Where are Iowa Cities Spending Property Taxes?

  Email or print a PDF of this page. This might take 10-15 seconds.

Iowa cities do important work, and that requires the collection of taxes. Problems surface, however, when cities with similar populations and services spend vastly different amounts of taxpayers’ money.

Iowa’s 940 cities collect around 30% of all the property taxes we pay each year. Many of us are supportive of spending on law enforcement, emergency management, and roads. Where disagreement occurs is when cities are spending money on things that are not a core function of government, essentially a “want” instead of a “need”.

To find out exactly where all the tax money goes, Iowans for Tax Relief Foundation (ITRF) took a deep dive into city budgets so Iowans can have a better idea where their city is spending their tax dollars. For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2023, Iowa cities budgeted $8.6 billion of spending, which is 78% more than they were spending ten years ago.  To see how your city spending has grown, click here.

City spending can be broken down to nine major expenditure areas:

  1. Business Type/Enterprises (landfill/garbage, water utility, gas utility, sewer)
  2. Capital Projects (governmental expenditures of $25k+ lasting 10yrs, TIF capital projects)
  3. Community and Economic Development (economic development, planning and zoning, TIF, urban renewal, payment into regional economic development programs)
  4. Culture and Recreation (library, parks and recreation, community centers, pools, golf courses, trails, cemetery, marinas, zoos)
  5. Debt Service (principal and interest payments on debt and fees)
  6. General Government (administrative staff wages, mayor, council, clerk, legal, city hall, benefits, buying general supplies, insurance, legal fees, publications, dues for Iowa league of cities)
  7. Health and Social Services (hospital, water, air & mosquito control, senior assistance, welfare programs)
  8. Public Safety (police, fire, ambulance, animal control, emergency management)
  9. Public Works (day-to-day operations for the city: roads, bridges, sidewalks, street lighting, parking, snow removal, building maintenance, infrastructure)

One way to evaluate each city’s spending is to consider each individual category as a percent of total expenditures. If a particular category of spending in a city varies greatly from the statewide average, or from the spending practices of a similar-sized city, that is often a part of the budget worth scrutinizing in greater detail. To see how much your city (and others) spend per category, click here.

While investigating how much your city is spending on certain items, keep in mind that direct comparisons with other cities are not always appropriate; Iowa cities range from Le Roy with a population of 10 to Des Moines with a population over 212,000, and this wide range impacts the amount of spending for each city. For instance, a handful of cities budgeted less than $10,000 while others budgeted more than $500 million for fiscal year 2023.

Translating expenditures into per capita measurements can sometimes be a helpful way to compare spending across cities, though even those metrics can make comparisons difficult when considering cities of vastly different sizes. When judged on a per capita basis, Pleasantville and Pacific Junction spend the most, at $194,567 and $129,057 per person (population 32 and 100, respectively), while Pleasanton and Ackworth spend the least, with $6 and $125 per person (population 1,676 and 119, respectively). For Iowa’s larger cities, they spend roughly between $2,000 to $5,000 per person.

  • Des Moines, $3,409 per person
  • Cedar Rapids, $5,077
  • Davenport, $2,589
  • Sioux City, $3,817
  • Iowa City, $2,609
  • Ankeny, $2,248
  • Waterloo, $3,184
  • Council Bluffs, $2,336

Iowa cities do important work, and that requires the collection of taxes. Issues become apparent, however, when cities with similar populations and services spend vastly different amounts of taxpayers’ money. Property taxes are a direct reflection of local government spending, and it is important to know where that money is going to keep locally elected officials in check. Data visualizations can help citizens spot when and where their cities may be out of line.

Visit ITRLocal.org to learn more about your city and where they spend their property tax dollars.

© 2023 Iowans for Tax Relief and ITR Foundation