The Gazette covers City Hall, now a flood-damaged icon on May's Island in the Cedar River

City Hall kindness has not always been easy to find for neighboring jurisdictions that dump on sales tax

In City Hall, Marion, Mayor Kay Halloran on March 7, 2009 at 8:08 am

City Hall kindness is new found when it comes to jurisdictions whose voters dump on local-option tax.

On Friday, Cedar Rapids Mayor Kay Halloran was out counting noses, trying to find a majority on her nine-member council to pass a resolution, oddly, for the city of Marion.

Halloran got the votes, and as a result, the city of Marion will get a second bite at the local-option sales tax apple.

Marion city officials had lobbied Halloran and other Cedar Rapids City Council members after voters in Marion turned down the local-option sales tax on Tuesday along with the cities of Hiawatha, Robins, Center Point and the Linn County portion of Walford.

At the same time, Cedar Rapids easily passed the tax, the revenue from which it will use primarily for flood relief over the next five years and three months.

Marion stood to take in about $3 million a year during the life of the tax, which is an amount city leaders in Marion weren’t reluctant to easily turn their backs on. Particularly when the measure was defeated by 183 votes out of 4,271 cast.

The Cedar Rapids council is in the middle of the affairs of its neighboring communities because of the demands of state’s local-option sales tax law. That law, as applied to Linn County, creates only two ways to get the question of a local-option sales tax on the ballot: the Cedar Rapids City Council, which represents a majority of residents in Linn County, must do it; or proponents of the tax can amass signatures on a petition that number at least 5 percent of the total who voted in the last general election.

Halloran said the decision was an easy call for her, and she pointed to the first days after the June flood when the city of Marion stepped in and provided public-safety dispatching services for Cedar Rapids.

“So the idea is, as a matter of comity and neighborliness, they help us when we need help, and we’ll help when they need help,” the mayor said.

It was quite a different story, though, back in 2001 when Cedar Rapids and nearly every jurisdiction in the county put the local-option sales tax in place, but unincorporated Linn County rejected the matter and stood to lose about $4 million a year.

No sooner had the election office closed down on election night and the county’s Farm Bureau members and the Linn County Board of Supervisors were on the phone to Cedar Rapids City Hall, hat in hand, asking the council to put the measure up for a revote out in the county.

The Cedar Rapids City Hall has three words for the request: Get some signatures.

“Calling for a vote without a petition drive would be a departure from previous practice of the Cedar Rapids council,” the City Council said back then. The council noted that the city’s 2001 vote on the sales tax for swimming pools was supported by a petition of 5,188 signatures and that an election the previous on a minor-league baseball stadium levy was backed by 3,361 signatures before the council put the matters on the ballot.

Then-Parks Commissioner Dale Todd was the most outspoken of the City Council members back then. Who was he, Todd asked, to decide that rural residents really didn’t mean to reject the tax when they voted that way Tuesday?

Then-Mayor Lee Clancey stressed the City Council’s tradition of asking for petitions from those interested in putting an issue on the ballot.

Clearly, her preference was that any revote come from a petition drive with a sufficient number of signatures to prompt a vote without the City Council’s help.

“The citizens in rural Linn County had an opportunity to vote on this two days ago,” Clancey said. “If there is strong sentiment among the citizens of Linn County that they would like to have this revote, I think it might be an appropriate way to go to have a petition.

“Then at least we would have a feeling for what folks really would like to do. The only thing we have right now is the majority of them declined the option tax.”

Within a few days, the Farm Bureau had rounded up 10,131 county residents, more than twice the number needed to put the measure back on the ballot. Voters in unincorporated Linn, Walker and Walford then returned to the polls and passed the tax.

On Friday, Marion city officials said what was said eight years ago: Marion voters didn’t understand the complicated, quirky tax.

Lon Pluckhahn, Marion’s city manager, said on Friday that Marion council members likely would not have requested a new vote if they and he hadn’t received many calls from citizens who said they had not understood the Tuesday vote.

“I’m glad to see it,” Pluckhahn said of the Cedar Rapids council decision to clear the way for another sales-tax vote. “We’ve worked hard to improve relations between the two cities.”

He noted an e-mail from one Cedar Rapids council member who said he would not have wanted to have to get Marion’s permission if Cedar Rapids wanted a new vote.

  1. I’m not sure which is more offensive: the notion that City officials think that the citizens of Marion are too unintelligent to know what they’re voting on, or the fact that officials want to call a Mulligan because of the perceived lack of intelligence.

    Actually, since I’m not a citizen of Marion, I think it’s more insulting that the law even exists for a Mulligan on a referendum vote in the first place.

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