Turn it over!10/17/2012
Voters will head to the polls in a few short weeks, putting a blessed end to this perpetually condescending entourage of political piffle Americans have been surviving daily for the better part of 2012. And while the campaign strategists from opposing sides continue to tug at the arms of the undecided voters, some local issues may have been inadvertently overlooked in the shadows of the more clamorous presidential contest.
Every Polk County resident who heads to the polls on Nov. 6 will have a decision to make on how to potentially spend $50 million in proposed additional property taxes for a bond issue. Like a mini co-star waiting in the wings of the big federal performance, the Polk County Water and Land Legacy Bond will make its appearance on the back of the ballot, in the bottom, right-hand corner (see sidebar), followed by the proverbial bubbles ready to be filled by the No. 2 pencil marking your answer: “Yes” or “No.”
So you decide, Polk County voters. You decide if you want your property taxes to increase by 84 cents a month per household in order to make quality of life improvements to the lakes, streams, parks and recreational trails around you.
Republican, Democrat, independent — no matter your party affiliation or lack thereof — most everyone agrees on one thing for sure: We don’t want to pay more taxes. But at some point we concede, resolving to accept the reality that, as the years pass and inflation takes its toll on our economy, we will always have to pay taxes, and we will always see them increase. The thing we can control, however, is how the money is spent. And so it goes to a public vote.
It’s only prudent to go into the voter’s booth informed on the candidates and the issues, especially when $50,000,000 is on the line. So before you head to the polls — before you mark “no” simply because that’s a lot of zeros, or “yes” only because you like land and water and nature — it’s better to consider all angles. We’re not here to tell you how to vote. We’re not even here to tell you TO vote. We’re merely suggesting you consider the facts and make an educated decision. It’s up to you.
THE ‘YES’ VOTE
The 20 park and wildlife areas managed currently by the Polk County Conservation Board (PCCB) are visited by more than 1.4 million people each year, according to the county website. These public recreation areas cover more than 12,000 acres including several on which the PCCB would like to improve — whether it’s improving the water quality of Easter Lake and Four Mile Creek, or updating facilities, parking lots and trails at other locations noted in the 20-year plan.
If the bond issue passes in November, a series of environmental and quality of life improvements would begin, controlled by the PCCB’s five-member board, promising to:
Help protect Polk County’s drinking water sources;
Reduce pollution and improve water quality of the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers;
Protect and restore wetlands and other natural areas along rivers and streams that buffer communities from flooding; and
Preserve natural areas and wildlife habitats.
Tax Payers for Polk County’s Water and Land Legacy Bond campaign manager Mark Langgin said those four overall goals were actually picked by Polk County residents themselves who were part of a scientific public opinion poll this summer. All four were noted as top priorities among Polk County residents, each garnering support from about 80 percent of those surveyed, Langgin said.
“A lot of folks really recognize the economic benefit of this, the importance of water quality and how that affects things like worker retention,” Langgin said. “Statewide, outdoor recreation and conservation has an annual economic impact of more than $3 billion every year and adds or retains about 31,000 jobs.”
Citing a recent economic impacts study by Iowa State University economist Dan Otto, Langgin said the Polk County parks draw 1.5 million visitors every year, which generates about $39 million for the county annually.
“And if this bond passes, about $23 million would go toward construction, which would add and support local jobs,” he added.
Both the economic and environmental impacts surrounding the passage of the Water and Land Legacy Bond have motivated local individuals and groups, such as the Young Professionals (YP) for Conservation, to rally behind the cause. YP for Conservation has organized an event scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 17, between 5 and 8 p.m. at Sbrocco downtown, where local leaders and film producer Scott Siepker (the local YouTube celebrity who produced the nationally-acclaimed “Iowa Nice” video) are expected to be among those in attendance. Siepker will speak about why conservation is crucial to Iowa.
“As young professionals, we know the question is not if we should care for our land and water, but instead, how,” said Hannah Inman, Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation director of communications. “Supporting Polk County’s Water and Land Legacy Bond gives us a way to care for our water and land while defining our generation.”
