Taxpayers group endorses ‘Water & Land’ referendum

Polk County residents will vote Tuesday on the $65 million measure

By: - October 28, 2021 2:36 pm

Geese gather near Birdland Park along the Des Moines River north of downtown Des Moines. Backers of the Central Iowa Water Trails project want to encourage bird-watching, kayaking, canoeing, fishing and hiking. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

A bond referendum that would allow Polk County to borrow up to $65 million to enhance parks, recreational trails and water is perhaps the only viable way to pay for the projects in the coming years, according to the Taxpayers Association of Central Iowa.

“The decision to endorse the bond issue was not made easily as it involves an increase in property taxes,” the association said in its endorsement of the Polk County Water & Land Legacy Bond, which is set for a vote Tuesday. “Nevertheless, funding the projects through general obligation bonds appears to be a reasonable, if not the only, option.”

The referendum needs 60% voter approval to pass and would result in a $11.20 annual property tax increase for the average county homeowner, based on a property valuation of $180,000.

The potential projects the referendum would fund include improvements to several creeks and rivers to make central Iowa a destination for canoeing, kayaking and tubing. About $15 million might go to those projects that have been prioritized by the Iowa Confluence Water Trails group, which comprises local elected officials, business leaders and others. It’s estimated that the resulting recreational tourism would inject about $30 million annually into the Des Moines metro area economy.

“When that’s done, downtown Des Moines will be unbelievable,” said Rich Leopold, conservation director for the county. “People will be having picnic lunches every day for lunch just to see the people going up and down with their kayaks and canoes.”

In a town-hall-style meeting last week, Leopold also said the referendum might fund a new campground and other improvements at Sleepy Hollow Sports Park, which the county bought this year, along with the proposed Copper Creek Mountain Bike Park, recreational trails that connect central Iowa communities, water quality and habitat restorations and repairs to the Trestle Trail Bridge in Johnston, part of which collapsed in 2019 in an ice jam.

A poll of likely voters early this year showed about 75% support for the referendum.

This referendum follows a similar one in 2012 for $50 million that got 72% approval from voters. The county used that money to leverage about $42 million of funding from other sources for a variety of projects.

The average Polk County homeowner is still paying about $13 per year to pay back the debt from the 2012 referendum. It’s anticipated the debt will be fully repaid in about seven years.

The new bonds are expected to be repaid in about 12 years.

The taxpayers group said borrowing the money to pay for the projects now is smart because interest rates are at all-time lows.

“The additional interest cost to accelerate the completion of the projects may be offset by future increases of project costs,” the association said.

Iowa Rep. Marti Anderson, D-Des Moines, said in the town-hall meeting her constituents are keenly interested in water quality and recreation and that the price is right.

“I do think that $11 per year is going to hurt some people; it’s not going to hurt many people, but it’s a reasonable amount,” she said. “I think Polk County is being really smart about going forward with something that will stabilize our water and our recreational use.”

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register. His investigative work exposing police misconduct has notched several state and national awards. He is a longtime trustee of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which fights for open records and open government. He is a lifelong Iowan and has lived mostly in rural western parts of the state.