A Regional Mess

Cooperation can end in corruption. Iowa learned that the hard way.
by | September 2007

Of course, not all efforts at regional partnership turn out well. The Des Moines area has been in an uproar ever since it was revealed last year that a regional job-training program had degenerated into a cesspool of corruption.

More than 25 years ago, eight Iowa counties that surround the city of Des Moines formed CIETC--the Central Iowa Employment and Training Consortium--as a vehicle for sharing and disbursing federal job- training funds. CIETC was overseen by a board made up of local elected officials--or at least it was supposed to be. In fact, there was little fiscal accountability. Three staff members stuck their fingers into the till, collecting compensation totaling $1.8 million over a 30-month period. Seven people are under indictment in the case.

After the scandal broke last year, one Des Moines city councilman told the state legislature that his function on the CIETC board was merely to be a "rubber stamp" for staff salaries and bonuses. That didn't sit well with the lawmakers. What made them angrier was the fact that the local governments involved were refusing to reimburse the state $1.5 million it had been forced to return to the federal Department of Labor.

Tom Courtney, chairman of the Government Oversight Committee in the state Senate, suggested that the different governments involved simply swallow hard and divide up the check for the damage equally. But the local governments couldn't agree among themselves on who deserved what share of the blame, so the dispute about who should pay what dragged on for more than a year. CIETC is now officially disbanded, but the impact of the scandal will not disappear for a long time. The affair has given the whole idea of shared governmental responsibility a bad name around Des Moines.

That's a major reason for the embarrassing failure of a recent ballot measure to expand intergovernmental cooperation in a smaller part of the Des Moines area. Local officials and business leaders proposed a sales-tax increase that would have been shared among three counties to reduce property taxes and improve cultural and recreational facilities. Citizens voted it down by a 5-to-1 margin in July.

The measure might never have had a chance, but the failure of the CIETC regional experiment made voters more wary about letting counties share funds again--even for the most legitimate of purposes.