City councils have found a way to polish their political image by mortgaging the future of their towns. Like a soon to be ex-spouse who accepts every credit card offered and then loads them up, the councils have no fear of the consequences to taxpayers 20 years into the future; they won't be there. The beneficiaries of the current annexations will be the political image of the council members and the developers who can pave over farmland for next to nothing rather than constructing upon land already in the city limits. The tool city councils are improperly using to the disadvantage of city taxpayers and county residents is involuntary annexation.
These arguments are substantiated by what the cities are currently doing. Pella, Perry, Centerville, Hiawatha, and Des Moines are all currently trying to, or planning to, involuntarily annex as much land as they think they can get away with. The city of Pella has grown in its 150 years to the size of 4800 acres, yet one single city council is trying to more than double the size of the city by involuntarily annexing 5300 acres. Des Moines is trying to involuntarily annex 9000 acres, or 20% of its size. Hiawatha is trying to add 2 ½ square miles while Perry and Centerville are planning for relatively huge increases in area. All of these annexations or plans are involuntary and against the wishes of the residents of the targeted areas. If these gross annexations were a good thing for cities in the long term, all land in Iowa between the Missouri and Mississippi would have been annexed long ago.
The legislature, as a body, has studied and worked on the issues of "sprawl" outside of the limits of cities but ignored the sprawl within cities limits. They have acknowledged the problem but have failed to do anything about it. The efforts of Senators McKean, Lundby, and Fink, and Representatives, Fallon, Richardson, Huser and Larson weren't debated, they were ignored. Both of the houses had simple and unambiguous bills to address involuntary annexation within the first three weeks of the session. The two simple bills were pushed aside in favor of a ponderous and awkward bill, SF 293, which took years to prepare and would have taken years to implement, all at a cost to the citizens of Iowa. There is a definite and acknowledged need to alter the current laws yet the legislative leadership at the urging of the city councils lobbyists have chosen to ignore what is needed for the state to preserve what is wanted by developers.
What does it mean to County residents? We can be sucked into the fiscal and infrastructure problems of the city, at the whimsy of the city council with no say in the matter. We aren't safe no matter how far, or which direction out of town we live, if a city council wants to tax us, they will annex us against our will. County Supervisors are both powerless and sometimes not concerned, in Polk County 90% of their constituents live within the city limits. Our school systems, if different than the annexing city, will be at the mercy of the abatement policies of a indifferent city council. We also cannot count on services, gravity has some pull on sewer provision and West Carlisle as well as many areas in the unreasonable ring of annexation the Pella council drew up, are downhill from the sewage plants.
What does it mean to the city residents? The police force will be further away, or on foot "out in the boonies" when there is a prowler outside their home. The fire department will be out fighting grass fires with the equipment stuck in a field when their house catches fire. The snowplows will have a hundred more miles of road to clear. The city engineers will be too busy with new developments to bother with older sewer systems or streets. Most painful of all to all city residents, willing and unwilling, taxes will go up when the bills are finally due.
Eric Anderson, the Des Moines city manager, stated at a November meeting of the League of Cities that for every dollar of services used: residential developments pay 70 cents while commercial property pays $1.30 for every dollar used. This isn't true solely in Des Moines, it is true all over Iowa. Logically this would mean that in an ideal city, everybody would commute to jobs within a city from outside the corporate limits because businesses, not residences, pay for services. With the involuntary annexation proposals now on the table, the tax exempt and vacant yet developable land within the city limits of Des Moines will jump from about 60% to near 70%. Pella will increase from 40% to 71%. Keep in mind that Des Moines is not the only capitol city in the US with a great quantity of tax exempt land. The entire $43 million assessment contained in the 14 square miles of the Des Moines petition could be equaled by a development containing 290, $150,000 houses on 100 acres of land already in the city limits with no resultant loss of services to the rest of the city. The land the cities want to annex today would be there when the city needs it for growth 20 years from now.
Why are the city councils doing this? The answer to that question is simple; they want to extend the credit, or bonding capacity, of the city so they can spend it now. The increase for Des Moines is $43 million in assessed value, according to its petition. The bonding credit of 5% of the assessed value, or $2 million, will be available when annexed but there will be no revenue from the residential/agricultural areas annexed to pay for any of the debt for years to come. Des Moines currently abates 100% of the taxes, including school taxes, for periods of years on new construction. The, single year,1997 figure for new construction abatement in Des Moines is $350 million dollars of assessed value. It's a guess for anyone to judge the impact over the last two decades but I'll bet some school repairs could have been done with the school tax and municipal service repairs completed with the property tax that was forgiven for "urban renewal" construction conducted upon corn fields. The councils that have given away the tax dollars in the form of abatements may have looked good when they did it, it's just too bad the schools in Des Moines and around Iowa are paying the tab for that today. Current councils are simply looking for a way to offset what past councils have done, both without a care for the future, they want money now.
What are the alternatives for Des Moines and the other cities? How can they fix their money problems? Promote what the Des Moines council calls "freeloading" by fostering commercial development within the city to reestablish an adequate tax base. Whether this is done by creating commercial park and ride facilities on the periphery of the city to bring the suburbanites to city businesses or cutting the heads off the parking meters, they need to bring in the patrons and workers for the businesses instead of making it more convenient to shop, eat, and work elsewhere. Redevelop the huge brownfield areas within the city to fill in the huge holes of the tax structure. Sever agricultural areas on the periphery of the city from the corporate limits, make development happen within the city not on the edges. Des Moines has 5000 vacant lots along with the 11.7 square miles of vacant yet developable land by its own count, within its current limits. Quit offering the developers abatements and services to build on the edges of the city , they really don't need the help. Residential development is detrimental to the tax base according to the Des Moines city manager, fill in the vacant lots and go for the commercial developments. Most importantly, plan for the fiscal future as well as the wants of today. All of the tax dollars from years gone by have been used somewhere other than maintenance for sewers and schools or simply given away, but nobody is accountable today. The city councils need to spend , and abate, and annex like there is a tomorrow and plan for the cities to be here in 20 years, even if the council members themselves will be gone.
Allen Township, Iowa