $6,780,703.

Counties belonging to each region pool their property tax revenues into a combined budget to pay for expenses throughout the group. The property tax levy that can be set for any Iowa county in Rolling Hills is capped at $42.79 per capita, while the current max levy for Woodbury County is $30.49 in Sioux Rivers.

The current year Woodbury County levy amount is $17.58 per capita. Taylor recently said the levy rate would likely be going higher as well by FY 2019-20, even if Woodbury County stayed in Sioux Rivers.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the mental health levies were based on $1,000 of property valuation, rather than per capita.

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County and education reporter

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