April 2009

Elected Officials need to Remember “No” means “No”

By Deborah D. Thornton

As parents we try to teach our young men that when they are in a “romantic” physical situation with a young woman and the young woman says, “No,” they are to respect her wishes. “No” means “No.”  It means stop what you are doing, or attempting to do, and do something else.  It means apologize and don’t do it again.  “No” means “No.”  If the young man persists in his amorous actions, he might very well be accused of date rape the next day and have to deal with serious repercussions.

The governments of Linn County, and many other Iowa town and school districts might do well to remember this lesson. Instead, they seem to think that “No” means, “Yes, I just voted incorrectly.  I just didn’t know that I was supposed to say ‘Yes’.”

On March 3, Linn County voters had the opportunity to vote either for or against a 5-year, one cent sales tax increase for flood recovery efforts, property tax relief, or infrastructure development. The issue was quickly put on the ballot after the special tax initiative was authorized in the early days of the 2009 Iowa Legislative session.  The Legislature voted to allow the optional tax increase in response to the historic floods of 2008, but did not restrict the funds to only flood relief and recovery efforts.  The time between initiating the vote and the close of the polls was only 28 days.[1]  This was done so that, assuming it passed, the tax could be imposed almost immediately, providing funds in April 2009, not July.

Less than 24 percent of the eligible voters in Linn County turned out (34,312) – even with early voting beginning on February 6, two days after the proposal was approved by the Cedar Rapids City Council and continuing at the Linn County Elections office until 9:00p.m. the night before the official vote.[2]  Polling places were open on March 3 from 7:00a.m. to 8:00p.m.  In addition, the issue was on the front page of the Cedar Rapids Gazette newspaper virtually every day between February 1 and March 3.  TV stations featured the vote in their lead news stories.  Radio station commentators reviewed the facts of the vote, called in representatives in support and in opposition to the tax increase to present their case, and held call-in sessions.  Action groups were organized, both for and against the tax increase.  The Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, Hawkeye Labor Council, and Cedar Rapids Downtown District all supported the tax, and presumably contacted their members to turn out and vote “Yes.”[3] The independent groups, “Vote ‘Yes’ for Our Neighbors,” and “Cedar Rapids Tea Party,” prepared mailings, went door-to-door, and made phone calls, presenting their positions.

The Legislature intended, but did not require, that the tax funds be spent on 2008 flood recovery efforts. Every person in Linn County is well aware of the damage caused by massive flooding in and around downtown Cedar Rapids, Ely, and Palo.  However, in several towns with little or no flood damage, the funds will be spent on either property tax relief, “community improvement projects,” or “any lawful purpose of the city.”  The vote passed in Cedar Rapids, Mt. Vernon, rural Linn County, and seven other areas.  It failed in Center Point, Hiawatha, Marion, Robins, and Walford, by from 51 to 56 percent.[4]  In these towns, which had some flood and road damage, the funds were to be used for infrastructure development and community development projects, with none going towards property tax relief.  The increase passed in Mt. Vernon, which arguably had no damage – being located mostly on a hilltop.

Because of the unique way in which the legislation was crafted, if the tax increase passed in part of the county, that part would collect and receive the tax. If it did not pass in other areas – it would neither be collected by businesses in those areas nor paid to their governments.[5]

Now the elected officials in Marion, Center Point, Hiawatha, Robins, and Walford are claiming that “the voters didn’t know enough to vote ‘Yes.’” According to an article in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Marion city officials told Cedar Rapids City Council member Tom Podzimek that “people were confused.”[6] Several government officials have said they thought voters didn’t have enough time to learn what they intended to do with the money.  In response the Cedar Rapids City Council immediately voted, again, to have another vote – on May 5 – in those areas which defeated the tax.

Unfortunately, this practice is becoming ever more common in Iowa. Recently, the Wapsie Valley School District, after three voting opportunities, finally succeeded in getting a property tax increase passed, by 1.45 percent.[7]  The January 2009 Tax Education Foundation article, titled “Do Over! Do Over!,” discusses this vote in detail.  A revote often happens with jail bond votes failing (Henry County – 2008), swimming pool bond votes failing (Linn County – 2001), and other special initiatives. Yet elected officials still say, “You didn’t really mean it, you don’t understand. You must say ‘Yes.’”

Additionally, in the Dunkerton Community School District it was recently discovered that over $180,000 in unauthorized property taxes have been collected since July 2005. The error was discovered by State Auditor David Vaudt, and property owners will be repaid this summer, from the school district’s $1 million savings account.[8]  The Dunkerton administration does not know how the mistake occurred.  They apparently didn’t even ask the question, in case the answer was “No,” but just took the money.

In another example of government abuse, citizens paying their property taxes online recently discovered that they are being charged an additional 2 to 2.5 percent fee for the privilege of doing so. In one Johnson county homeowner’s case this added over $70 to the taxes being collected.[9]  County Treasurers justify the fee by saying that while retail business owners build it into their sales price; they must instead add it to the taxes.  Clicking “Yes, I want you to charge my card ‘X’ amount” and then finding another $50 to $100 added to the final bill, when it is not clear, is similar to a young man’s date responding “Yes, I’ll kiss you,” and not realizing what that really means.

Many young men would argue that their dates meant “Yes,” but said “No.” They, like the governments in Linn County, would be wrong.  We, the voters, can and should, reinforce our “No” vote by turning out again on May 5, and remember their inappropriate actions at the next election.

“It is for the people themselves finally to decide all questions of public policy and to have their decision made effective.” – Theodore Roosevelt (Republican), U.S. President, 1901-1909

Deborah D. Thornton is a Research Analyst at Public Interest Institute.  

The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of Public Interest Institute or Tax Education Foundation. They are brought to you in the interest of a better-informed citizenry. 

[1] From the February 3, 2009 passing of the official language by the Cedar Rapids City Council to the March 3, 2009 vote.

[2] “Cedar Rapids Among Majority Approving Tax Increase,” Daren Sukhram, KCRG-TV 9 News report, March 3, 2009.

[3] “The pros and cons of a local-option sales tax,” The Cedar Rapids Gazette, February 15, 2009.

[4] “Official Results Summary,” Special Election, March 3, 2009, Local Option Sales and Services Tax, Linn County, Iowa, Elections Office, as of March 9, 2009.

[5] “Views from the Linn county Auditor,” Joel D. Miller, <http://lcauditor.wordpress.com/2009/01/29/local-option-sales-tax-a-quick-primer/> March 9, 2009.

[6] “Cedar Rapids council to allow sales-tax revote in five cities,” The Cedar Rapids Gazette, March 7, 2009.

[7] “Third time is a charm for Wapsie Valley bond issue,” Janelle Penny, Oelwein Daily Register, December 11, 2008.

[8] Matthew Wilde, “Dunkerton collected tax in error, audit finds,” The Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier, March 10, 2009, P A1.

[9] Charlotte Eby, “Online property tax payers upset with credit card fee,” The Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier, March 5, 2009, p. C2.