It’s hard to know which of two sales pitches might work best for those who want Cedar Rapids voters on Nov. 5 to renew the city’s 1-percent local-option sales tax for 10 years to fix streets.
One pitch simply says this: Look at Waterloo. Go to Waterloo. Be Waterloo.
The second is a test: Try to find a spot in all of Iowa outside of the Iowa City and Des Moines metropolitan areas where you don’t pay the local-option sales tax when you buy a shirt, a can of paint or anything else subject to the tax.
Cedar Rapids business, construction and labor leaders as well as City Hall — where the message is typically to promote the city as the best there is — find themselves these days declaring that Cedar Rapids has some of the worst streets in the nation.
To make the worst-in-the-nation case, Mayor Ron Corbett has been saying that Cedar Rapidians need to drive to Waterloo, about an hour north on Interstate 380. Waterloo, Corbett has said, has had a 1-percent local-option sales tax in place for more than 20 years, 100 percent of the revenue goes to fix streets, and the streets there are in good shape.
This coming Tuesday, Nov. 5, Cedar Rapids and its contiguous metro neighbors Marion, Hiawatha, Robins and Fairfax will vote as a block as required by state law to renew the local-option sales tax for 10 years. It’s slated to expire June 30, 2014, if the extension doesn’t pass.
Each of the cities will use the money for their own stated needs, and in Cedar Rapids, the money will be used, as in Waterloo, to improve the city’s streets.
The Fix the Streets Committee, chaired by former city Streets Commissioner Don Thomas, has raised more than $80,000 to get the message out that the tax extension for streets makes sense.
Corbett said voters need to look to Waterloo, too.
On Nov. 5, Waterloo and its contiguous metro neighbor cities also will vote on whether to renew their local-option sales tax, which expires there at the end of 2015, for 10 years. Waterloo and Cedar Falls intend to use 100 percent of the money for street projects.
Larry Moser, a residential property appraiser in Waterloo who has chaired the Metro Coalition for Better Streets there for more than 20 years, said the coalition is doing little to campaign for the tax extension. It is sending a pro-streets flyer to metro area households before the election, “but that’s basically all we’re doing,” he said.
Moser said local voters turned the tax down the first time it came before them more than 20 years ago, and then they barely passed it the next time.
“But everything after that, there’s been no problem at all. It’s overwhelming,” Moser said.
According to the Black Hawk County Auditor, the sales tax in more-recent elections in the Waterloo metro area passed in 2000 with 73.4 percent support; in 2005, with 87.1 percent support; and in 2009, with 75.9 percent support.
An effort to extend the tax early in 2002, failed, with 51.2 percent against.
Asked why the past support for the fix-the-streets tax, Moser said, “Because we do a good job of fixing streets. They can see what we’re doing. The streets in Waterloo were horrible. Now, we’re getting them fixed. And they can see where their money goes. … We’ve always been all for streets.”
Moser said there’s never been an organized group to oppose the tax to fix streets.
“There are people who don’t like taxes who vote no,” Moser said. “But I’m not sure that there’s been a negative letter-to-the-editor in 20 years. … Come on up, we can compare our streets with Cedar Rapids’,” he said.
Cedar Rapids Mayor Corbett has been saying the same thing.
Corbett also has pointed out that other cities comparable to Cedar Rapids in Eastern Iowa — Dubuque and Davenport, for example — also have the local-option sales tax in place, Dubuque since 1988, Davenport since 1989. But Corbett has not focused on the pervasiveness of the local-option sales tax across Iowa.
According to the Iowa Department of Revenue, only three of the county seat cities in Iowa’s 99 counties do not now have a 1-percent local-option sales tax in place.
Those are Iowa City in Johnson County, Des Moines in Polk County and Indianola in Warren County just south of Polk County.
Johnson County is, in this sense, the only pure county in Iowa: None of its jurisdictions now has a local-option sales tax in place. However, most did until the tax expired June 30, 2013, in the Johnson County cities of Iowa City, Hills, Lone Tree, Oxford, Shueyville, Solon, Swisher and Tiffin.
And Tom Markus, Iowa City’s city manager, said a constellation of financial pressures on Iowa cities — including the Iowa Legislature’s decision to control, in part, the way cities collect property taxes and the stagnant revenue that comes to cities from the state’s fuel tax — makes it likely that the Iowa City Council will revisit the sales tax.
He said, too, that there is “a pretty good chance” that voters there and elsewhere in Johnson County will be asked “again to consider” the tax, he said.
But in all of Eastern Iowa except for Johnson County, it is nearly impossible to find a place that does not impose the local-option sales tax.
The largest exception is the Benton County piece of Walford, population of about 1,081 — though the Linn County portion of Walford, population of about 400, does collect the tax. The Linn County piece also is voting on Nov. 5 to renew the tax.
Richland, population 584, and South English, population 212, in Keokuk County, Durango, population 22, in Dubuque County and Blue Grass, population 16, in Muscatine County also are safe harbors from the local sales tax.
By the Iowa Department of Revenue’s tally, 109 of 1,016 cities in Iowa don’t collect the tax, though most of those are in the counties of Polk, Johnson, Warren and Dallas — the latter of which is just west of Polk County and where the county seat of Adel, the retail center of Perry and three other small towns do have the tax in place.
Carol Martin, longtime observer and City Hall critic in Cedar Rapids, serves as chairwoman of the anti-tax Get the Facts CR committee, which has reported raising $351 for its campaign effort, according to its report to the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Finance Board.
Martin said she liked the idea that Cedar Rapids might be among the few cities of much size in Iowa without the local sales tax if the renewal measure is defeated on Nov. 5.
“I think the more money that you give to the government, the more ways they’re going to find to spend it,” Martin said. “… You got to have priorities.
“I think when you have too much money, just like a rich person, they don’t have to make priorities, they can just do what they want. And I think in our case, that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Former Cedar Rapids Streets Commissioner Thomas, who held the position which put him on the City Council from 1994 through 2005, said he advocated for the local-option sales tax to fix streets back in his time at City Hall. However, his council colleagues at the time had other priorities, he said.
Now he is heading up the Fix the Streets Committee to try again.
Thomas said he didn’t have a clue why passing a local-option sales tax in Cedar Rapids always has been a tough task.
“It’s a hard sell, for some reason,” he said.
He said the current sales-tax measure in front of voters is better than those that failed in 2011 and 2012. This vote is just about streets, which should work to win approval, he said.
“All indications are that people realize our streets have gotten really bad,” Thomas said.