How Is Your County Spending Property Taxes?

Iowa counties do important work. However, problems surface when counties with similar populations and services spend vastly different amounts of taxpayers’ money.

Iowa’s 99 counties collect the third-largest portion of property taxes statewide, after cities and school districts — representing approximately 22 percent of the overall property tax burden. Counties have historically played a major role in the conduct of local government in Iowa, and they remain the primary source of core government services for residents. Counties perform state administrative functions, such as the issuance of licenses and permits, along with more-local services, including enforcement of zoning ordinances, maintenance of county jails, the management of elections, and more.

Few would dispute that many of these services are simply expected by taxpayers from their local government. Other county expenditures, however, do not support core functions but instead unnecessarily increase the tax burden on residents.

Iowans for Tax Relief Foundation (ITRF) took a deep dive into county budgets to see where all the tax money goes. For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2023, Iowa’s 99 counties have budgeted more than $3.2 billion across the eight major service areas:

  1. Public Safety and Legal Services primarily include law enforcement, emergency management, and the county attorney’s office.
  2. Physical Health and Social Services include services to the poor, elderly residents, and pregnant women, as well as food and beverage inspections and administrative expenses for the office of the Board of Health and Veterans’ Affairs. In some counties, this area also accounts for chemical dependency programs and youth shelter care.
  3. County Environment and Education includes environmental improvement, conservation and recreational services, land-use control, economic development, historic preservation, libraries, and county fairs.
  4. Roads and Transportation expenditures maintain and/or build roads, bridges, airports, and railroads.
  5. Government Services to Residents include many state-mandated services, such as elections, motor vehicle registration, and the recording of public documents.
  6. Administration expenses include salaries and wages for boards of supervisors, auditors, and treasures and their respective staffs, as well as many insurance costs and general office expenses.
  7. Debt Service expenses account for principal and interest payments on long-term debt.
  8. Capital Projects expenses include certain road construction and items such as new jails and courthouse renovations.

To see how your county is spending your money, click here.

While investigating how much your individual county is spending on certain items, keep in mind that direct comparisons with other counties are not always appropriate. For example, Polk County has the largest population in the state and budgeted more than $317 million this year, more than any other county. Decatur County, in contrast, has the smallest budget in the state ($9 million) that corresponds with the fact that they are one of Iowa’s least-populated counties.

Translating expenditures into per capita measurements can sometimes be a helpful way to compare spending across counties, though even those metrics can make comparisons difficult when considering counties of vastly different sizes. When judged on a per capita basis, Ida County (92nd in population) spends the most, at $3,691 per person, while Dallas County (9th in population) spends the least, with $503 per person.

An additional way to evaluate each county’s spending is to consider each individual service area as a percent of total expenditures. If a particular service area in a county varies greatly from the statewide average, or from the spending practices of a similar-sized county, that is often a part of the budget worth scrutinizing in greater detail.

The following charts present the counties that budgeted the most and least per capita in each service area:

Iowa counties do important work, and that requires the collection of taxes. Problems surface, however, when counties with similar populations and services spend vastly different amounts of taxpayers’ money. Data visualizations can help citizens spot when and where their counties may be out of line.

Visit to learn more about your county and where they spend their property tax dollars.

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