Category: Rates

Property Tax Increases Take Center Stage on March 5th Special Election Ballots

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Some local governments say if you vote to renew a levy, taxes won’t go up.

But it’s like finishing paying for a car and then buying another with the same monthly payment. This hides the option of saving money instead!

The March 5, 2024, special election in 13 school districts and one county will put property tax increase questions before voters. The school districts are looking for increases in their physical plant and equipment levies (PPELs), which generate local property tax dollars for infrastructure and equipment repairs, and one district is also asking for an increase of its debt service levy (i.e., for bonds). Louisa County is asking voters for a 15-year tax increase to fund emergency medical services (EMS).

How Much Will Property Taxes Increase?

If these public measures were to pass, the total would increase next year’s property tax collections by $12.1 million. Even worse, these property tax increases are scheduled to last for 10 years or more. The total taxpayer commitment would be more than $137.4 million — and that is a conservative estimate because nobody can predict property valuation increases a decade from now.

The following table provides the details for each public measure.

What Is PPEL?

PPEL stands for “physical plant and equipment levy.” The Iowa Legislature created the tax in the early 1990s as a local funding stream to support school district facilities and equipment. One type of PPEL allows annual school board approval, while the other, including those listed above, requires public votes. Voted PPELs can be authorized for a maximum of 10 years and $1.34 per $1,000 of taxable value and are distinctive because school boards may issue bonds against them and repay the debt with interest from the revenue.

PPEL funds may only be used for maintenance projects and equipment. For the current fiscal year, 49 districts do not use this property tax levy, while 100 districts are at the maximum rate of $1.34. The statewide average tax rate is 81 cents, and it generates $206.7 million per year.

Not Telling the Whole Truth

Anytime government agencies hold a vote to increase spending or keep it the same, the burden on taxpayers increases because home values continue to go up year after year. Some districts are forthcoming about the effect on taxpayers and admit they are asking for more money; others use careful wording to convince voters the tax increase doesn’t exist.

One of the most common statements school districts will use is, “This will not cause an increase in the school district property tax rate.”

The claim is that the current tax rate includes a PPEL, and if voters agree to keep it the same, then taxes do not go up. The principle is similar to paying off a car only to run out to buy a new one at the same monthly payment. The continuing payments disguise the alternative: saving the money.

Another way to say the same thing points to a second misleading aspect, “The district believes this will not cause an increase in the school district property tax rate. This will extend the voter PPEL the district currently has for an additional 10 years. The district has had a voter PPEL since 1992.” Over time, keeping the rate the same produces inevitable increases as property values rise. Since 1992, Iowa residential property valuations have increased 274%, meaning the district has been effectively raising taxes for 30+ years.

Some districts go so far as to deploy scare tactics against voters like, “If the PPEL is not renewed, the district would need to use general fund or SAVE money to support building upkeep, transportation, and technology, delaying potential projects planned from SAVE funding.” Translation: the school would have to budget and spend money on its planned projects. State Secure an Advanced Vision for Education (SAVE) money is already earmarked for infrastructure purposes, so using it is not unreasonable.

Another common tactic is to claim, “The current PPEL rate is $0.67 per $1,000 of taxable property value. We are asking voters to consider raising that to $1.34. Despite the increase, the district is positioned financially to make changes that allow the district’s overall tax levy rate to remain flat, meaning an increase of the voted PPEL will not raise taxes.” Notice the details. The district is positioned to make changes, which doesn’t mean it will. Total spending will likely increase, meaning the burden on property owners will also increase.

Voter Resources

Click on your school or county in the table above or use the menu at the top of this page to visit your community's page to learn more about its property taxes and spending.

General Service and Rural Services Levy Rate Change

General Service and Rural Services Levy Rate Change

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The maps below show the change in the General Services (county-wide) and Rural Services (rural only) levy rates from FY 2023 to FY 2024. Blue counties increased rates, light green decreased rates, and gray counties had no change.

County Tax Relief Is Not Deprivation

County Tax Relief Is Not Deprivation

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Counties are cashing in on hefty property taxes from high assessments, and reducing rates won’t halt financial gains.

You might hear your county officials complaining they are facing dire straits this year because of the new property tax law. The truth is that too many counties have been cashing in on hefty property taxes from rapidly increasing assessments, and redirecting some of these financial gains toward rate reductions shouldn’t affect the services they offer.

