Iowa City Press-Citizen. Sept. 27, 2014.
State backfill is helpful for cities, but not enough
Local governments throughout the state are still steeling themselves for the full fallout from last year's property tax reform legislation.
That reform package — passed in the final hours of the 2013 session — is estimated to save Iowa taxpayers more than $4 billion over the next decade. But in nearly all the legislative compromises included in that package, city and county governments found themselves on the short end of the deal — especially in terms of:
— Changing the tax structure for rental property so that it is taxed at lower residential, rather than commercial, rates.
— Creating a new formula that will greatly reduce the tax rate paid by commercial property owners.
Lawmakers did promise to backfill some of the revenue that cities are going to lose under the new system. And Gov. Terry Branstad recently issued a news release announcing that Iowa Department of Revenue information shows Johnson County will receive more than $4.75 million in state backfill funding. (Information provided by the Johnson County Auditor's Office further shows that, all told, Johnson County and its cities and townships will receive about $10.5 million in tax relief in credits and backfill funds.)
Now that may sound like a lot of money, but for local governments — especially for Iowa City with its large rental market — it's not going to come close to offsetting the additional millions in revenue losses they will experience when all the parts of the reform go into effect.
That's largely why the Iowa City Council has called for a local option sales tax this election cycle. The city already has attempted to tighten its municipal belt, but with so many millions at stake, there is no way for the city to cut its way down — without cutting some essential city services in the process.
We're not thrilled with the prospect of approving a local option sales tax, but we do think that Iowa City has made a valid argument. And if a majority of voters in the five contiguous cities (Iowa City, Coralville, North Liberty, Tiffin and University Heights) say "yes" on Nov. 4, we think the whole region could benefit from his tax.
All the other metropolitan areas in the state, except for Des Moines, already have such a tax, so that additional cent per dollar won't place our region at a competitive disadvantage. And, as local officials often point out, much of the tax would be paid by out-of-county people coming here for tourism or to shop for goods or services.
Plus, it's the non-continuous cities and the unincorporated area of the county that stand to benefit most from voting "yes" on this tax. Because the tax money would be distributed primarily based on population, those areas stand to receive much more revenue than the amount of taxes that would be collected within their jurisdictions.
So, although we hope Branstad and state lawmakers live up to their promises and continue backfill some of those losses, the local option sales tax is still going to be necessary to cover the rest.
Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. Sept. 25, 2014.
Local inventor and his son show how Iowans can change the world
About five years ago, Jay Norton began investigating ways to potentially help subsistence farmers tending fields in Kenya and Uganda.
Properties are typically small, on average 2 to 3 acres. Farmers in remote areas can neither get to nor afford fertilizer, and they till their land with oxen or donkeys. Yields of white maize — in a good year — are half or less of what an Iowa farmer might consider normal.
Another problem is the condition of the soil. The farmers Norton works with rely on moldboard plows, the kind inventor John Deere perfected. Those are rarely used these days in Iowa for a variety of reasons, an important one being erosion.
Norton, a soil science professor at the University of Wyoming, turned to his father, James, a retired engineer living near New Hartford. James Norton went to work on designs for tillage equipment.
James Norton tapped his own skills and enlisted others with expertise across a wide spectrum. Among those making contributions were metal smiths who cut parts with lasers and a member of the Amish community who helped with assembly and field tests behind his horses.
Together, they came up with what James Norton calls the multifunction farm implement. The device resembles an antique walk-behind plow, except all the parts are steel and it rolls on two wheels. Norton updated the design with an old concept, steel wheels, because flat tires represent more than an inconvenience in remote African locations.
James Norton started with a subsoiler to break hardpan but later added attachments to cultivate and chisel plow. He is working on a planter, too.
Recently, Jay Norton brought a small group of Kenyans and Ugandans to the United States. The party included Shadrach Tumwei, a farmer.
The agricultural tour featured visits to Rick DeGroote's farm near New Hartford and to Amish country near Hazleton.
The conversations that day, and really every initiative since the Nortons' project began, represent an invaluable exchange of ideas and technology that may produce lasting change in Africa. As Emmanuel Omondi, one of Jay Norton's colleagues at Wyoming, noted, issues confronting farmers are essentially equivalent.
"The size of the operation is the only thing that is different. The principles are the same," Omondi said.
DeGroote and Tumwei are both trying to increase production while employing responsible, cost-effective techniques. DeGroote uses some of the largest John Deere equipment available. Tumwei can turn to a multifunction farm implement conceived on a drawing board in James Norton's basement.
The Nortons are shopping for a company in Africa. The hope is to produce their simple tillage equipment and provide some sustainable development in a region of the world that sorely needs help.
"Then if we can get it manufactured over there, that's a key thing — and I think we're going to get it done," James Norton said.