Voters in Buena Vista County dug a little deeper into their own pockets Thursday, overwhelmingly passing a School Infrastructure Local Option sales tax to inject 10 years worth of new funding into its schools - one penny at a time.
The measure passed by a vote of 1,582 to 507, and of 18 precinct plus absentees, the sales tax failed in only one precinct.
All four Storm Lake precincts came out strongly in favor of the tax, which will begin to be collected in July and distributed to school districts in fall 2004, as a seventh penny of sales tax on every dollar of retail items purchased in the county.
Although bad weather kept all of the polls closed until noon, about 17.5 percent of the eligible voters in the county turned out on a frigid day to vote in the one-issue election. Local school elections typically draw 5-10 percent turnouts, and anything above 15 percent is rare, Commissioner of Elections Karen Strawn said.
Rembrandt's polling site was without power and heat most of the day, but kept working, and eventually required extra ballots to meet the voter demand.
The voter climate is a sharp change from 1999, when such a sales tax was voted down by a margin of almost three-to-one in the county.
Strawn said she wasn't sure what has caused the change in attitude, but suggested that better preparation and education of the public to the issue may have made a difference, along with voters hoping for some relief from property tax burdens.
Storm Lake educators met the election results with enthusiasm.
"We're very pleased that it has passed. It is an indication that the people of BV County are willing to put their money into their school's infrastructure," high school Principal Mike Hanna said. "We're pleased because that gives us a chance to look at a new elementary school in the next few years without having to do a bond issue through property taxes.
"If we generate enough sales tax revenue across the state of Iowa that would mean that Storm Lake Schools might get more money than the estimated $400 per student and we might get the theatre/auditorium attached to the high school."
Middle School Principal Ron Bryan agrees. ""I'm happy with the results. I think it's a win-win situation for the people who live in the district and its schools," he said. "I appreciate those people who took the time and trouble to go out and vote -whichever way they voted."
In Storm Lake, the school district considered the vote particularly crucial, as the most likely means of helping to build a new community-wide elementary school near the current middle school campus. The district will probably let SILO tax money build up for about three years to buy down the interest costs before it looks to build, Kruse has said.
A performance auditorium, probably to be located on the high school campus, is the next priority, and could shortly follow construction of the elementary. The district also hopes to replace some of the property tax burden with the incoming sales tax funds, in search of better equity for the taxpaying public. This could take the form of paying off some of the remaining debt on the middle school construction bond with sales tax dollars.
Schools can use the funding for building projects, renovation and improvements, or for major equipment such as buses or technology. The dollars can help pay off existing school bonds, or to replace a portion of the burden of property taxes for such infrastructure. It cannot be used for salaries, benefits or programming.
SILO should produce about $400 per student in the county per year. Storm Lake schools get the lion's share - about $750,000 projected per year. Other districts sharing in the funding are Albert City-Truesdale, Alta, Aurelia, Galva-Holstein, Laurens-Marathon, Newell-Fonda, Schaller-Crestland, Sioux Central and South Clay.
Buena Vista becomes the 56th county in Iowa to pass a SILO tax. The tax will "sunset" in 10 years unless the public again votes to continue it.
The sales tax will not be charged on many essential items such as groceries and medicines, or on some of the largest-ticket purchases such as automobiles and farm equipment.