Maybe you’ve noticed voting on big public projects is no longer trendy. It’s like flip phones, or our democratic norms.
I mentioned one example in Thursday’s column. The Cedar Rapids Community School District is pursuing a plan for closing eight elementary schools, remodeling three elementaries and building 10 new schools over the next 15 years or more. It’s a remarkably far-reaching plan that promises to change the face of the district and the community.
But rather than pay for this $220 million plan through bonding measures requiring public approval, the district is betting the Iowa Legislature will extend a statewide penny sales tax for school buildings. That tax is currently in place, thanks to the fact voters in all 99 counties approved local school sales taxes, but it expires in 2029. An extension could provide the bucks the district needs, unless the sausage-makers in Des Moines get clever, or do nothing. Both distinct possibilities.
And Cedar Rapids school leaders are hardly the only ones looking for bypasses around the messy congestion and indigestion caused by public votes.
In Marion, we have a newish police station built using a lease-purchase funding mechanism that allowed the city to select its contractor, which then became the project’s owner until its completion. The city then leased the new facility from a trustee in an arrangement that allowed for the issuance of bonded debt without a public vote.
Marion also is pursuing a new library as part of a mixed-use Uptown development that would be financed in a similar fashion. In this case, the library’s charitable foundation would issue bonds to pay for the library portion of the overall project, to be built and owned by Ryan Companies. The city would lease the library and eventually own it.
In 2015, Marion leaders promised a public vote on the project, which would replace a library approved by voters in the 1990s. But a lease-purchase arrangement means a vote is no longer necessary.
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Just this past week, the Linn County Board of Supervisors approved the use of a lease-purchase funding mechanism to build the Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris Public Health and Youth Development Services building, at a cost of up to $31.5 million. The county will take on debt, paid for with property taxes, but no public vote will be necessary.
Technically, county residents could have petitioned for a vote through a “reverse-referendum” mechanism. But the requirements were daunting.
In all cases, the bypass is paved with good intentions.
The supervisors want to make sure the public health project goes to a local contractor who will hire local workers, not some out-of-state low bidder. The school district would rather provide new, 21st Century learning environments for its students than sinking more bucks into aging buildings. Marion is growing fast, and its public facilities need to keep up.
In some instances, the bypass is the best route. In the aftermath of the 2008 flood, the Legislature gave local governments in disaster areas the ability to issue bonded debt without referendums in order to speed up recovery projects. It was the right call.
Local leaders scoff that the public hasn’t had an ample opportunity to weigh in. Supervisors have been working years on this project, they insist. The Marion Library Board has been talking about its objectives for years during its public meetings. The school district’s facilities committee has been meeting for 18 months, though mostly in closed sessions.
Where’s the public? Where’s the newspaper?
And besides, most voters don’t show up for special elections, which are expensive. Those who do show tend to skew heck no. And what about the lousy state law requiring a 60-percent threshold for bond referendums? It allows a minority to scuttle projects even if the majority approves.
Message received. But what message does the bypass send to voters?
Regardless of what’s intended, the message received by more than a few folks I’ve heard from is, basically, elected officials don’t really give a rip what they think. They’ll take their input, but they’re not really listening. Why invest the time to follow issues closely when my opinion doesn’t matter much?
Voting is seen as the only way to make leaders listen. It’s the one strong hand voters have to play, but officials have changed the game.
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Fair or unfair, that’s the perception. Look no further than the misguided but successful effort to shrink the Linn County Board of Supervisors as evidence of what can happen when a group of voters feel they’re not being heard.
Voters do make questionable calls. Twice Cedar Rapids voters shot down local-option sales taxes to pay for much-needed flood protection. Johnson County voters keep rejecting needed courthouse improvements. Voters in the growing Linn-Mar district just last fall voted down a plan to relieve pressure on packed middle and elementary schools.
But Cedar Rapids voters did approve a needed tax for street projects. A whopping 74 percent of Linn County voters agreed to tax themselves for water quality and conservation efforts. A massive bond proposal for Iowa City schools passed last fall after a hard-fought campaign. People turned out in relative droves for casino gambling in Linn County.
Make a strong, clear and compelling sales pitch. Clearly explain the need. Voters often will respond. Not always, but often.
Choose the path of least resistance and you might get plenty of resistance later. Eventually, you’ll need voters to gives a thumbs up to some project or initiative. Some may opt for a different gesture.
The bypass is the hot trend, as I mentioned, and perfectly legal. But like so many recent trends in our politics and government, I’m skeptical all these bypasses are taking us to a better place. Voters may end up with a bad case of road rage.
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