Supervisors discuss maintenance of veterans' graves, take part in public hearing for Driftless Area Visitor Center

by Bob Beach

During the regular meeting of the Allamakee County Board of Supervisors Monday, October 5, the Board met with Dave Schutte, caretaker of the Postville Cemetery, who questioned the Board’s decision earlier this year not to pay for maintenance of veterans’ graves in the cemetery. Schutte listed several examples of veterans buried in the Postville Cemetery who lived, worked and paid taxes in Allamakee County for their entire lives but the County won’t pay to maintain their graves because they are “on the other side of the road.” He said that he did not think it would be fair to ask Clayton County to pay for the maintenance of those graves.
Allamakee County Veterans Affairs Director Heather Homewood, who brought it to the Board’s attention earlier this year that the Postville Cemetery is located entirely in Clayton County, reminded the Board that there are many veterans from Allamakee County who are buried outside of the County and the County does not pay to maintain those graves as the Iowa Code requires counties to pay up to $5.00 per grave per year to maintain veterans’ graves located within the county.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Larry Schellhammer said that it was never the Board’s intention to hurt the cemetery and that the issue doesn’t seem to a “budget-busting situation.” Supervisor Dennis Koenig said that he agrees with Schutte that veterans’ graves need to be taken care of and his concern about not paying to maintain veterans’ graves in the Postville Cemetery was that the cemetery would get “cross-wise as far as money,” adding that Allamakee County should be paying for Allamakee County people.
Supervisor Dan Byrnes said he does not have a problem paying to maintain the graves, but pointed out that other cemeteries don’t get paid from outside the area to maintain graves. Chairman Schellhammer said that he would discuss the matter with Allamakee County Attorney Jill Kistler and with representatives from Clayton County to try to resolve the issue.
The Board also met with County Coordinator of Disabilities Services Kim Waters, who updated the Board on a recent meeting of the County Social Services Board. Discussion focused primarily on the proposed privatization of Medicaid disbursements through Managed Care Organizations (MCOs). Waters said that the four MCOs approved by the State of Iowa have not signed contracts with providers, but Mediciad recipients have already received letters notifying them that they need to choose an MCO by December. She added that it’s also unclear whether hospitals across state lines would work with the MCOs.
“It’s going to be very time consuming and kind of a mess,” Waters said. “It affects everyone and most people don’t even know its coming.” She added that State Senator Mary Jo Wilhelm and others have sent letters to Washington, D.C. encouraging lawmakers there to reject or slow down the process of privatizing Medicaid in Iowa.
The Board also voted to accept the low bid for asbestos removal at the Makee Manor building from Earth Services of Des Moines for $87,210 with the removal to be completed by November 13. In a related matter, Allamakee County Sheriff Clark Mellick reported that an inspection of the current Allamakee County Jail was recently completed and that the State Jail Inspector will work with the County to keep the current jail open until construction of the new jail has been completed.
In another jail-related matter, Allamakee County Zoning Administrator Tom Blake said that the Planning and Zoning Commission has considered how to issue a permit for the new jail under the current ordinance and discovered that such a facility does not fit any current definition. Blake said that the Planning and Zoning Commission would recommend an amendment to the current zoning ordinance to make public use buildings, such as a jail, a conditional use in agricultural, residential and industrial zones, in which case the building permit for the jail would be considered by the Board of Adjustment.
In other business, the Board approved the final passage of updated versions of the County’s Code of Ordinances, Zoning Ordinance and Relief Ordinance. The updated ordinances consolidate previously passed amendments without making any substantive changes and deletes unused ordinances from the Code of Ordinances. The Board also signed a 28E agreement to join with Winneshiek and Howard Counties and municipalities to establish the Upper Iowa Watershed Authority.

Later Monday afternoon, the Board of Supervisors attended a public hearing hosted by the Allamakee County Conservation Board regarding the proposed Driftless Area Visitor Center planned for construction at the Columbus Bridge property just south of Lansing. Allamakee County Conservation Director Jim Janett reported that just over $1.1 million remains to be raised to fund the $3 million project, adding that the Conservation Board is making an effort to minimize the amount of tax dollars going into the project. “We’re sitting pretty good, but we still have a ways to go,” he said.
Supervisor Dan Byrnes said that the County doesn’t have enough cash reserves to dedicate to the project and pointed out that if the Conservation Board were to move forward with awarding contracts for the project without having all of the funding in place, the County would essentially be obligated to pay for any funding shortfalls. Byrnes said that to commit to the contracts at this point would represent a $450,000 to $1 million “leap of faith,” which is a lot of risk for the County to take on, adding that any shortfalls in fundraising would have to be levied out to County taxpayers.
Janett pointed out that the Conservation Board has not yet made a formal request to the Board of Supervisors but that the County would be asked at some point to contribute in order to make the project eligible for a Community Attraction and Tourism (CAT) grant. He added that the “public phase” of the fundraising effort hasn’t yet begun and that not moving forward with awarding the contracts at this point would essentially end the project and the approximately $2 million already raised through grants and donations would have to be given back.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Larry Schellhammer, who also serves on the Foundation raising funds for the project, said that in the five years he has served on the Board of Supervisors, the Board has voted four or five times to move forward with the project. He said the challenge for the current Board of Supervisors is to “take this thing home.” He noted that he had heard the same kind of opposition to other projects, citing the Wellness Center and library projects as examples, but that he does not know anyone who would like to give those things back. He noted that the Board of Supervisors has supported projects for Community Attraction and Tourism grants previously and that the County’s contributions to those projects had been paid out over several years. “I think It’s a great project,” Schellhammer said. “Tourism is a big part of what Allamakee County is and will be.”
Supervisor Dennis Koenig, who also serves on the Conservation Board, also expressed his support for the project. There were many others present for the public hearing who voiced their support for the project, calling it an investment in the future of the County, and several who expressed concern about spending taxpayer dollars to fund such a project.
After much discussion, the Board of Supervisors agreed to meet in special session this Thursday, October 8 at 9 a.m. to make a decision about whether to move forward with the project by awarding the construction contracts. The Conservation Board will also reconvene next Thursday to act based on the Board of Supervisors’ decision.