Avoca City Manager says Branstad tax breaks will hurt local governments & prop. tax payers


June 1st, 2011 by Ric Hanson

The following was submitted by Avoca City Manager Clint Fichter….

It seems that no one in Iowa is really safe while the Legislature is still in session. The latest potential victims are local governments and residential property tax payers who will be very negatively affected by the latest tax restructuring proposal being considered.

Governor Terry Branstad has proposed far reaching commercial property tax breaks that will result in the shift of much of the property tax burden from commercial property tax payers to residential property taxpayers. Under the Branstad plan, 40% of commercial property tax value would be permanently phased-in for exemption from property taxes over a period of five years. The total cost to local governments (cities, counties, and schools) for the cuts exceeds $500 million dollars. Residential property taxes will see unprecedented increases if this proposal is to pass.

Despite the fact that State law likely will already cause residential property taxes to grow four times faster than commercial property taxes over the next six years, Governor Branstad is pushing policies that will make this increase much worse. Under current Iowa law, the increase in taxable value for residential property is tied to increases in assessed value for agricultural property. Over the next several years, agricultural values are expected to be strong; meaning the taxable values for residential properties will grow. Currently residential properties are taxed at 48% of assessed value, over the next five years that percentage is expected to increase to 58% of assessed value. Assuming current levels of spending and average inflation in an average Iowa city, residential properties will see a 27% increase in their city property taxes over the next six years. Over the next six years, the same estimates indicate that commercial taxes would only increase 6% if current law is maintained.

Although the Branstad plan slows down the rate of residential taxable value growth – it still shifts a much larger amount of property taxes to residential property owners. Under the Branstad tax shifting plan, average residential properties will see a net property tax increase of 48.5% over six years and commercial and industrial taxes will see a net reduction of 18% over six years. Average residential property owners will pay much more because the amount of taxable commercial values sharing the tax will be reduced by 40%.

Commercial properties are taxed at 100% of the assessed value and pay a proportionately higher amount of taxes, so the goal of commercial property tax relief is not without merit. However, the ultimate plan to provide commercial property tax relief should not result in such harsh burden for residential property owners and local governments.

Cities, counties, and schools will all be negatively impacted by the tax shift and basic services will be difficult and the tax increases caused by Branstad’s tax shift plan cannot be avoided. Iowa’s local governments do not have much room to cut and already spend less than the national average. According to the Tax Foundation, the state’s per capita property tax collection is below the national average. The US average per capita property tax collection is $1,352 and Iowa’s is $1,245. The Tax Foundation also says that over the past 20 years, Iowa’s state and local tax burden is 9.3% of income, below the national average of 9.7%.

The magnitude of the proposal’s impact only increases depending on the size of the community, however it will also greatly increase the already grave challenges faced by rural communities too. The plan forces will force cities to raise taxes and/or make cuts to provide the same level of public safety, recreational facilities, and infrastructure. In the small community of Avoca, our city government will need to offset $325,000 annually in revenue through increases to residential property taxpayers due to the proposed tax cuts.

Iowa’s cities also are major participants in economic development through their participation in incentives and construction of infrastructure that support commercial and industrial activities. The proposed tax cuts will undercut these effective programs that make commercial and industrial development possible. For example, using Tax Increment Financing to help commercial projects develop needed infrastructure, the City of Avoca, Iowa increased its commercial tax base 117% from FY 2001 to FY 2011 – nearly double the average commercial tax growth for an Iowa city over the same time period. Over the same ten-year period, the City of Avoca’s tax levy only increased 7%, while the average city’s levy increased 12%. This type of economic development assistance to grow tax base and to spread out the tax burden will be hindered by the Branstad tax shift plan because cities will find it more difficult to participate in the development of infrastructure when the commercial projects are only paying taxes on 60% of the value.

The proposal will also make local governments all over the state, reliant on long-term debt and special assessments to fund infrastructure projects because cities will find it difficult to support the pay-as-you-go approach to infrastructure when revenues have been so severely reduced.

Branstad has attempted to justify the drastic tax cuts by pointing to the possibility of increased commercial and industrial investment. This is a claim that many competent and experienced people dispute. David Swenson, Iowa State University economists, has said “I disagree that significant cuts in taxes will stimulate meaningful amounts of net new business or industrial investment in Iowa.” The Branstad administration has not shown any economic data or projections that even attempt to justify that a 40% commercial property tax cut can be made up through property tax base growth.

Branstad has held out the possibility that the State would “backfill” up to half of the money necessary to pay for the commercial property tax cuts. This would reduce the need to raise residential taxes, but there is no reason to believe that the State will meet this commitment, even if there is enough money to fulfill the pledge. Prior to the 2011 legislative session, State Auditor Vaudt said the State of Iowa was on the verge of going over a “budgetary cliff” and projected shortfalls were massive. Revenues have increased and the budget picture looks better, but it is hard to believe the State would have the wherewithal to appropriate enough money to offset these cuts when existing commitments, like K-12 education, are looking at near permanent reductions in funding. The State has also continually failed to meet its obligations to both cities and counties and any State funding to pay for commercial tax breaks would not be any more reliable. For instances, in recent memory, the state has cut local government revenue sources, including bank franchise fees, State Shared Revenues, and the Machinery and Equipment tax and has failed to help cities make up any of the revenue shortfalls associated with these cuts – which has increased the reliance on property tax. It’s difficult to see how it will be different this time.

Lowering commercial taxes is a good goal and the Iowa League of Cities and Iowa Association of Counties have long supported this goal. There are numerous ways to approach this problem other than the partisan and damaging route that Branstad is proposing. For instance, state-funded tax credits could be offered to commercial property tax payers.

The Iowa Senate has approved a plan to provide $50 million in yearly commercial property tax cuts that would be achieved by taxing the first $30,000 of assessed value for commercial and industrial property at the same rate as residential homes. The program would grow incrementally by $50 million annually for four years with a proviso that yearly state revenue would have to grow by at least 4 percent to trigger the relief.

The Branstad proposal is fundamentally at odds with Iowa’s tradition of local control. Iowa’s cities are home rule entities and our elected/appointed officials should be the ones responsible for determining what taxes and services are appropriate for local people – not the Governor.