Uniform Disclosure

All counties should have the same uniform presentation that contains the amount owed, compared with the previous year, and a list of all levies, broken down by the relevant authorities to provide taxpayers with a complete picture of their tax bill. The Iowa State County Treasurer’s Association provides property tax information for all 99 counties. Taxpayers can simply click on their counties and enter their information to view their property tax bills.

Taxpayer-Funded Lobbyists

Taxpayer dollars should be used to advance the public good, not to bankroll lobbyists who advocate against taxpayers’ interests. Taxpayer-funded lobbying is when political subdivisions such as counties, cities and school districts, pay lobbyists with money they have received from taxes. This can include membership fees in government sector lobbying associations like the Iowa League of Cities, Iowa Association of Counties, and the Iowa Association of School Boards.  It can also include local governments hiring and contracting with lobbyists directly.  For instance, in 2022 Linn, Marion, and Polk counties spent a combined $190,000 on lobbying.

Urban Renewal Practices

Local governments may be tying up property tax dollars with needless incentives while further saddling residents and businesses with growing tax burdens.  Urban renewal programs shouldn’t be utilized in areas that are already growing or on projects that would occur without a subsidy anyway. 

Urban renewal areas have existed in Iowa since 1957, and the designation can allow governments to finance public infrastructure, redevelop slums or blighted areas, or (very broadly) promote economic development. Local governments have several tools at their disposal to accomplish those goals, with tax increment financing (TIF) being a common one.

Property Tax Rate Limits

When rate limits apply selectively, taxing authorities can shift responsibilities to those without them. Over time, local government spending goes up, and the intent of the rate limit is negated. Local taxing entities have layered multiple tax levies on each property in addition to general taxation, such as levies dedicated to public libraries, emergency management, debt service, cemeteries, and flood and erosion control. Iowa cities have around 30 different levies, while counties and townships have around 10, and other taxing districts, such as agricultural extensions, county hospitals, and miscellaneous districts, have fewer. Iowa applies the maximum levy rate limit to each individual levy, not on each level of government or in aggregate.  And several types of levies continue without limitations, being permitted at the “amount necessary.”

Local Debt Limits

As of 2021, Iowa’s local governments were carrying a total of $13.8 billion in outstanding debt, of which cities held $7.1 billion, schools $4.9 billion, and counties $1.1 billion. Local taxing jurisdictions should also not be allowed to incur large amounts of debt without a vote of the people. While borrowing small sums may be necessary for emergencies or other unique situations, local boards or city councils incurring debt without taxpayer votes should be infrequent.

“Ratchet-Down” Effect on Local Revenue

Property tax rates are important but advocates often forget that government spending causes higher tax bills. Local governments may even claim they have reduced rates, leaving taxpayers to wonder why their tax bills are bigger. Tax rates only tell one side of the story and can often be misleading. Focusing on revenue controls spending and does not allow local governments to take advantage of windfalls from assessments. More importantly, it forces local governments to be honest.

Local Government Spending Limitations

Spending limits are similar to speed limits in a school zone, both are designed to protect. In the case of local governments, they apply the brakes to slow spending down. BACKGROUND Over the past 20 years, the average annual rate of growth for property tax revenue has been: 4.1 percent for cities, 4.2 percent for county general services, and 3.7 […]

Recent Changes to Iowa’s Property Tax

Even with the extensive reforms as of late and the elimination of the county health levy, property taxes still remain a top concern of taxpayers with much work left to be done.   In 2013, the legislature enacted a comprehensive property tax reform measure directed at providing commercial property tax relief. Some of the major reforms of the legislation included:  […]

Iowa’s Property Tax History

Iowa’s property tax was first enacted in 1839.  Although it has undergone several changes over the years, it continues to be a substantial burden to taxpayers across the state.   Iowa’s property tax has had a tumultuous history. Iowa’s territorial legislature enacted the first revenue act in 1839, creating a tax levy on real and personal property. This form of […]