Some of the lakes, streams and parks are in need of improvements, and others, such as Easter Lake, are even considered “impaired” by the Environmental Protection Agency. This has an effect on the waterways that feed Des Moines’ drinking water source, according to Bill Stowe, CEO and general manager at Des Moines Water Works (DMWW).
“Unlike other cities, the Des Moines metro doesn’t use artesian wells for our drinking water source. We derive our drinking water from surface waters — largely the Raccoon River and the Des Moines River,” Stowe explained. “Park lands and buffer zones provide a lot of opportunities for rain water to filter through the soil and into those surface waters, which makes the water quality less beneficial for us to use for drinking.”
But several of the projects listed in the PCCB’s 20-year plan are downriver from Water Works, such as Four-Mile Creek, Easter Lake and Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt (see sidebar) and thus have little effect on Des Moines’ drinking water compared to those located upstream. In fact, only two of the named projects are west of DMWW: Brown’s Woods and Jester Park. Still, Stowe said general water quality has long-term effects across all of central Iowa, so it’s wise for Polk County to “set a better example of water practices in the area.”
“Water Works is certainly in favor of informing people, but I’m not going to tell people how to vote,” Stowe said, admitting he hasn’t seen the PCCB’s plan (available online at www.polkcountyiowa.gov/conservation). “But, we do believe that many of the things the Conservation Board members are talking about would better benefit our customers.”
THE ‘NO’ VOTE
Although the Polk County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved to have the measure on the ballot, all are not in favor of seeing the Water and Land Legacy Bond pass. Supervisor John Mauro has his doubts that the project will do everything the PCCB members claim, specifically with regard to improving drinking water.
“It’s about more than that. This is the first time I’ve heard drinking water was an issue, and I’ve been here for 71 years,” Mauro said. “Yeah, I want clean drinking water, but I don’t see the drinking water issue being that drastic. I think, in a perfect world, it’s a great idea, and it’s a good thing to do, but I don’t think the timing is right.”
Mauro said the local parks, trails and waterways are fine as they are. County departments such as Conservation, Sheriff and Mental Health are all in competition for respective funding, and “this is just an opportunity for some people to spend money.”
“This (bond issue) is the only way to get the money. There is no other way for them to get the funding,” Mauro said.
That’s true, Polk County Conservation director Dennis Parker admitted.
“We don’t have the wherewithal in our budget right now, so we need to find a source for some capital dollars,” Parker said. “After a feasibility study and the public opinion poll, we came up with this bond proposal, but at least half of this bond money would be leveraged through partnerships and grants.”
Despite the supplemental funding sources and the public support, Mauro warns taxpayers against voting “yes” on the Water and Land Legacy bond, as they’re likely to face another bond issue in 2013 for problems in the courts that “are going to be in a state of emergency pretty quick.”
“The courts are overcrowded, the courthouse is old and needs a lot of money, and we’re going to have to come back next year and ask the public for help,” Mauro said. “It’s been voted down in the past, but it’s a heck of a lot more important than what they want to do with these trails.”
The Polk County Board of Supervisors placed a referendum on the ballot to build a new $132 million courts annex in April of 2008, which failed. Since that time, it’s been working with the National Center for State Courts on a master plan to provide decentralized space for the courts within a “courts campus,” Mauro said.
“We are looking at utilizing existing county-owned buildings: The old, main jail would be retrofitted into criminal courts, the historic courthouse would provide civil and family courts; and either the Plex or Wellmark building would house juvenile court, traffic court and magistrate court as well as the Polk County attorney,” Mauro explained. “This plan would move courts and county functions out of leased space.”
That project is estimated at approximately $83 million, he said, but “the Board is looking at possible legislative changes that would allow all counties the tools needed to provide the state-mandated courts space.”
So, when will Polk County taxpayers be faced with this $83 million decision?
“That will be determined once we have been provided this information and have received a complete presentation from the National Center for State Courts on the courts master plan,” Mauro said.
So as they head to the polls this November, Mauro urges voters to consider future bond referendums that could further add to the burden on property taxes. While a monthly increase of 84 cents per household (and $1.60 for commercial properties) “may not be a lot to you or me; it is for some people who don’t have much,” he said.
