The anatomy of a failed bond: Why Linn-Mar voters weren't convinced by district's needs

Linn-Mar homeowners faced highest area tax rate if bond passed

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MARION — Had enough residents in the Linn-Mar school district voted earlier this week for an $80 million bond issue, properties there would have faced the highest school tax rate in the Corridor.

Already, property tax rates for all school districts in the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City metro area are higher than the average for the rest of Iowa — which is about $13.67 per $1,000 of taxable assessed value, state data show.

Even without the tax increase that would have come with Linn-Mar’s now-failed bond issue, the district — which includes areas of Marion, Cedar Rapids, Robins and rural Linn County — will maintain one of the highest rates.

Linn-Mar’s rate, in fiscal 2017, was $17.38 per $1,000, less than only the Marion Independent School District, at $18.58, and Mount Vernon, where taxes are set at $18.47 per $1,000.

Incrementally, Linn-Mar’s bond initiative would have sent property taxes increasing up to $19 per $1,000.

At the polls in Tuesday’s election, some said that increase motivated them to vote no.

“When it involves money,” 61-year-old Kim Laraway said, she’ll show up to the polls. She turned out just for the bond referendum — voting no, she said — leaving choices for the school board candidates blank.

The disparity between Linn-Mar’s tax rate and those of nearby districts — such as Cedar Rapids, set at $15.38, and College Community, at $16.06 — can create a false narrative that the Linn-Mar district is managing its budget poorly, said newly elected Linn-Mar school board member Rachel Wall.

“It’s kind of wonky, but I do think it’s really important for the community to understand,” Wall said, noting there seems to be a notion the gap “must be Linn-Mar spending money like crazy, but that’s not true.”

“That disparity is not due to runaway spending,” she said. “That disparity is due to the fact that we just don’t have the same amount of property valuation in our area.”

That leaves residential properties carrying a bigger burden because the district doesn’t have a large business base to tax, she said.

The Iowa City school district, by comparison, was able to leverage a $191.5 million bond by increasing property taxes from about $13.99 to $14.96 per $1,000 taxable assessed valuation. That measure was approved Tuesday.

But the Linn-Mar district is considered “property poor,” Chief Operating Officer J.T. Anderson said, as its taxable valuation per pupil is about $255,000 compared with the state average valuation of $330,000.

That’s largely because of a relatively small business tax base, Anderson said, in a community about 70 percent residential.

While he objected to the term “property poor,” Marion Economic Development Corporation President Nick Glew said adding business to the area is a priority.

“We are a much heavier residential community, which is why we’ve been laser-focused in the last three to five years on growing more commercial businesses,” Glew said. “We’ll keep building that base that has been our schools and our city.”

And while high property taxes can be a deterrent for some, Glew said investing in public schools is a benefit to workplace development. MEDCO endorsed the Linn-Mar bond.

“To why would businesses want to pay more in property taxes — we think it’s critical to have schools that support a growing workforce and a growing community,” he said. “It all plays together.”

In the wake of the bond’s defeat, Glew said he’s hearing “a bit of surprise” from the community.

“I just hope as we better understand who voted that there aren’t a lot of people finding themselves thinking, ‘I wish I would have gone to the polls to participate,’ ” he said.

According to the Linn County Auditor’s Office’s official count, released Friday, 3,088 people, about 53 percent, voted yes on the bond measure, while 2,761 voted against it. But it needed a 60 percent supermajority to pass.

Voter turnout was about 21 percent. That compares to the district’s historic average of 4 percent in school elections, the Auditor’s Office reported.

In a statement, school board President Tim Isenberg thanked residents who supported the plan — “especially those who voted for it” — and said the board will “pause, regroup and re-evaluate” its facility plan.

The bond sale, if it had passed, was intended to help the district cope with a predicted enrollment of 8,000 by 2021, up from its current count of about 7,300.

The first bond put to Linn-Mar voters since 2006, the $80 million was to fund new schools for the fifth and sixth grade and a new elementary school, as well as renovations and additions to facilities.

The Linn-Mar board cannot legally place another bond question on the ballot for six months.

“We will have to take a different approach,” said Cara Lausen, who was elected to the board Tuesday after serving on the district’s facility planning committee. “Because clearly there was a contingent of our voting base that we didn’t get a good idea of what they were looking for, apparently.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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