Every county is supposed to be allowed a maximum general services property tax levy of $3.50 per $1,000 in valuation, with another $3.95 for the rural area of the county.[1] Over time, special provisions in state law have given counties ways to exceed those rates. To make the property tax structure easier to understand and more predictable for taxpayers, the new law consolidates some levies and requires counties gradually to reduce their top rate to the $3.50 and $3.95 maximums.

Counties Raised Their Rates

While the legislation was working its way through the system before being enacted in May 2023, county officials knew it would eventually become law. In their final budgets before implementation, many counties made changes to hedge against future cuts.

They certainly had room to do so. Iowa property valuations increased as much as 22% above the prior year in some areas, so counties have no need for increased levy rates, given these extraordinary assessment bumps. Many of them were already enjoying the advantages of rates above the supposed maximums.

In fiscal year 2023 (FY23), 30 counties charged more than the maximum general services rate of $3.50, and three of them were above $3.95 for rural services.

For FY24, the number above the maximum for general services jumped to 40 counties, with rural rates above the maximum in five counties. The statewide average general county services rate rose over the same period from $3.55 to $3.78. Growth of the average rural addition was from $3.18 for FY23 to $3.27 for FY24.

To put that into perspective, Decatur County has the highest general services rate, and it jumped 12 cents to $6.71 for FY24. On the rural side, Audubon has the highest rate, which increased another 2 cents, to $5.38 on top of the general services rate in that county. Even so, Audubon comes nowhere near the highest total rate. The combined basic rate (general services and rural) in Clarke County is $9.64 for FY24.

Another key statistic is the county with the largest increase over the one-year timeframe; Lee County raised its general services rate from $3.50 to $5.85, a $2.35 jump in one year, which was the largest in the state.

Keep in mind that counties impose other levies on taxpayers, too, pushing total tax rates even higher. The highest-taxed residents in the state at the county level are currently the rural residents of Winnebago, who pay $15.52 per $1,000 of property, all in.

How the Legislation Works

The recent legislation reduces property tax levies by requiring counties to apply new growth toward lowering their levy rates. If a county experiences growth in property valuations, it can no longer keep the entire windfall but must adjust its rates.

Triggers vary this requirement based on the non-TIF taxable valuation growth.[2] If a county’s non-TIF taxable growth is 3% or less, it can maintain its current levy rate and collect the increase. If a county’s non-TIF taxable valuation growth is between 3% and 6%, it must reduce its total property tax collections by 2% by adjusting its rate downward. If a county’s tax base grows at 6% or more, the mandatory reduction is 3%.

For simplicity, the following examples consider only the general services levy:

  1. County A has a general services levy rate of $3.50, and its non-TIF taxable valuations increase from $1.00 billion to $1.02 billion, which is up 2% year-over-year.
    a. The county can keep its tax rate and all property tax growth that year.
  2. County B has a general services levy rate of $4.50, and its non-TIF taxable valuations increase from $1.00 billion to $1.04 billion, which is up 4% year-over-year.
    a. The county is required to reduce its total tax dollars collected by 2% while keeping the rest of the increase.
  3. County C has a general services levy rate of $4.50, and its non-TIF taxable valuations increase from $1.00 billion to $1.07 billion, which is up 7% year-over-year.
    a. The county is required to reduce its total tax dollars collected by 3% while keeping the rest of the increase.

How Much in Savings?

From 2017 to 2023, county valuations went up an average of 4.3%. Every county saw its valuations grow by at least 3% during one of those years, and 70 saw valuations increase by more than 6%. In rural areas, the average growth across the state from 2017 to 2023 was 4.2%. Again, every county’s rural property values went up by at least 3% during one of those years, and 78 saw valuations increase by more than 6%.

The new county tax rate restrictions will lower property taxes statewide. Exactly how great an effect taxpayers see depends on how much the general and rural tax bases of each county grow from FY25 to FY28. The benefit will be most substantial in the 40 counties currently above $3.50 for general services and five counties currently above $3.95 for rural services, but any county with a big increase in property values will enjoy a tax reduction from what their taxes would otherwise have been.


 [1] Certain county property tax levies apply to all taxed property within the county; these are called general levies, while other levies apply only to property that is outside of incorporated cities, which are called rural levies. Properties located in cities are only subject to the general levies, while rural properties are subject to both general and rural levies.

[2] This refers to the taxable valuation growth outside of specially designated districts with tax increment financing (TIF) programs. 

