Iowa lawmakers send property tax 'transparency' bill to governor

DES MOINES – Despite heavy opposition from municipal governments, the Iowa Legislature debated through the night before approving a proposal to require local governments to take extra steps before they increase property tax revenues - whether because of higher tax rate or rising property values.

Under the proposal passed Wednesday by the Senate and then at 2:52 a.m. Thursday by the House:

• City councils and county boards would be required to document and hold a public hearing for residents when they plan to increase property tax revenues through higher tax rates or reevaluated property value assessments.

• If a city’s or county’s tax revenues will be increased more than 2 percent, the vote would require two-thirds of the board’s members instead of a simple majority. For example, the Fairfield City Council has seven members, so it would need five to vote in favor of a property tax increase of more than 2 percent, instead of a simple majority of four councilors under current law.

• A measure that would put a 3 percent hard cap on increases, and allow for a voter referendum to reverse the increase, was removed from the bill.

Sen. Rich Taylor (D-Mt. Pleasant) described the legislation as a “political grandstanding bill.” He said he does not believe it will have the desired effect of limiting spending, but rather add hurdles for local governments to “spend as they sit fit for the betterment of their communities.”

The Ledger asked Taylor if he believed the bill would make it hard for cities like Fairfield to retain employees, which was the fear of Fairfield City Administrator Aaron Kooiker. Taylor said he did not think it would stop local governments from funding their needed employees, but added that “it will simply take more conviction by your local leaders to get the job done.”

Taylor referred to the bill as a “slap in the face to our local leaders.”

Supporters say the proposal is needed to require transparency in local property taxes, so taxpayers can understand why their bill is increasing. They say it would force municipalities to show when property tax revenues are increasing and why.

“This is an opportunity for the taxpayers of Iowa to have some ability, some way they can reach out and have some say in what their property taxes should or should not be,” said Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Randy Feenstra (R-Hull), who managed the proposal in the Iowa Senate.

However, opponents said it does nothing to lower property taxes or increase transparency. It will, they warned, damage IPERS, the state’s public employee retirement system, and the police and fire retirement program.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Rep. Dustin Hite (R-New Sharon), who was the mayor of his 1,300-person hometown of New Sharon for seven years. “This bill is not about IPERS. It’s a property tax bill.”

Now, the trust and agency levy that covers local governments’ mandatory contribution to the retirement program can be raised as necessary to cover the employer’s share. Under the bill, House Democrats argued, any increase in that levy will count toward triggering the requirement for super-majority approval of revenue hikes higher than 2 percent. That would put the employer’s share of retirement program funding in competition with other local government expenses, they said, and government officials may choose to lay off staff members to free up money to make IPERS and police and fire retirement costs.

Supporters of the proposal said some local governments have enjoyed property tax revenue boosts because of higher property values while passing the blame for increases to property owners’ tax bills.

They believe it will make local governments think twice about collecting more property tax revenue.

“I’ve had numerous constituents concerned with (property) valuations going through the roof,” said Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel. “For far too long local officials have been able to get by saying, ‘We didn’t raise your taxes.’”

Opponents of the proposal said it would place an undue burden on and infringe upon the authority of local governments.

“This is a red tape machine for city clerks and county supervisors to do their jobs that they were elected to do,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City.

The Senate approved Senate File 634 passed the Iowa Senate 33-17 with Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, joining Republicans in support.

In the House, SF 634 was approved after more than four hours of debate 53-46.

It now goes to the governor.