Sooner Is Better For Local Budget Input
Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan, armed with a budget PowerPoint
Across the state, cities, counties and school boards are putting last touches on annual budgets. But Johnson County officials say the best time for public input is sooner, rather than later.
"Don't wait till the public hearing, that's way too late in the process," Coralville City Manager Kelly Hayworth said at a Saturday budget process forum sponsored by local progressive group FAIR. "Get your voice heard as early in the process as you can."
FAIR started its budget teach ins two years ago in order to get local activists up to speed on the most critical decisions local governments make, said forum moderator Karen Kubby. "We weren't very budget literate as community activists," said Karen Kubby, herself a former city council member. "We also noticed that we weren't as articulate and our feedback wasn't as viable because we didn't understand the process."
"Sometimes the public hearing is so late in the process that the budget has to be turned in to the state the next week, and we want to make public feedback more viable on the front end."
"People think about the budget as numbers only," said Iowa City Mayor Regenia Bailey. "But everything in here, including our policies, is part of the approval process. This is predominantly decided by the community and the city." One policy she specified is the city's end balance reserve. "We've always said an optimal end balance is 30 percent" at the end of the fiscal year, said Bailey. "Some of us think that is high. It's great to have as a reserve, in case of a disaster, but we came through the (April 2006) tornado with very little impact on our reserves."
Another city policy Bailey cited was the debt limit. "We are butting up against our debt policy which is making it difficult for us to do capital projects," she said. "A lot of our capital projects this year are not 'flashy,' they're basic infrastructure" such as storm sewer repairs. "I encourage citizens to look at those policies at the beginning of the process. Those should be as reflective of city values as the numbers."
Johnson County government, however, is looking at several large capital projects at once, including a new health and human services building, a secondary roads and paratransit building, and a new conservation headquarters, with a jail possibly on the horizon. And there's an intergovernmental effort to build a joint communication dispatching center for Iowa City and Johnson County.
"Traditionally, counties are more fiscally conservative than cities," said Board of Supervisors Chair Rod Sullivan. "Johnson County had never borrowed anything until recently -- we didn't even have a credit rating."
"You can be penny wise and pound foolish. Sometimes you have to spend a little bit of money to have savings in the long run," said Sullivan, noting that a joint communications levy of 77 cents per $1000 of assessed property valuation would show up on the county portion of the property tax bill, even though it was a joint project.. "It's unfortunate that so many of these things are happening at the same time."
For taxpayers living within cities in Johnson County, roughly 40 percent of the tax bills goes to schools and another 40% to the city. Roughly 17 percent goes to the county and the rest is for other miscellaneous levies such as community colleges. Taxes tend to be higher in larger cities. Iowa City's proposed levy is $17.72 per $1,000 of valuation, up from. $17.28 last year. "It is higher than the cities around us, because we have a transit levy and we support our library," said Bailey. "Our levies really do reflect the things we value as a community, but we really do try to keep those as low as possible. And we're only a portion of your tax bill."
"You do pay less taxes to live residentially in the unincorporated areas," said Sullivan. "There's not the level of services that there is in the cities."
In fast-growing North Liberty, the city portion of the tax bill is only is $10.97, up 77 cents from last year. "We're a smaller community with fewer needs," said North Liberty Mayor Tom Salm. "We're anticipating a slowdown in the economy, so we tried to hold the line." But North Liberty's doubling every census growth rate shows the interconnectedness of levels of government. "Every time we get a new school, there's expenses with streets and utilities," said Salm, "and we've had three new schools in the last two years.
State legislative decisions also play a big role in local budgets. "One of the things that could have a huge impact on Iowa City would be changing the rollback on apartment buildings," said Bailey. Tax rates on various classes of property are "rolled back" to a lower percentage of their assessed valuation. Owner-occupied homes are taxed at 44.08% of valuation, but commercial property, including most apartments, is taxed at nearly the full valuation, 99.73%. If the commercial rollback is lowered, "that would be a huge revenue loss to Iowa City," said Bailey. "But given the makeup of the state legislature, it seems the cites don't have as much voice as the rural areas. We're the economic engines of the state."
"Eight or nine counties have 60 percent of the state's population," said Sullivan. "75 counties don't have a city as big as North Liberty," only the third largest city in Johnson County.
"In Iowa property tax legislation is very much tied to agriculture, and it creates some problems" for urban governments, said Bailey. "The entities that provide most of your services are very dependent on what the legislature does with property taxes."