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  • Sun January 23 2005
  • Posted Jan 23, 2005
By REGISTER EDITORIAL BOARD January 23, 2005 Iowa's governor and a group of legislators are trying to figure out creative approaches to government in Iowa. They ought to look at a project under discussion in three central Iowa counties that has the ingredients for precisely what the state may be looking for. Business and civic leaders in Greater Des Moines have proposed a 1-cent sales tax and a mechanism for distributing the revenue throughout Polk, Dallas and Warren counties. The money would be used to offset property taxes, address inequities and help pay for regional attractions. They call the concept "Project Destiny," as in central Iowa being a destination for business, families and tourists. It is a creative, regional solution to fragmented local government, and it could be applied to any corner of the state. Project Destiny offers a new way of distributing tax revenue across a large region for common purposes - namely, property-tax relief and regional cultural and recreational amenities. Much of the discussion thus far has focused on the source of revenue, which means a creative idea could be sideswiped by "no new taxes" thinking. Focusing only on the revenue side misses the inventive way the proposal would pop up an umbrella over an economic region in central Iowa to share resources more equally. The strategy could enhance the quality of life throughout all three counties. Here's how Project Destiny would work, as proposed by the Greater Des Moines Partnership business consortium and local government leaders. • More than half (65 percent) of the revenue from the 1-cent sales tax collected in the three counties would be redistributed to reduce property taxes, pay off debt or fund one-time capital projects. A portion would be parceled out based on each community's relative share of tax-exempt property. This is to compensate a community that bears a disproportionate share of the region's real estate that is off-limits to the tax assessor. A weighted portion of the revenue could be reallocated to Warren County. Thus, a largely rural county whose residents shop and pay sales tax in the two other counties would get back some of the sales-tax revenue. • The remainder of the sales tax would be used to improve the quality of life in the region - to pay for capital improvements in government-owned regional facilities, to build regional recreational trails and to enhance cultural and arts programs in the three counties. The beneficiaries could include the Civic Center in Des Moines, the Ice Arena in Urbandale, an unbroken bike trail in Dallas County and the Metropolitan Opera in Indianola. • Decisions on where to spend the money for cultural and arts programs and facilities would be made by a regional authority with a board of directors appointed by governments and business groups. This board would make monetary grants - matched in some cases - to institutions and groups based on recommendations from advisory groups. This formula recognizes several things. Chiefly, it recognizes that all communities in the region enjoy the benefits of regional attractions, whether they be cultural centers, bike trails or multipurpose parks. It recognizes that taxpayers who share equally in the fruits of those amenities should share equally in the cost. It recognizes that some communities shoulder a heavier load of tax-exempt property - such as hospitals and government buildings - that enhances the entire region. It recognizes the benefits of pooling resources to build an economically powerful region. This concept is the vision of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, a metrowide chamber of commerce, along with mayors, council members and county supervisors from the three counties. It is a fine piece of work and shows what can be achieved through public and private partnerships. Not everyone has signed on to the idea. Some oppose raising the sales tax, period. Some question raising the sales tax to lower property taxes. Others wonder about the tax-base sharing aspects. That's fine. There's time to work out compromises. It would be a mistake, however, to throw out the entire concept based on a single objectionable feature. The concept worth preserving is that the three counties - and the number could be enlarged - have much in common, much to offer each other and much to gain. That is a concept that could work not just in central Iowa but anywhere in the state.

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