JOHNSON COUNTY– In just a few days, all Johnson County voters will go to the polls to decide on a four-year, one-cent Local Option Sales Tax (LOST) referendum.
Hinged upon the outcome are the fates of several flood mitigation projects that can’t be built too soon for some.
In February, legislation allowed for counties in Iowa designated as disaster areas in 2008– and not already imposing such a tax– to hold a LOST election. Each jurisdiction filed a statement outlining specifically how the money would be spent.
Linn County voters have already weighed in, with Cedar Rapids passing the proposition with the required simple majority.
Johnson County’s vote takes place on May 5.
The purpose of the law, said Local Option Sales Tax supporter Sue Dvorsky, is to provide another revenue source for Linn and Johnson counties in dealing with flood damage.
“This just is not business as usual,” Dvorsky said of the legislation put together by Iowa Senators Bob Dvorsky, Robert Hogg and Joe Bolkcom. “These are not people who are ordinarily sales tax proponents. This is extraordinary legislation for the most extraordinary circumstances.”
If passed, one hundred percent of the taxes distributed to Iowa City and Coralville will go to flood-related improvement projects.
Iowa City will replace the Park Road bridge, elevate Dubuque Street and relocate the city's sewer plant to a location out of the Iowa River's flood plain, projects estimated to cost a total of $95 million.
Coralville's identified flood mitigation projects include the elevation and redesign of the CRANDIC Railroad bed and the construction of both removable flood walls and permanent berms along the Iowa River and its tributaries, totaling an estimated $54 million.
Dvorsky said tax opponents have questioned the ability of the cities’ governments and staff to properly manage their current budgets.
“The state of Iowa is about to become the fourth worst natural disaster in the history of the United States. For anyone to say the cities just need to manage their money better… what happened here could not have been built into any budget,” said Dvorsky. “There is no way to have prepared for, nor is there any way for these cities to look at the budgets they currently have and put money of this magnitude toward these very important projects.”
The imposition of a LOST has been the impetus for local debates and the creation of Political Action Committees, including Ax the Tax– an anti-LOST organization headed by Deborah Thornton of Iowa City– and Yes For All, a supporting group spearheaded by Sue Dvorsky.
Yes For All’s purpose is two-fold, she said.
“We want to educate the community about the projects, and we want to advocate for this method of funding,” she said. “Our motto is ‘Cooperate, Collaborate and Mitigate.' It’s really our mission.”
Dvorsky said Yes For All has a broad base, with representation from the Iowa City Area Chamber, Iowa City Federation of Labor, the Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention and Visitors’ Bureau and the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City Building Trades Council, among others.
“These are business people, community leaders, entire city councils and most of the mayors in the 11 jurisdictions– people who are charged with the protection of our personal and business property,” Dvorsky said.
Also broad-based are the entities that have formulated the plan for flood mitigation, she noted. Engineers from the University of Iowa’s Hydrological Lab have worked with outside engineering consultants to create a flood mitigation model that has been shared with municipalities and used in creating their plans.
“It is astonishing to me that these cities– North Liberty, Coralville, Iowa City and the University of Iowa– have worked together on the development of these projects in a way I have not observed before. That should reassure people that a lot of people have had their eyes on this, and have been part of the planning,” Dvorsky said.
While North Liberty did not sustain infrastructure damage directly from the flood, the city targeted road improvements as potential fund expenditures. North Liberty City Administrator Ryan Heiar has fielded questions about why an unscathed North Liberty should participate in a LOST referendum. North Liberty’s share of revenues, if passed, will go to street repairs, including the upgrade of Highway 965.
“We have a highway that was given to us,” Heiar said, “Basically it’s a $30 million liability. There are a lot of people outside of the community using the highway, and this is a great way for others to help make this highway safer, more usable and less congested.”
Dvorsky added that Highway 965 is a main arterial that needs to be able to withstand daily and emergency traffic, for safety purposes and for access to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.
“There might not be as straight a line from flood recovery and mitigation to Highway 965 as there is to Park Bridge Road, but we live in Coralville, and when I-380 was closed and you couldn’t move out of this town, 965 became the main arterial road for us to get anywhere,” she said.
There are other communities in Johnson County not directly damaged by flooding, and Dvorsky reminded that those communities will have the right to choose for themselves.
“If the people of Solon do not want to impose this tax, then they will vote no. If Shueyville doesn’t feel legislation available for flood mitigation directly affects them, then they will vote no.”
However, Dvorsky said, small towns are also working hard to remain viable, and no one should consider that smaller towns would be “taking advantage” of funds intended for flood mitigation.
“It really is a regional effort at recovery, because the entire region was affected. That water did not recognize any jurisdictional boundaries, but more importantly, neither did the people who came to help,” she pointed out. “This was a regional hit. The region responded. And this is a regional economy.”
Opponents also stress the regressive nature of the tax, concerned it will overburden people of lower incomes. Dvorsky agrees that a sales tax is regressive.
“It’s true. But it has been mitigated by those things that are not subject to it,” she said. Groceries, prescription medications, gasoline, and lottery tickets, for example, will not be taxed. Nor will sales of vehicles that require registration (cars, trucks, motor homes or trailers), utilities like gas and electricity subject to a city or county-imposed franchise fee, or satellite television services.
“Again, I think these are extraordinary conditions that call for extraordinary measures. No one likes taxes. But the other piece of this is, you’ve either got property tax or you’ve got sales tax. So, if we use the sales tax, then the millions of visitors to these communities over the next four years, those people can help with that burden.”
Heiar concurred, saying that the upgrades to Highway 965 are necessary and will likely proceed, though perhaps at a slower rate.
“If we don’t have a local option tax, it’s going to have to go on the property tax rolls. The difference is that 100 percent will be paid by North Liberty residents, but we all know it’s not 100 percent used by North Liberty residents.”