Cityscape — June 2015
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President's Viewpoint
Creston Mayor Warren Woods

Levelling the playing field

My wife was in secondary education for a number of years, both as a teacher and an administrator. It seems like several times each year a student, or even a teacher that she supervised, would utter the familiar statement that “it isn’t fair”. Her response was basically that “life isn’t fair, so get over it”. She certainly used a softer tone, but the message was clear.

For cities, life also isn’t fair. We face increasing expectations for services while at the same time less resources. We all know that in the majority of smaller cities across Iowa, maintaining or increasing population just isn’t happening. Population growth is limited to those cities near urban population centers. For the most part, population increases make life easier by increasing taxable property values while population declines make life harder since they inevitably lead to lower property valuations.

I doubt that any two cities are alike in their tax needs. But there are certainly patterns that emerge for our smaller rural cities. In my city of Creston, even though we have had some population increase, the city has a very low per capita property tax base. Police and fire departments expenses must be contained within the $8.10 levy, and with a low per capita tax base it makes it difficult to maintain public safety to the level that I believe is acceptable for our community. This arbitrary general fund levy is antiquated, but is a difficult one to discuss with our legislators because of the perception that it is a tax increase, when in reality it just makes it easier for the city to budget to the expectations of their citizens.

Many of our communities, as is the case with Creston, have business and residence growth outside of our city limits, and an involuntary annexation of these areas is expensive, time consuming and creates ill will in the community. It is very difficult to accomplish.

While it’s true that “it isn’t fair”, my wife would go on to explain that even though life isn’t fair, there are things you can do to level the playing field. To a great extent, this is what we as city officials need to focus on. This year’s Small City Workshops were all about sustaining the small city. They were used as an opportunity to begin a conversation about how cities can sustain in the face of our growing challenges. Over the next few months the League will share in this magazine some of the successful strategies that small cities have used to maintain their communities.

Life isn’t fair, but we can all work toward levelling the playing field.

Creston Mayor Warren Woods