Taxpayer Forum Tuesday Night in Lee County
Mary Van Pelt of Montrose wants taxpayers to learn what it costs Lee County to offer all services in both of its county seats, Keokuk and Fort Madison, versus in one location.
They will have the opportunity to do just that during an informational forum, organized by Van Pelt, that will begin at 7:00 P.M. on Tuesday, Mar. 25 at Central Lee's K-8 building.
"I hope the gymnasium is plum full," says Van Pelt. "I am so excited about it, but I am very nervous about it too. I don’t want the citizens to become angry. I want it to be civil.”
Van Pelt has spent more than 100 hours researching Lee County’s history and preparing for the forum.
She says that has her leaning towards supporting one county seat, but she is still open to the idea of returning to past practices depending on the information available.
Services were offered in both county seats for decades, but in 2011, the Board of Supervisors voted to close the auditor’s and treasurer’s offices in Keokuk and the recorder’s and assessor’s offices in Fort Madison.
The county says the reorganization saved it more than $250,000, but it also created ill will from south Lee County residents who now must travel to Fort Madison to get their driver’s license.
In fact, there was enough ill will that one state lawmaker considered filing legislation to reverse the 2011 action.
The county contends such a bill would cost its taxpayers more than $300,000.
“Those figures kinda blew me away," says Van Pelt. "I thought, 'My goodness, that much.'”
Van Pelt says the numbers stuck with her.
“I was thinking about those figures," says Van Pelt, "and some people are going to say, 'oh boy, she is a wacko', but God spoke to me.”
Van Pelt says the other time God spoke to her was to tell her to start a preschool at her church in Montrose, which she did.
So she immediately got to work by asking the county for help in collecting information for the forum.
Her request was granted. Her effort has gotten the attention of County Board Chairman Ernie Schiller.
"I think she is going to challenge us to do some gut-work," says Schiller, "and to maybe once and for all put aside all of these issues that all of us have.”
The county board has been arguing about the issue for months.
Van Pelt does not want any of that during the forum, so she is challenging the supervisors to listen during the forum.
"I have told the Board of Supervisors that I am going to have a table over in the corner for them," says Van Pelt. "They will have paper and pencil and they are to sit there and listen unless there is a question directed at them.”
Instead, the men and women who run the county every day will be the stars of the forum.
There will be a presentation from the county’s budget director followed by shorter speeches from department heads and others.
Van Pelt says that will be followed up by public questions, comments or concerns.
There could be more comments than questions given the topic.
In fact, Keokuk Mayor Tom Marion plans to attend and discuss a lawsuit he might file to restore services in his city.
“I think we have some background and some legal authority that all four offices should be in Keokuk.”
Marion says he must look out for Keokuk and its residents.
Van Pelt hopes the county can eventually get past that, coming together to unite, starting with this forum.
Ernie Schiller, who thinks the county should have a single county seat, says if a clear consensus forms Tuesday night, he will back it.
“If it comes up that we should reinstate everything back the way it was and have two new service centers, one in Fort Madison and one in Keokuk, then I am in," says Schiller. "If a majority of people believe that that is not the direction we should take, then I will follow that lead."
It could be back to the drawing board for Schiller if the audience is split.
Mary Van Pelt worked for the Central Lee School District for 30 years.
She remains active in the community by volunteering and by serving on the Montrose City Council.
Tuesday night's forum could be her most important contribution not just for her city but for all of Lee County.