“It’s a property tax increase either way you look at it,” Mauro said. “I think it’s an issue of what’s our priority. The public will have to make that decision.” CV
Polk County Conservation projects that would be funded by the $50 million bond referendum, (should it pass) over a period of 20 years
Brown’s Woods Nature Preserve (in partnership with the City of West Des Moines) — Trail expansion and accessibility improvements would include more visibility and safety, more interpretation along the two-mile trail, new and modern amenities such as toilets and water fountains, additional trails to an “under-used” portion of the park, more parking and a new access to the Southwest Connector trail system.
ESTIMATED COST: $230,000
Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt (in partnership with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Pheasants Forever, Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, Ducks Unlimited, Audubon Society, Izaak Walton League, Mid-Iowa Retriever Club and Jasper County) — Future amenities to the 7,000-acre acre wetlands, woodlands and prairie include additional acquisition to protect natural resources and improve flood protection; a new wildlife viewing platform off the Highway 65 bypass; and marsh well pump replacement to improve hunting areas.
ESTIMATED COST: $5.4 MILLION
Easter Lake and Yeader Creek Watershed (in partnership the City of Des Moines, Iowa DNR, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Iowa State University, Natural Resource Conservation Service and Polk Soil and Water Conservation District) — With a primary focus on improving its water quality (Easter Lake is considered impaired by the Iowa DNR and the Environmental Protection Agency), the 178-acre lake and its watershed would be restored, its stream bank would be stabilized, the use of phosphorus fertilizer would be publicly denounced, better storm water management would be implemented, in-lake sediment detention basins would be installed, existing storm water detention basins would be dredged, fish populations would be rejuvenated and public education programs would be funded.
ESTIMATED COST: $1.2 MILLION
Fort Des Moines Park (in partnership with Des Moines Public Schools and Iowa DNR) — A proposed outdoor classroom and pond enhancement would include the addition of a 13-acre prairie and rain garden to the area’s existing savanna, oak woodlands and wetlands to make it a full-range ecosystem, and an interpretive trail, a new asphalt access road, new parking lot would be constructed as well as modern restrooms, an accessible fishing pier and a walkway to the pond.
ESTIMATED COST: $620,000
Four Mile Creek Greenbelt (in partnership with NRCS and Polk County Soil and Water Conservation District) — Proposed stabilization projects for 600 feet of eroded stream bank would include the addition of buffer areas to improve water quality and retention.
ESTIMATED COST: $150,000
Jester Park (in partnership with private donors and grants) — Construction of a Conservation Center would act as an education center, tourist information and interpretive outlet, community resource and Conservation headquarters.
ESTIMATED COST: $3.5 MILLION
Thomas Mitchell Park (in partnership with NRCS, Polk Soil and Water Conservation District and Metro Waste Authority) — New recreational amenities, accessibility enhancement and water
improvements are proposed for Camp Creek including a trail around the pond, picnic shelters, rental cabins, fishing piers, renovations to the low-water crossing and stream bank stabilization.
ESTIMATED COST: $830,000
Recreation Trail Connections (in partnership with the Cities of Des Moines, Ankeny, Bondurant, Carlisle, Jasper County and INHF) — Trail connections to unite the Gay Lea Wilson Trail to the Ankeny and Des Moines trail systems and Chichaqua Valley Trail from Bondurant to Des Moines to link Des Moines to Baxter in Jasper County, plus a 4.8-mile paved trail around Easter Lake through Ewing Park, to downtown Des Moines and Carlisle trails.
ESTIMATED COST: $3.1 MILLION. CV
Public Measure Letter A — Polk County Water and Land Legacy Bond — comes to a vote on the Nov. 6 election, requiring 60 percent approval in order to pass. It is located on the back of the ballot, in the lower, right-hand corner. This is what it says:
“Shall the County of Polk, State of Iowa, issue its general obligation bonds in an amount not exceeding the aggregate amount of $50,000,000 (to be issued in one or more series) for the purpose of acquisition and development of land for public parks, or other recreation or conservation purposes to be managed by the Polk County Conservation Board, including protecting the water quality of rivers, lakes and streams, including the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers and their tributaries, protecting drinking water sources, wildlife habitat, and natural areas, prevention of flooding, and construction and improvement of trails and conservation facilities in Polk County?”