The Linn County Board of Supervisors has begun work on a plan to make sure all eligible students in the county will be able to receive at least two years of college education, Board of Supervisors Chair Stacey Walker announced in his State of the County Speech on Wednesday.
“We have yet to determine the specifics or even identify all of the partners [the county will work with], but we have agreed in our head and our hearts that giving our students a chance to further their education is a worthy effort,” Walker told the audience at The Hotel at Kirkwood Center in Cedar Rapids.
Walker said the county “will work with other governments and community partners to develop a program” that would help pay for two years at a community college for students who would not otherwise be able to afford it.
Linn County is “one of the fastest growing areas in Iowa,” Walker noted, and its economy is always in need of workers with education or training beyond high school.
“We can do this,” he said. “We can and we must. It not only makes good economic sense, but it is the right thing to do. Within the next three to five years, Linn County will work with all stakeholders to see to it that this program becomes a reality.”
This plan was only one of three ambitious goals Walker said he and his two colleagues on the Board of Supervisors, Ben Rogers and Brent Oleson, had identified.
Another goal is addressing food insecurity. A report published earlier this year by Feeding America found that approximately 10 percent of Iowans lack reliable access to affordable, nutritious food.
“Solving food insecurity, like most hard problems, requires more work than any one government can do alone, but until we get to a point where we are all committed to addressing the underlying issues that lead to conditions like food insecurity, there are some actions we can take to provide relief in the meantime,” Walker said.
During our last budgeting process, this board appropriated funds to begin a Food Rescue Program. We will leverage new technologies that enable us to create a digital network of grocers, restaurants, and markets who have available foods that they are no longer using. Instead of letting it go to waste, we will gather the food and deliver it to people and organizations that serve and house food-insecure individuals. We will bring this program online – in partnership with our Department of Public Health and the Food Systems Council – in the upcoming fiscal year. This effort combined with our support of programs like Meals on Wheels, will make a small but meaningful impact in the fight to end food insecurity in our communities.
Building on the county’s Fair Chance Hiring Program was the other goal Walker spoke about on Wednesday.
“Last year, we became the first county in this great state to ‘ban the box,’ prompting other counties and governments to follow suit,” Walker said. Banning the box means eliminating the box on applications for government jobs that anyone with a criminal conviction was required to check.
Studies have found that including that box on applications leads to greater racial disparities in the hiring process, since black Americans are charged with crimes at a much higher rate than whites are. A 2016 study from The Sentencing Project found that black Iowans are 11.1 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites.
“We have implemented other trainings to help our managers select qualified candidates without bias,” Walker said. “We have grown and diversified our applicant pool, and demonstrated once again that government can be a catalyst for change.”
Walker explained that Linn County’s “strong financial position” gives it “the opportunity to push forward with new, bold initiatives and projects.”
“When it comes to finance and budgeting, Linn County has been a model for governments across the state, and for more than 20 consecutive years, we have been recognized by the Government Finance Officers Association as best-in-class for our financial reporting and budget presentations,” Walker said.
“Our general obligation bonds have been rated Aaa — the highest rating possible — by Moody’s Investors Service. This rating is based on our strong financial management, a diverse and substantial economic environment and tax base, and a low debt burden with a rapid payout.”
In his speech, Walker also recounted some of the county government’s accomplishment during the past year, including the opening of the Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris Building, “a 63,000 square foot, LEED certified state-of-the-art facility that will house Linn County Child and Youth Development Services, as well as the Linn County Public Health Department.”
He also reported that the “county continues to make progress on the Dows Farm Agri-Community project.”
“Our plan keeps 75 percent of the entire site as conservation open space. While only 25 percent of the space will be developed — with a mix of housing types, community spaces, and small commercial uses — the development value of this project is estimated to exceed $100 million,” Walker said. “This project will spur economic activity while managing the challenges and opportunities of urban sprawl.”
In addition, Walker offered a brief review of the county government’s performance in what he called its “most important role: to provide for the general welfare of our residents.”
“Whether our General Assistance office is helping people pay their heating bill during the cold winter months, or the Ryan White program is connecting individuals who test positive for HIV with life-saving services, to quote my good friend Ben Rogers, we are the safety net for the safety net,” he said.
Walker, the first black person elected to lead Linn County’s government, also used his speech to focus on the need for “honest conversations and education about race and broader social inequality.”
We must all push back against the notion that we have somehow entered a post-racial society, or that economic hardship is proportionately distributed, or that our justice system is without blemish. We have a long ways to go on these issues, and I know that to be true because no person in this room would enthusiastically trade places with any black person in our community. It would not be because you are racist. You would not do it, in part, because you know you would not be as well off.
Walker listed some of the efforts Linn County has undertaken to address the problem of inequality, including implicit bias training for leaders in the county’s law enforcement and justice systems, and changes to policing practices.
Progress on achieving the three major goals outlined in the State of the County Speech would help reduce inequality in Linn County, but Walker acknowledged that some might find those goals unrealistic.
“Instead of being consumed by the easy cynicism that would call this notion naïve, or politically untenable, I challenge us to be the outlier,” Walker said. He said he believed Linn County could serve as a model for other communities looking to improve equality and the standard of living for their citizens.
“The public elected this board to drive change and lead this county into a brave new future,” Walker said, near the beginning of speech. “Along with that mandate, we must also keep in mind county government’s most important role: to provide for the general welfare of our residents; the blocking and tackling if you will. Simply put, we exist to help people and solve problems; and if we perform both of those duties well, we will drive change.”