Iowa county bond information is not easy to acquire. State law should require county auditors to have this information on their website and also require the Secretary of State’s office to aggregate this information so news outlets and interested parties could more easily report on bonds and property tax increases being asked at special elections.
On March 7, 2023, thirty-five Iowa counties will hold special elections that include bond questions totaling nearly $400 million in potential new spending. A majority of the state’s population, 57%, lives in counties with bond referenda next month, and residents of these counties face increases of their property taxes. Such taxes are the primary source of revenue for cities and school districts alike to pay what they owe. In fact, some March 7 ballots will include additional questions related to property tax increases specifically tied to paying off the proposed debt.
Source: County Auditors
Of the bond questions scheduled for March 7th, five are for cities, one is for a community college, and the remaining 16 are for public school districts. The largest request is the Bettendorf Community School District’s proposal to demolish and rebuild part of its middle school and to construct an athletic complex at its high school for $69,250,000. The smallest is the city of Gilbertville’s proposal to build a municipal emergency service building for $1,250,000.
Source: County Auditors
The most interesting thing about this information may be how difficult it is to acquire. In Iowa, each county auditor manages and keeps data on all regular and special elections. Unfortunately, the Secretary of State’s office does not collect aggregate data on local elections, meaning ITR Foundation was forced to ask all 99 of Iowa’s auditors whether they had bonds on their upcoming ballots.
According to state law, all elections for bonds and property tax increases must be submitted to the appropriate county auditor or Commission of Elections at least 46 days prior to the election. On February 9, 2023 — only 26 days before the election — ITR Foundation visited the auditor websites of the 35 counties with pending bond questions. Twenty-one had information about the March 7 election, while the other 14 did not.
Counties Without Upcoming Election Information
*Carrol County had an election on 2/7/23 and has not updated for 3/7/23
Source: County Auditor Websites
State law should require county auditors to have this information on their websites and the Secretary of State’s office to aggregate it so news outlets and interested parties could more easily report on bonds and proposals for property tax increases. ITR Foundation asked the Iowa League of Cities, the Iowa Department of Education, and the Iowa State Association of Counties if they collect this information; all of them assumed the Secretary of State did and agreed it would be a helpful service.
Both the Iowa Senate and House have filed property tax bills this session that deal with bonds. The Senate bill requires city and county bonds to be included in annual financial statements, while the House bill would require notices of bond proposals/elections to be mailed to each property owner within the taxing jurisdiction. While not a fix to the issue of reporting, direct notification would at least let taxpayers know when a bond election is occurring.
After an election, the county auditor is tasked with certifying the official results to the state and other applicable political subdivisions. Again, because this information is not aggregated anywhere and individual county auditors have the authority to report the results as they see fit, the varying formats make the outcomes of these special elections just as difficult to collect, if not more so, than notifications before the vote.
ITR Foundation will follow up with each control county and report on the outcomes of the bond votes after the March 7, 2023, special election.