How should your extra penny in sales tax be spent?

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The 1 percent sales tax is applied only where a majority of voters have approved it.
Kim Norvell/Des Moines Register

Polk County voters are expected to go to the polls March 6 to consider a 1-cent sales tax increase. But what exactly would they vote on? That’s yet to be decided, and it’s critical.  

Cities have until Dec. 29 to submit the language for the ballot. Officials should be as transparent as possible in how they plan to use the proceeds.

By law, the cities must say what percentage of the sales-tax revenue would go for “property tax relief.” But don’t assume that means you’ll pay less on your next property tax bill. Some cities could use the proceeds to prevent further property tax increases, and still meet the legal requirements.

Taxpayers Association of Central Iowa sent a letter to mayors and city managers suggesting ballot language saying that “local option sales tax revenue collected in fiscal year 2019 shall be used to reduce the fiscal year 2020 property tax levy from where it stood in the prior fiscal year.”

If that’s not possible, then cities should be clear that the revenue will be used for stabilizing property taxes, not reducing them.

“It would be advantageous for all cities to use a consistent definition of property tax relief, since the referenda must pass in all cities in order to become effective anywhere in Polk County,” wrote Gretchen Tegeler, president of the Taxpayers Association of Central Iowa. She warned that mixed messages “could confuse voters and potentially jeopardize passage.”

Cities should also be transparent about how they plan to use the rest of the proceeds. Officials in Polk County communities should learn from Dallas County’s successful local-option sales tax referendum in November.

Before the vote, Waukee officials said the sales tax would allow the city to finish its 13-year parks improvement plan in just four years. Clive would accelerate its plans to move the city’s fire station. West Des Moines identified capital improvement priorities, including a marathon-distance trail loop that would connect city parks and waterways, a pedestrian bridge over the Raccoon River, an outdoor amphitheater and a boathouse. 

Des Moines is in a different boat, so to speak, because about 40 percent of its properties are tax exempt. It has limited sources of revenue, and may not be able to devote as much toward property tax relief as the suburbs would. But that’s all the more reason it should be as explicit as possible in its ballot language — and to clarify whether the proceeds would be used for capital improvement projects or simply city operations.

The city began seeking input in September, when it conducted a phone survey of 1,080 residents to gauge support for the sales tax increase. The survey asked how likely they would be to support the tax increase if the money generated were spent on nine different areas.

The winner? Fixing streets was the top choice among respondents. Other popular items included funding city scholarships to allow disadvantaged or disabled children to participate in youth programs; improving public safety equipment and staff training; and offsetting property taxes.

At the bottom of the list were improving public bus transportation and extending library hours and adding new branches.

The survey shouldn’t be the last word. Officials in Des Moines and other cities should give residents every opportunity to weigh in before ballot language is completed. And residents shouldn’t wait until spring, either. Contact your city council representatives now.

By allowing input and providing transparency in December, officials could find success in March. 


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