From a County to a Community

Editor’s Note: The following article was written in 2009 to encapsulate the creation of Team Mahaska, it’s role in communication and education efforts, as well as document the history-making vote when the Mahaska Community passed a local option sales tax on the first vote. That passage resulted in a host of benefits for the entire county.

Passing a local option sales tax has been done before, but never like this. Residents of Mahaska County set a new standard with regard to visioning and problem solving ending – and some say beginning – with a special election held September 25, 2001. In a unique initiative city, county and school districts worked together to develop a plan and to secure sales tax funding to benefit school districts across the county.

The passage of the two pennies means a $26 million school project, substantial property tax relief, recreation and economic development, water and sewer system improvements, public library improvements, school debt service reduction, new roads, area park enhancements, and a host of other countywide benefits for the 22,000+ residents of what is now being referred to as the Mahaska Community.

In 1990, legislation was passed allowing counties and cities to implement up to a one-cent local option sales tax as a source of revenue for community projects and/or property tax reduction. In 1998, similar legislation was passed allowing for school infrastructure improvements through an additional one-cent local option sales tax. Since that legislation, 15 counties have taken advantage of both taxes and charge sales tax of 7 cents on the dollar.

However, no one has done it before as one comprehensive project getting both pennies on the same ballot and passing them both on the first try – until now when Mahaska County will be the 16th county in the state to collect two pennies in sales tax for school and city/county projects.

It’s not a unique concept to utilize sales tax revenue for projects within a county or city’s boundaries. However, the Mahaska Community utilized a high level of collaboration and communication, which has changed the definition of rural and community development and all but erased city, county and school district boundaries.

“When people used to talk about community development,” said Michelle Moore Mahaska County’s Ag & Rural Development (MCARD) Director, “they were referring to development within a specific county or individual city or town. In Mahaska County, we have found a unique way to preserve identities while developing ideas, visions, dreams, resources and projects, and problem solutions.

“The successful passage of both a city/county local option sales tax and a school infrastructure local option sales tax on the same ballot throughout the whole area was not done overnight or by just a few individuals,” she said.

There was no precedent to follow when members of 10 incorporated towns, eight school districts and county representatives sat around a table nearly two years ago to discuss needs, problems, and dreams. Prior to this, entities were working for the benefit and betterment of Oskaloosa, but the small towns had been left to their own devices, and previous development efforts within the county were fragmented at best.

Some members came to the table with trepidation; rivalries and grudges surfaced; some were nervous; some just plain defensive. But through regular monthly meetings held in different areas of the county, through discussions with new partners such as area school districts, with persistence and the efforts of a communication vehicle – Team Mahaska – all entities began seeing benefits of working together; they allowed themselves to dream. They worked through the negatives and began seeing the positive.

Team Mahaska is an outgrowth of many attempts to deal with economic and community development by grouping together business and community leaders. It started out to be primarily Oskaloosa leaders around the Team Mahaska Table, but they recognized an opportunity to partner with the entire Mahaska Community to gain more together than they could accomplish separately.

For example, after several meetings with various city entities, commonalities were realized. Sewers, streets, grants, ordinances, weeds, barking dog issues, were all identified as problems in various cities. Instead of struggling individually to write ordinances, the City of Oskaloosa shared existing ordinance verbiage with other cities to be utilized by their city management.

In addition, because small cities lack the resources to hire grant writers, expertise among development professionals allowed people like Marie Ware (Mahaska Community Recreation Foundation) and Michelle Moore (MCARD) to work with individual entities to secure funding for recreation and city infrastructure needs.

It became clear one town’s needs paralleled another and another and another. Isolated cases didn’t really exist when looking at the countywide picture; all problems and priorities were interrelated. Coming together at the Team Mahaska table gave everyone throughout the county a tool with which to work on all of their needs collectively.

Input was gathered not only from elected officials but also from citizens through numerous focus groups throughout the county seeking to identify the most important issues. The focus groups were successful due, in part, to nearly six years of town meetings the City of Oskaloosa went through to help the city come to terms with the community’s needs. It was one reason why city leaders throughout the county were willing to come to the Team Mahaska table.

Once needs were identified, it was time to find viable solutions. Local option sales tax had worked before: when Oskaloosa’s historic Carnegie Public Library needed an addition and renovation, and when the Mahaska County Law Enforcement center needed building.

