Urbandale U-Plex Bond Would Spend Recreationally

A proposed $43 million expenditure will be placed on Urbandale’s March 7th ballot requiring 60% approval to pass. If the special election harbors the same voter turnout as last year’s special election, just 14% of voters could commit their community to tens of millions of dollars in spending.

The burden of property taxes is a heavy one for many Iowans and the legislature is currently considering a number of different reforms to offer taxpayers relief.  It’s important to remember that property taxes aren’t only collected to provide public safety and keep the streets clear of snow.  Local governments also levy property taxes on their citizens to fund new building projects like the proposed recreation center in the City of Urbandale.  Citizens in that community will soon have the chance to weigh in directly on a bond referendum, deciding if they want to foot the bill for government’s ambitions.

The sales pitch for that new rec center sounds great, doesn’t it? Pickleball courts, an indoor walking track, basketball courts, rentable space, an outdoor playground, a splashpad, an indoor playground… if the city were to throw in an indoor pool with lap lanes, an outdoor pool with a lazy river (similar to the Clive Aquatic Center), and a gym, an overwhelming majority of residents would probably support the project.

Actually, when the city initially started planning the center it conducted a survey and did, indeed, find that three out of every four respondents were in favor of building a complex with all those features. The high cost of these items and the city’s debt limitation forced city leaders to cut out the pools and the gym. Officials have not surveyed the public about the pared-down proposal, but they are still marching on toward the whopping $43 million expenditure.

The price tag has been a less prominent part of the sales pitch. Right at the top, the Urbandale webpage for the “U-Plex” hits the visitor with a dusk-lit rendering of the building, with happy people milling about and a tantalizing view of the playground through the window. The visitor must scroll down to the seventh “frequently asked question” — under “When will residents vote on this?” — to find the eight-digit cost, with the language that will appear on the ballot.

The good news is the project is not a done deal, and the dollar amount will be plainly printed for voters to see, and because it is a bond referendum, the measure will require 60% approval to pass. The bad news is that this huge decision will be made only by those who show up for a special election on March 7. When these elections are held on dates other than familiar November election days, the turnout tends to be extremely low. Most recently, only 13.73% of registered voters turned out for a Special Election of Urbandale School Board members.  This means a relatively small percentage of the community could commit their city to tens of millions of dollars in spending.

Notice that the ballot language leaves out the estimated increase in property taxes needed to pay for the bond. A recent examination of Urbandale real estate revealed the median listing price of 400 homes for sale to be approximately $425,000, meaning this new rec center will cost the average homeowner more than $250 per year. Would a full majority of all taxpayers join a private facility of this type if that were the annual cost? What if that were only the entry fee? While the initial millions will pay for the construction of the facility, the center is expected to need an additional taxpayer subsidy of $850,000 per year for maintenance and expenses.

Keep in mind Urbandale residents already pay the 99th highest (out of 940) consolidated city property tax rate in the state, at $39.95 per $1,000 of valuation. The city’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year already shows city leaders proposing to spend an additional $16.7 million (a 21% increase) thanks to 8.3% valuation growth and a 3.3% property tax increase, not including taxes to pay for utilities, schools, county services, and other things. Urbandale has $73.1 million in outstanding debt, equating to $1,605 per person — again, paid with property tax dollars.  Our estimates based on available data suggest an Urbandale homeowner will have a property tax bill that is 12% higher than it would be without the rec center being built.

Excusing itself for nixing the pools from the U-Plex, Urbandale’s FAQ notes that residents have other opportunities to swim. This point could be applied to the entire project, given Urbandale’s convenient location in the metro. The Waukee and Walnut Creek YMCAs are very close, as are almost a dozen other community centers offering many of the same services. If that’s not enough, GrimesPlex is planning to open soon, as is a new $600 million district that includes an indoor water park across from the MidAmerican RecPlex in West Des Moines. Both of these new recreational areas are less than a 15-minute drive from the Urbandale city limits.

These questions and more should be carefully considered before a handful of voters are able to spend a truck full of borrowed money on yet another recreation facility. Multiple meetings are available for residents to ask those questions, and participants should arrive well informed by the YouTube videos, descriptive documents, and timelines the city has made available for all the planning stages of the project.

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