School District Property Tax Rates

School District Property Tax Rates

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When your school board creates a budget and decides how much to spend, they also set the rate, which determines the school district portion of your property taxes, which is the largest part of your total bill.

The table below shows the underlying rates that comprise a district’s total levy rate. The Iowa Department of Management is the source of this data.

Most property tax levies for Iowa’s public schools are set by the state’s funding formula. However, the levies highlighted in blue and marked with an ” * ” are set by each district’s school board. Ask your board members about these levies and where they are spending your money.

FY 2024 amount paid for each $1,000 of taxable value. Click on a column heading to sort.

County Property Tax Rates

County Property Tax Rates

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When your county supervisors create a budget and decide how much to spend for county services, they also set the rate, which determines the county portion of your property tax bill.

The table below shows the underlying rates that comprise a county’s total levy rate. The Iowa Department of Management is the source of this data.

FY 2024 amount paid for each $1,000 of taxable value. Click on a column heading to sort.

City Property Tax Rates

City Property Tax Rates

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When your city council creates the budget and decides on how much to spend for city services, they also set the rate, which determines your property tax bill.

The table below shows the underlying rates that comprise a city’s total levy rate. The Iowa Department of Management is the source of this data.

All Iowa cities included. FY 2024 amount paid for each $1,000 of taxable value. Click on a column heading to sort.

Local Governments Have No Reason to Increase Rates

Local Governments Have No Reason to Increase Rates

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With exceptional valuation growth over the years, it is time to force local governments to cut back and live within their means.

Property taxes are, without a doubt, the most hated tax in Iowa. Rightfully so, as the bill goes up year after year and the services Iowans receive do not equate to the increase. Iowa currently has the 10th highest property tax when measured on a national scale, resulting in $6.7 billion in collections.

However, given all this, many local government advocates still insist property tax collections must increase over time in response to inflation and population growth.  That may be a fair point to consider, but the reality is the property tax system is already designed to accommodate both inflation and population growth.  In a nutshell, property taxes are the product of the tax rate multiplied by the taxable value of each piece of real estate.  This means as more properties are added to the tax base, or as those properties become more valuable (valuations are inevitably increased to reflect the impact of inflation), a tax rate that is held constant would generate more revenue for a local government. 

Before we go into historical trends, let’s make it clear that the only property tax number you should really be concerned about is your final bill.  Don’t get caught up in assessed value, taxable value, rollback, or rate.  Simply focus on how the bill you received in August changed from last year.  Now, if you don’t like how your bill changed since last year, there are a few items you can dig into further.

The Department of Management provides property tax data for each local government entity dating back to FY77. This makes it easy to observe long-term trends.

For the most part, taxable valuations in Iowa have increased almost every year since 1977, except in 1988, when personal property was removed;  in 2000, when gas and electric utilities were excluded; and in 2004, after a national recession. In those three instances, consolidated levy rate increases made mathematical sense, given the reduction in valuations; governments still had expenses to pay. However, such unusual circumstances do not justify the average consolidated levy rate increase from $22.82 in 1977 to $32.18 in 2023. That’s a 41% increase on top of a taxable valuation increase of 380%.  In other words, raising the levy rate at the same time that valuations are growing is doubling down on tax increases for property owners.

It's easy to see from historical data that local governments have not only collected the natural (and expected) growth in property tax revenue from inflation and population but have also increased the rate as a way to collect and spend more. In the most recent year, home values jumped an average of 22% statewide further illustrating that local governments can keep their levy rates the same while collecting more dollars. There is no reason to keep increasing the rate.

Let’s put that into perspective. When we compare the most recent tax years, 2023 to 2022, we find that 436 cities (roughly half of the 936 cities in the entire state) increased their levy rates. While some outliers increased their levy rate by more than $4.00, the average levy rate increase for cities last year was still 58 cents. Even for a number of cities that chose to reduce their tax rates, which is better than an increase, the small reduction in the rates still allows local governments to collect a substantial windfall from valuation increases.

When considering the last half-century of property tax collections in Iowa, the total amount of property tax dollars collected from citizens has increased 523%, while inflation has only increased 416% over the same period, meaning total collections are $1.1 billion more today than they would have been if property taxes had only increased in line with inflation.

Lawmakers are in the right place when they look to eliminate property tax levies or consolidate others. The state has been seeing exceptional valuation growth over the last few years, so now is the time to force local governments to cut back and live within their means. History tells us they will continue to tax and spend unless the state acts.

© 2023 Iowans for Tax Relief and ITR Foundation