Vote No: Taxpayers don’t have bottomless pockets
By Beth Cody, Writers’ Group member
Iowa City Press-Citizen
Wednesday, February 13, 2007

The Iowa City Community School District wants to increase the sales taxes you pay by 20%, from the existing 5% to 6%. They plan to use that money to build new schools and for maintenance of existing schools. But they don’t need new taxes for either purpose, they just need to use the taxes we already pay more efficiently.

Johnson County residents already pay many taxes to support the schools. The schools get $50 million a year in property taxes, $45 million from state sales and income taxes, $4.5 million from federal taxes and $5 million from income surtaxes and excise taxes. Most residents pay these taxes.

Just in property taxes, the owner of the average-value Iowa City house pays $1,000 a year to the schools. And property tax is passed on to lower-income renters as well.

All of these taxes (the district’s $100 million budget) should be enough to cover maintenance of existing buildings. It is simply a matter of priorities. We should ask school administrators why they can afford to spend $3.5 million on “non-instructional programs” this year, but can’t find the money to fix safety concerns and improve handicapped-accessibility.

After all, ordinary citizens – the ones district officials are asking to cough up the extra money – must live within budgets. Why can’t we ask the same of school district administrators?

How is it that we once got educated children from one-room schoolhouses, but now we “need” fiber-optic networks, $6.2 million fine-arts facilities, two gymnasiums per elementary school and “Family Resource Centers”? These things (all on the projects list for the new tax money) sound wonderful, but have little to do with the purpose of public schools: teaching children the fundamental accumulated knowledge of our civilization.

Concerning new school buildings: they will undoubtedly be needed, but that’s because our area population is growing. Since new residents pay property taxes too, that means more funding for the schools.

In fact, school property tax receipts have been growing 7% a year since 1999 (including during a recession), while the number of students is only growing 1% a year. If property taxes continue to grow at their historical rate, the schools will receive an additional $173 million more than their current annual amount over the next ten years.

This is even more than they would get from the sales tax increase and should be enough to fund the additional schools – after all, we’ve already built more than 24 schools without the new tax.

Iowa City schools have been among the best in the nation for many years, despite our lower sales tax rate. School administrators want you to believe that our students will become subpar if we don’t get the extra gymnasiums, but this is highly unlikely.

And school administrators’ claim that the tax will “only” be for ten years ignores the reality of government funding: it is nearly impossible to get rid of programs and funding once they exist. And their claim that the increase will be used for property tax relief is implausible – we’ll simply pay more for both taxes.

But if budget and tax numbers don’t convince you, consider that sales taxes are the most regressive kind of tax. Poor people must spend a much greater percent of their income on basic taxable items (6.9% of income for the lowest 20% of Iowa earners vs. 2.9% for the top 20%). The tax increase would translate into ten additional hours of work each year for workers making $7.50 an hour.

Also, much of the tax money would build schools in new neighborhoods that poor people can’t afford to live in. So our poorest citizens would disproportionately subsidize our wealthier ones’ schools – hardly “progressive.”

Yes, children’s education is important. But Johnson County residents must also pay the rent, buy food for their families and live on fixed incomes in retirement. It’s easy to become hysterical discussing children, but all of these priorities must be balanced.

Voting “no” doesn’t mean that you are against children or education. It just means that you want school administrators to understand that taxpayers don’t have bottomless pockets, and to make better use of the considerable funds they already have. Vote “no” next Tuesday.