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Lost for words in flood aid

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | FEBRUARY 18, 2009 7:39 AM

On March 3, citizens of Linn County will throw open their curtains, greet the swelling airs of spring, and trudge out into the blizzard-melt to cast their votes on the proposed local-option sales-tax increase.

Designed to help combat the seemingly endless costs of last summer’s flood, the 1-cent, five-year increase will raise approximately $28 million per year (if approved), $17 million of which to go to Cedar Rapids and the nearly 1,300 piles of wreckage it once called homes. Ninety percent of the city revenue generated will go toward flood buyouts, the rest a salve on property taxes, and in the wider county, the money is to be spent in upkeep of roadways, sewers, and parks. In May, when the next fun chapter of meteorology hits, Johnson County will have a similar ballot to consider.

The fors and againsts have been building speed over the last week. Dale Todd, speaking for grass-roots Vote Yes! For Our Neighbors, has said, “The winner here will be people whose homes have been devastated and need the city to buy their homes out so they can move to the next step in their lives … Many of the people it will help are of limited means.” Though Cedar Rapids is a retail destination for many in Linn County and the surrounding counties, and around 27 cents from visiting shoppers per dollar spent by residents will find its way into that 90 percent bracket, Todd seems a bit confused.

The mounting pressures on these means-limited people can only be released by further limiting their means, obviously, sure. And the tone of evacuation: It’s as though Vote Yes! is pushing for fast-track diaspora — let’s raise the cash to bulldoze all this debris we’re huddled amid and get the hell outta Dodge. David Swenson, an economist at Iowa State University, in an apparent attempt at soothing legitimacy, says, “A lot of people out there escape taxes, whether it’s income taxes or property taxes. But they can’t escape the sales tax.” Which is a slip of exactly the kind of desperation fueling this move, and he’s right, no, they can’t. But that doesn’t make it the best solution.

An opposing, also self-described, grass-roots group called the Cedar Rapids Tea Party (wink — get it?), headed by Tim Pugh, has printed fliers reading “Now is not the time to get LOST,” and it says the local-option sales tax is a roundabout way of addressing the issue. The members have criticized the city’s squandering of flood-recovery funds, and they seem especially miffed over the 10 percent budgeted for property-tax relief, calling it “pennies” for homeowners — pennies that will then probably be spent as sales taxes.

But the money’s got to come from somewhere, and really, the only local money mills, according to some city councilors, are property and sales taxes and gambling … until gambling was nixed, anyway. Thus leaving it up to local taxation in one form or another to supplement the leaking-tap-like federal boosts. Unless, of course, a more creative brain wave sets in motion, say, a review of current budgets or a reordering of priorities concerning Linn County’s sewer system. It would be nice if the brain wave occurs before May’s ballot, because while Johnson County has its unique problems and creative solutions, we’ll have to face the same decisions regarding how we go about funding them.


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