Cedar Rapids Metro Cities Approve Sales Tax by Wide Margin

By Rick Smith, Reporter

Charles Ellis of Marion fills out his ballot at Kirkwood Training & Outreach Services on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013, in Marion. (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)

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By Aaron Hepker

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – Streets here must be as bad as City Hall says.

They must be sufficiently awful, in fact, that voters here joined those in four bordering cities on Tuesday to overwhelmingly extend a 1-percent local option sales tax for 10 years.

The vote was 16,950 to 10,310, 62.18 percent to 37.82 percent, to extend the local sales tax for 10 years. And this comes in a metro area voting block of Cedar Rapids, Marion, Hiawatha, Robins and Fairfax where voters in 2011 and again in 2012 turned back ballot measures to extend the local sales tax.

A quick analysis of Tuesday votes shows that Cedar Rapids, Marion, Hiawatha and Fairfax individually as cities approved the sales tax by more than a 60 percent margin, with Robins approving it with about a 55 percent margin.

“I’m so happy with the vote,” Cedar Rapids council member Ann Poe said Tuesday night at an victory event at the Flamingo Restaurant on Ellis Boulevard NW sponsored by Mayor Ron Corbett and the Fix the Streets Committee.

“This means we can quit borrowing money for streets, we can pay as we go and we can finally get our streets fixed appropriately.”

Each of the cities in the metro voting block will use revenue from the tax for their own infrastructure projects. But it was Cedar Rapids’s Corbett, other council members and the Fix the Streets Committee in Cedar Rapids that drove the campaign to pass the vote, promising to use 100 percent of Cedar Rapids’s share of the revenue to fix the city’s streets.

Corbett, who ran 200 of the city’s 600 plus miles of streets in the run-up to Tuesday’s vote to drive home the bad shape of the city’s streets, dared to help lead the tax-for-streets effort even as he was seeking reelection to a second term. He easily won that race, too.

“When I was out campaigning, I found people to generally be in a good mood, thinking the city was heading in the right direction,” he said last night. “Now (with the tax vote), they have given us the tools to fix the streets.”

Voters, he said, agreed with the fix-the-street’s central message: that the Tuesday tax vote was about a fairer way to tax people to fix their roads. More than 30 percent of the sales tax in Linn County is paid by those who use the city’s streets but live outside the county and don’t pay property taxes here.

Now the city will depend on the sales tax to do the work, he said.

This is only the second time in the near-30 year history of the local sales tax in Iowa that the Cedar Rapids and its bordering cities have voted together to approve the 1-percent local sales tax.

That last time was in 2001 when the tax was put in place for one year, a year in which Cedar Rapids used the money to build swimming pools.

Interestingly, the cities of the Cedar Rapids metro area block did not have to depend on each other in 2009 when each put the tax in place on its own. That year, the five contiguous cities won a special go-it-alone exception from the Iowa Legislature for a March 2009 sales-tax vote so Cedar Rapids could vote to raise sales-tax revenue for flood recovery without having to depend on the vote in the four other cities.

Marion, Hiawatha and Robins turned the measure down in March 2009, but then hustled to vote again in May 2009 and put the tax in place.

The five cities will use revenue from the 10-year tax extension in somewhat different ways when the current tax expires June 30.

The cities and the uses:

Cedar Rapids — to pay the costs of the maintenance, repair, construction and reconstruction of public streets.

Marion — 70 percent for street and sewer construction, reconstruction, repair and improvements and 30 percent for community projects consisting of any general or essential corporate purpose.

Hiawatha — 10 percent for property-tax relief, 90 percent for any lawful purpose, including but not limited to, retirement of outstanding obligations, water and sewer system improvements, public safety, library and park and recreation improvements.

Robins — for street, water and sewer construction, reconstruction or repair, economic development and other community improvement projects.

Fairfax — for any lawful purpose.

A committee in Cedar Rapids opposed to the sales-tax extension, Get the Facts CR, took exception with the Cedar Rapids ballot language, calling sufficiently loose to give too much discretion in spending LOST revenue to the Cedar Rapids City Council.

No such complaints surfaced of the other cities’ ballot language.

Cedar Rapids council member Scott Olson said Tuesday night that the significant flow of federal, state and LOST dollars for flood recovery made it hard to understand how the money was spent, which he said brought mistrust of City Hall in some circles.

“Today, though, as evidenced by the vote, I think the public in general feels comfortable that the City Council is going to spend this money on streets, and I think that will happen,” Olson said.

Don Thomas, former Cedar Rapids streets commissioner and City Council member who headed up the Fix the Streets Committee, said Tuesday that he expected the sales-tax vote to be 2 to 1 in favor of fixing streets.

“People want their streets fixed, and it’s time to get that going and get it underway,” Thomas said.

The Fix the Streets Committee raised $103,090 in campaign contributions, most of which came from local contractors and professional-services companies in the construction business. Get the Facts CR raised $1,616, according to updated reports filed with the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board on Oct. 31.

Carol Martin, a longtime City Hall watchdog and chairwoman of the Get the Facts CR, Tuesday night said she was disheartened by the outcome of the sales-tax vote.

“Maybe it’s time to hang it up,” Martin said at one point. “I’m quite disappointed. I don’t believe they spent the flood money right, and I don’t believe they’ll spend this right.”

Much of the LOST revenue for streets in Cedar Rapids will be used in the city’s capital improvements program, which hires contractors to do the work. Some will go to beef up the city’s in-house road repair operation, Dave Elgin, the city’s public works director and city engineer, has said.

LOST collections for streets won’t start until July 1, 2014, but Elgin said the city of Cedar Rapids will have projects prioritized and ready to go for the latter part of the 2014 construction season using LOST revenue. He added that local contractors have said they can ramp up their effort to take on more street work in Cedar Rapids.

The goal, he has said, is to touch every street in need of help in the 10 years the tax is in place.

“We’re going to set that as a goal,” Elgin said. “We want all our streets in good or better condition.

"And that’s not the engineering judgment. That’s the citizens’ judgment. That’s what really counts.”

In the days leading up to Tuesday’s vote, Mayor Corbett told voters to look to the city of Waterloo, which has easily extended its LOST and devoted 100 percent of the revenue to streets. Voters in the Waterloo metro area voted on Tuesday to once again extend the LOST measure there, and it passed by a 75-to-25 percent margin.

Before the vote tallies came in Tuesday night in the Cedar Rapids voting block, Robins Mayor Ian Cullis acknowledged that voters can get fatigued with governments asking for taxes. He said the defeat of a Cedar Rapids school district tax increase earlier this fall was an example of that.

At the same time, he said he hoped voters could see that the local-option sales tax is one tax that makes sense in Robins. Robins has used the money of the existing LOST tax primarily to fix streets, and he said he thinks residents have noticed.

With Tuesday’s vote, the local-option sales tax will continue to be collected into the future in every jurisdiction in Linn County with the revenue distributed by a state formula to each of the jurisdictions.

The tax raised an estimated $30.6 million for the jurisdictions in the county in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2013, with Cedar Rapids receiving the largest revenue share, estimated at $17.6 million in the fiscal year ended in June.

In the Cedar Rapids metro block, the vote to extend LOST was defeated in May 2011 by 221 votes out of some 32,000 cast. In March 2012, the LOST extension was defeated by 576 votes out of 27,500 cast.
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