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Little sunshine shed on property taxes in Iowa

BY GUEST OPINION | APRIL 12, 2011 7:20 AM

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Transparency at all levels of government — this is the goal of the Iowa Transparency Project.

There is another area of government that needs the spotlight on it in hopes of creating some sunshine: county and local governments and school districts, and their collection of our property taxes. In fiscal year 2010, $4.2 billion was collected at the county and local level for property taxes.

This amount is made even more overwhelming to the taxpayers when you compare this amount with the amount collected by the state for personal income taxes, which for fiscal 2010 was $2.7 billion.

Much more was collected at the property-tax level, even though there is not much protection for the taxpayer at this level of government.

Property taxes are collected on five classes of real estate: residential, agricultural, commercial, industrial, and utilities/railroads. Most of us think that only homeowners care about property taxes, but that is not true. If you rent an apartment or a home, you are paying for the property taxes in your rent; if you purchase anything at a business, you are paying for its property taxes in the price that you pay. This is why we need to lower property taxes in order to see lower prices in our everyday lives.

When we take a look at property taxes over the last 20 years, we see that property-tax collections in 1990 were $1,866.3 million, and in 2010 they were $4,235.8 million. This is an increase of 127 percent over the last 20 years. Yet, the change in the Iowa General Fund Receipts over the same period of time is from $3,019.3 million for 1990 to $5,633.8 million in 2010. This is an increase of 87 percent — vastly different from 127 percent.

School districts receive the largest portion of the property-tax revenue collected, at 42 percent. If we look at the change in tax collections from the local schools, we see a change of 109 percent, with collections in 1990 being $853.6 million to $1,780.2 million in 2010. Schools have seen an increase in state funding, but they have also increased property taxes much more than the state has.

The second largest recipients of property-tax revenue are local governments. Local governments collected $465.4 million in 1990; in 2010, it was $1,251.0 million. This is an increase of a staggering 169 percent. The counties were collecting $445.2 million in 1990 and $921.2 million in 2010. The increase there is only a 107 percent; while not as scary as local governments, it is easy to see why you are feeling a little over-taxed.

This means more checks and balances are needed at the county, local, and school-district levels. The only way this will happen, with the small sizes of county boards of supervisors, city councils, and school boards, is if we as taxpayers are able to see the expenditures and ask questions. This is the only way that we can keep the growth of our property taxes in check.

So it is time that we as taxpayers ask for more sunshine at the county, local, and school-district levels. I would urge you to attend school-board meetings, city-council meetings, and board-of-supervisor meetings and ask about transparency. It is time to get these increases under control at all levels.

Jennifer L. Crull is an IT specialist at the Public Interest Institute, a nonprofit research group. These views are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Public Interest Institute.


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