The Assessor is NOT to Blame

Don’t miss who is truly in charge of your property taxes. When county board, city council, and school board members increase spending, taxes go up; when their spending decreases, taxes go down. It’s as simple as that. We’ve all heard it around our communities: “Watch out: the assessor is coming around, which means property taxes are going up!” or “Don’t […]

A New Sales Tax is a LOST Opportunity

Increasing an existing tax or creating new ones rarely provides tax relief. The government tends to benefit more than the taxpayer. When cities sent local option sales tax (LOST) increases to the ballot, they told residents half of the new revenue would be directed toward property tax relief. To the contrary, as one frustrated Iowan in the Des Moines metro […]

Giving Property Tax Protection “Teeth”

In 2019, Iowa lawmakers passed a property tax accountability and transparency law. Any city or county government with a proposed budget increase of more than 2% above the previous year must now hold a public hearing first. Then, if the elected body still wishes to raise taxes after holding that hearing, it must achieve a supermajority vote of its members.

While this law is a good start, huge property tax increases in recent years prove that more needs to be done to slow the growth. ITR Foundation is both monitoring legislators’ plans to “give teeth” to the 2019 reforms and investigating other states with similar laws on the books. Nebraska, for instance, just implemented a tax accountability and transparency policy, so we traveled to Omaha for the first related public hearing.

Avoiding “Tax Shifts” for a Taxpayer Win

Politicians’ talk about tax relief doesn’t always mean the taxpayer wins in the end. Not all tax relief is created equally, as a comparison of Iowa with its neighbor to the west will show.

Iowa enacted historic tax reforms in March that significantly cut income taxes and reduced taxpayers’ liability. This change was possible because the state had been prudent with its dollars. Iowa did not increase spending, has fully funded reserves, and is experiencing a billion-dollar budget surplus. That is what a taxpayer victory looks like.

Lessons Learned from Iowa Tax History

By Sarah Curry, DBA At the end of the 19th Century, Iowa levied property taxes on just about everything. Yes, real estate and homes like we do today, but also jewelry and other personal property, household goods, and intangibles such as mortgages, bonds, and stock holdings. Taxes were widely felt to be burdensome, unequal, and unfair, leading many Iowans to […]

Combating Runaway Property Taxes

Recent headlines in Central Iowa are focused on an upcoming round of real estate assessments for properties in Polk County.  Long-time Polk County assessor Randy Ripperger estimates that residential assessments will increase by 22% next year.  We doubt Polk County residents will be the only Iowans experiencing a large jump in their assessed values; anyone who has tried to purchase […]

Did Your County Pass on Mental Health Savings?

Local governments in Iowa started a new fiscal year on July 1.  Those new fiscal years bring new budgets, and many times, new tax rates.  What’s unique about this fiscal year (2023), however, is that Iowa counties are no longer tasked with paying the bill for mental health services.  One key feature of 2021’s tax relief package was the phase out of the mental health levy from county property taxes, as the responsibility of mental health was shifted from counties to the state.

Guaranteed Income Veers Away From Role of Local Government

This week’s episode of ITR Live included a discussion of the city of Des Moines’s decision to participate in a pilot program that aims to provide guaranteed income to low-income residents of central Iowa.  While this calls to mind Andrew Yang’s universal basic income proposal from 2020’s Democratic presidential primaries, one significant difference appears to be that this program is being driven by mayors across the country, rather than by the federal government.   In a city that already has a heavy property tax burden, the Des Moines City Council has committed $500,000 to a program that doesn’t fit within the traditional role of local government.

“It’s Easy” To Spend Taxpayer Dollars

Why do local governments believe they need so much of your money? In recent years, Iowa property valuations have increased considerably. Large valuation increases usually translate into increased revenue for local governments in the form of property taxes. Given the impact of inflation, we can expect this trend to continue.  It will be interesting to see how Iowans manage to bear a growing property tax burden while paying more for gas, groceries, and everything else.