Cedar Rapids School Board Members Voice Support for September Levy Vote

By Meryn Fluker, Reporter

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - At first the Cedar Rapids Community School District's attempt to increase the Physical Plant and Equipment Levy (PPEL) rate did not succeed, and it looks like in September administrators will try again.

That's the message that came out from the Jan. 13 regular board meeting, when school board members heard a presentation about their options following voters' September 2013 rejection of a proposal to double the levy rate from the 67 cents per $1,000 taxable valuation to $1.34 per $1,000 for a decade beginning July 1, 2015 when the current levy expires. The dollars fund transportation and facilities purchases and maintenance.

"What we need from you tonight is a fairly high-level discussion about what you want to see going forward," Superintendent Dave Benson directed the board at the beginning of the conversation. "Basically, we need some direction from the board."

While the board did not take official action, the majority of the board members voiced support for again asking voters for the $1.34 per $1,000 rate – the maximum amount voters are allowed to allocate and an increase of about $3 monthly for a district resident whose home is valued at $150,000, Executive Director of Business Services Steve Graham noted during the meeting.

The voter-allowed maximum rate would provide $6.92 million annually for the district, $3.46 million more than the current levy. Graham noted that amount is far less than the cost of the projects listed in the district's Facilities Master Plan.

"I think we'd be irresponsible if we weren't trying to do more," said Board Member Ann Rosenthal in support of the maximum rate. "We're talking about less than $50 a year (per homeowner) ... We're not talking about a huge amount of money."

The majority of board members also called for waiting until Tuesday, Sept. 9 to hold the special election.

"I concur that Sept. 9 would be the best date to go and give us more time to educate our public in a meaningful way," said Board President Mary Meisterling, who also voiced support for the maximum rate.

The board could have pursued the next available date for a special election, which would be Tuesday, April 1, but that would mean filing paperwork with the Linn County Auditor's office by Friday, Feb. 14.

"If we take the first available date in April, we would have to hustle," Benson said.

Board members Keith Westercamp and Gary Anhalt were the only two not to vocalize support for renewing the levy at a specific rate, instead requesting additional information from the community.

"I support increasing it," Westercamp said. "By how much, I think we need to get some focus groups together and find out. ... Bottom line, we need to pass it."

Rosenthal was the first to suggest at Monday's meeting that complicated ballot language, namely in relation to changing the funding source of the levy to a combination of an income surtax and property tax, may have played a role in the measure's defeat last year. She and the other board members, save for Anhalt, Westercamp and Nancy Humbles, favored keeping the levy funded solely through property taxes. Board members did not discuss a timeline for the new levy, which can extend up 10 years in length.

Administrators need to file paperwork by Friday, July 25 for a September special election.

For Board Member John Laverty, increasing the levy is actually about cost savings and addressing current needs.

"It's going to take money to do preventative maintenance. If we keep deferring maintenance, we're going to have problems down the road," he said. "The more we defer, you either pay now or you pay later ... You're going to pay a lot more later."
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