Holding taxes down

For many years Gov. Branstad and the Iowa Legislature have regarded units of local government as incapable of controlling property tax growth. Hence, they have instituted tax freezes on counties, arbitrary state limits on property assessments for agricultural and residential properties, caps on city general fund tax rates and special review boards for school budgets. It’s as if county supervisors, school administrators and trustees, and city managers and council members cannot figure out how to set a budget that protects property owners from excessive taxation.

It’s patronizing, inefficient and inflexible.

And it’s wrong.

Case in point:

The legislature convened in January and is supposed to establish state aid to schools by February, a law passed by the legislature itself. The legislature failed to meet its own deadline as it was haggling with Branstad over education reform. Branstad threated that there would be no allowable growth in state aid to public school districts unless the legislature adopted his reform agenda.

Meantime, schools faced a March deadline to approve, publish and certify with county auditors their own budgets while the legislature fiddled. Storm Lake was forced to assume no growth in state aid. It thus increased property taxes to fill the hole left with the state aid void.

At the end of the legislative session, the governor and legislature came to terms on education reform. State aid growth was set at 4% for next school year.

The Storm Lake School Board could have pocketed the state money and kept property tax rates up for its many legitimate needs. But it did not. The board last week cut the tax rate by 40¢ per $1,000 taxable valuation to reflect the increase in revenue from the state.

School board members are property owners, too. One used to own his own retail business, another is a farmer, all of them own homes. They feel the property tax pinch every bit as much as a state legislator. To assume that they are profligate spenders who cannot say no to teachers, staff and parents is foolish.

They kept their pledge: Property taxes will not be increased to pay for a $17 million addition to Storm Lake High School.

In fact, taxes have decreased.

You can trust the Storm Lake School Board to do what’s right for Storm Lake. You can trust paid state politicians to listen first to their campaign contributors or their caucus leaders and not necessarily the patrons of the Storm Lake School District.

If school taxes rise too high, try to complain to the governor. You can reach Supt. Carl Turner or Board President Ed McKenna by picking up the phone or attending a school board meeting.

The state will never see that local government is almost always more accountable, flexible and efficient than state or federal government by mere proximity and familiarity. If you want to keep taxes low, work with your local officials.

 School safe rooms

The school board made another important decision last week. It decided against building a “safe room” at the high school because it is not budgeted and could delay the school renovation/expansion by a year. Board members said they would reconsider if the district could get a federal grant to cover the $1 million cost of beefing up the planned auxiliary gym on the northwest corner.

The high school, middle school and elementary schools all lack what FEMA would consider a “safe room” in case of violent storms.

Storm Lake has the nickname “Tornados” for a reason. This is twister country. Because a cyclone has not hit a Storm Lake school does not mean it won’t happen. It did in Moore, Okla. There, the school had a basement but it was not a certified safe room. It flooded, and people died.

We should have safe rooms in every public school. If we can afford an auxiliary gym we should be able to reinforce it as a legitimate storm shelter.

The district should make every effort to get every dollar it can for a safe room at each of the schools. It’s good that the board left the door open for such an amendment to its current high school plan.