Turnout Determines Property Tax Increases in March Special Election

Of the 15 property tax increase proposals on ballots, 10 passed and 5 failed, resulting in over $100 million in new spending over the next decade.

On March 5, 2024, voters around Iowa considered 15 property tax increases totaling $137.4 million in potential new spending over the next decade. The low level of participation showed that Iowans don’t have the same level of awareness for special elections throughout the year as they do for elections that take place annually in November. The results also show that less voter engagement can lead to the passage of tax increases.


Of the 15 property tax increase proposals, 10 passed and five failed, resulting in more than $105.3 million in new spending over the next decade. Taxpayers should be appalled to learn that very few voters saddled entire districts with a decade of higher taxes. The average voter turnout was 12.8%, with a range from 4.2% to 34.9%. For comparison, elections for local government bond proposals during the more-familiar November elections produced an average of 34.1% voter turnout, with a range from 15.8% and 56.0%.

Most of the property tax increases on March ballots were for physical plant and equipment levies (PPELs). School districts can only use this tax for facilities and equipment, and voted-on PPELs can be authorized for a maximum of 10 years and $1.34 per $1,000 of taxable value. Such levies are distinctive because school boards may issue bonds against them and repay the debt with interest from the revenue. School districts can fund these infrastructure costs with a combination of local property taxes and income surtaxes, which are added to individuals’ state income tax owed.

Voters considered other forms of taxation, as well. In 2021, Iowa lawmakers passed legislation that allows counties to vote to declare emergency management services (EMS) to be essential and collect taxes to support them, if voters approve. Separately, local governments use the debt service levy to bond for large infrastructure projects, and they last as long as the debt is outstanding, typically 20 years. This interactive table provides details of the March election outcomes, and users can sort the results by each column. Of particular note is the fact that not a single proposal passed if voter turnout was higher than 12%.

Repeat Offenders

Higher turnout, and the likelihood that the proposal would fail, was associated, in March, with repeated attempts. That is, districts that attempted to redo earlier votes had the same result.

Benton Community School District (CSD) residents rejected a bond in March 2023, and voter turnout for both that election and this one was around 35%. Hinton CSD saw 36% voter turnout for a bond proposal in November last year and 21% this time for a PPEL and a debt service levy. Clarinda CSD has asked voters for debt or property tax increases three times in the last year, and while this election saw the lowest voter turnout of these attempts, its failed proposals continue to post higher-than-average turnout, at 18%.

While Glenwood CSD is not on the list for a property tax increase, it did have another spending proposal on the ballot for March, a revenue purpose statement. The district presented voters with a bond in November 2023 that was overwhelmingly rejected. As a workaround to fund wanted infrastructure projects, the district presented residents with another option and tried to change the way it finances infrastructure. Fall voter turnout for the bond was 23%; the March election garnered 19% voter turnout, and the effort failed again. If a community in Iowa has made a decision, voters tend to hold to that viewpoint despite tricks and revotes.

Effect of a New Property Tax Law

In Spring 2023, the Iowa Legislature enacted a wide-ranging package of property tax reforms, with major provisions focused on local elections. The legislation restricts bond elections to November and requires notification of the bond proposal be mailed to all registered voters. The intent was to increase voter turnout for issues that have a direct effect on property taxes. The low voter turnout for the most-recent special election leads to the conclusion that all property tax increases should be moved to November-only dates or, at minimum, require direct notification to generate increased civic engagement.

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