Voters to decide fate of sales tax today

BY CHRIS CLARK | MAY 05, 2009 7:30 AM

Today’s vote on a local-option sales tax will provoke a clash between the two biggest stories in the Iowa City area: the economy and the flood.

Locals face a difficult decision — vote to increase taxes in the middle of an economic recession or oppose the change, putting off funds for recovery projects in the aftermath of the area’s worst flood in history.

If implemented, the sales tax would increase by a penny — from 6 to 7 cents per dollar — for the next four years. Officials estimate the tax would generate $18.2 million per year exclusively for flood repair and prevention projects. The funding would be divided among the cities and towns of Johnson County based on their population and needs.

Iowa City is expected to receive roughly $9 million per year from tax revenue, said city engineer Ron Knoche. The city’s first priority is to elevate North Dubuque Street and renovate the Park Road bridge — a combined estimated cost of $32 million.

Debris caught by the Park Road bridge during summer flooding caused 14 inches of backup water at the location, Knoche said.

But Deborah Thornton, an organizer of the anti-tax group Ax the Tax, is not sold on the idea.

City estimates on the amount of backup caused by the Park Road bridge keep rising, she contended — an attempt by officials to “railroad” the tax increase through the community.

“I’m opposed because the sales tax is regressive, and in this economic recession — which is the worst since the Great Depression — we don’t need to raise taxes for anybody, especially the poor,” Thornton said.

The city and county plans for the money are not well-thought-out, she claimed.

“Before we make some hasty decision to tax, we need to check out recommendations,” she said, and officials must make it clear what effect the projects will have on deterring future flooding.

Supporters of the tax insist funding for the projects can’t wait.

The increase in sales tax would not fully finance the projects, but it would be a large part of the local funding match required by various state and federal grants.

Sue Dvorsky, a co-head of the pro-tax campaign Yes For All, said she hopes using the tax’s revenue for flood projects will be the last step in recovery efforts after last year’s flood.

“If this vote passes, there is no option to use that money in any other areas,” she said, and the only other way to get the necessary funding would be through an increase in property taxes.

But Thornton said she thinks presenting the sales tax as an alternative to raising property taxes is misleading.

“There is nothing in the ballot language that says ‘If you pass this tax, we won’t increase property taxes,’ ” she said. “They’re going to go up anyway.”

But for Dvorsky and her fellow supporters, the urgency of the situation proves to be the deciding factor.

Johnson County Auditor Tom Slockett said the number of early voters in this election is about half compared with the early sales-tax votes in 2007 and 1999.

Slockett said he was unsure why voter turnout in this election is lower than those in the past.

“From what I have heard anecdotally, people might be having difficulty dealing with all the factors involved with the vote or the level of interest may not be high enough to figure out what they think about it,” he said.

Both sides of the debate agree students are stakeholders in the decision, though there has been a lack of student interest.

Luke Oglesbee, a Yes For All campaign coordinator, said student involvement hasn’t been too high, but any student vote his side can get is “icing on the cake.”

If the vote doesn’t pass, he said, students could end up paying for it through higher increases in rent prices and water bills.

But Thornton disagrees, saying the sales tax would hurt students on everyday purchases.

“They’re going to nickel and dime students,” she said. “The tax will raise the price of students’ textbooks, the clothes they buy, and the prices of food in restaurants.”

Polls close at 8 p.m. today. Final election results should be available around 9 p.m., Slockett said.

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