It could work again throughout the county especially with everyone working as one community. For instance, the added benefit to a sales tax initiative in Oskaloosa was evident when figures were generated using a property tax, using one-cent school sales tax, and using one-cent city/county sales tax. Revenue generated through property tax would not come close to providing for the needs of the school district. One penny only for schools would have funded less than 40% of the proposed building project. In fact, it was only when the city/county penny, in addition to the school penny, was projected that funding for Oskaloosa’s school project became achievable.

Furthermore, with the passage of the city/county penny and the school penny, all city entities and all school districts within Mahaska County would benefit from the revenue collected within this sales tax proposal – a win-win situation beyond the Oskaloosa city and school district boundaries.

Because of a shared vision; because Mahaska County Residents began working together as one community; because pooling resources, ideas and solutions became the norm, an entire host of county residents stepped up to the plate and put together a successful campaign resulting in the passage of a city/county sales tax and a school infrastructure sales tax.

Because of the unprecedented cooperation by the county, property tax relief will be realized in many areas of the county. For example, New Sharon will use their portion of the revenue collected in two ways: 1) for property tax relief by paying down their debt in their new school (property taxes will drop from $2.45 to $0.66 per $1000 assessed valuation, based upon estimated levels of revenue expected), and 2) for recreation and economic development.

What are the specific benefits throughout the Mahaska Community?

City/County Penny: The sales tax revenue from this penny will be shared between the ten incorporated cities in Oskaloosa and Mahaska County to be used for:

  • Barnes City: 100% towards property tax relief.
  • Beacon: 100% improve, maintain and upkeep of Beacon water system.
  • Eddyville: 50% for the Eddyville Public Library; 50% for the Eddyville Public Safety to include rescue truck and police.
  • Fremont: 45% water/water distribution improvements and maintenance; 45% for sewer improvements and maintenance; 10% to Fremont Community School for debt service on new school building.
  • Keomah Village: 100% for general betterment of Keomah Village, sanitary sewer system, roads and recreational facilities.
  • Leighton: 100% for the general operation and betterment of the city of Leighton.
  • New Sharon: 100% for recreation and economic development.
  • Oskaloosa: 100% to the Oskaloosa Community School District for the purpose of the construction and renovation of school facilities.
  • Rose Hill: 50% property tax relief and 50% community betterment.
  • University Park: 100% for infrastructure including but not limited to water lines, sewer lines, roads and park enhancements.
  • Rural, unincorporated areas of Mahaska County: Shared proportionately with school districts in the county under at 28E Agreement with each school district. If a 28E Agreement is not entered into, funds shall be used for property tax relief.

School Infrastructure Penny: State of Iowa Code sets the formula to distribute the revenue. That formula is based upon student enrollment. The revenue will be used for:

  • Oskaloosa: A new elementary school for all Oskaloosa School District children and major improvements at the high school.
  • Eddyville/Blakesburg: School infrastructure plan on file calls for property tax relief from paying down existing bonds for new buildings; school property, facilities, and equipment as determined by the Board of Education.
  • Fremont: School infrastructure plan on file calls for property tax relief from paying down existing bonds for new buildings; school property facilities and equipment as determined by the Board of Education.
  • Lynnville/Sully: School infrastructure projects as specified in the school infrastructure project plan on file with the secretary.
  • North Mahaska: School infrastructure plan on file calls for: 75% property tax relief from paying down existing bonds for new buildings; 25% for school property, facilities, and equipment as determined by the Board of Education.
  • Twin Cedars: School infrastructure projects as specified in the school infrastructure project plan on file with the secretary.
  • Tri-County: School infrastructure projects as specified in the school infrastructure project plan on file with the secretary.
  • Pella: School infrastructure projects as specified in the school infrastructure project plan on file with the secretary.

The communication efforts of Team Mahaska empowered city councils to make the best decisions for their cities; empowered school boards to make the best decisions for their schools; empowered county supervisors to recognize collaboration is more successful than individuality. Everyone around the table realized that working together wasn’t going to be usurping their power but would, instead, give them power to turn dreams into reality.

Now that dreams are being addressed and problems are receiving answers, what about tomorrow for Team Mahaska? Many other issues were identified throughout this two-year communication process. They’ll still gather around the table. They’ll refocus their energy on the other Mahaska Community issues while elected officials work on the implementation process of the recently passed sales tax referendum.

Team Mahaska has a role in the future of the Mahaska Community. The tone for community-wide communication has been set. Towns that used to feel isolated and cloistered now are an integral part of Mahaska Community. They have their own towns and issues to deal with, but they realize ‘community’ is not just defined by city limits, and Team Mahaska will continue to be the vehicle that keeps them on the road of cooperation.