Downtown Des Moines
Photo Credit: Jason Mrachina (CC-By-NC-ND 2.0)

Last week my wife and I were sitting in our living room when a large truck drove by on the street outside, followed by a loud “ba-BOOM!”

My wife jumped a bit and asked what could have made that sound.  I thought about it for a second and evaluated the possibilities – gunshots, after all, are not exactly rare on our side of town.

Then I remembered the giant pothole yawning in front of our home for the last couple months and put the pieces together.  Our side of town is littered with potholes, broken street lights, decaying parks and playgrounds, and in some cases just plain trash.

Now granted we live in Des Moines proper, so there’s blame on both sides of the city limits sign. But these realities are shared by many folks in the Des Moines area, and lead to an important question that needs to be answered before voters decide the fate of a proposed sales tax hike next Tuesday:

What is Polk County doing with the money it already has?

None of us would repeatedly give money to anyone without a proper accounting of where it was going, and no bank would offer a loan without reviewing the income, spending, and existing debt of the applicant.

But somehow Polk County expects to dig more cash out of our pockets without justifying its indulgent spending habits.

Polk is home to the fastest-growing city in the Midwest, and has enjoyed rapid revenue growth over the past few years.  The county budget for fiscal year 2013/2014 showed $263 million in total revenue, against only $250 million in expenditures.  Despite being at the tail end of the Great Recession, Polk County actually wound up with a nearly $13 million dollar surplus.

Five years later, income has swelled to $290 million as the county has grown and the economy has improved, but spending has exploded even faster. As of the most recently-amended budget, total expenditures exceed $308 million.

Concerning as the spending total is, much more worrisome is the prioritization of funds evident in the budget breakdown.

Eleven million dollars went to roads and transportation.  Eight million went to government services to residents.

Administration, by comparison, ate up $34 million, debt service took a frightening $18 million, and “capital projects” – all the fun little trails, sculptures, and other frivolous things being used to justify the proposed tax hike – gulped down a whopping $58 million.

That’s more than five times the total road and transportation budget, and 20% of Polk County’s total operating income.

No wonder they haven’t fixed the potholes.

Polk County is hemorrhaging cash, and rather than re-prioritizing or – God forbid – reducing spending, they’re asking taxpayers to pony up. The county already rakes in around $620 per man, woman, and child in the county, and many of us would love to know why that’s not enough to keep the lights on and the roads clear.

Ultimately, it’s not a question of spending the money or not spending it. It’s a question of who’s doing the spending.

Every cent that’s paid for a new piece of modern art comes out of someone else’s pocket, and while wealthy west side families may not mind giving up the extra few dollars, many others truly can’t afford it.

Pennies add up for individuals and families trying to make ends meet. Given the choice, few lower or middle class folks will forego a child’s birthday present or a tank of gas in exchange for a new mile of bike trails in a part of town where they can scarcely afford to shop.

The regressive nature of the proposed sales tax hike has already been discussed, but it’s worth remembering the individual impact that these policies have on low-income families in communities like mine.

It wasn’t long ago that I was sleeping in the freezing basement of my north side remodel project, borrowing gas money and working two jobs just to afford a few more 2x4s and rolls of insulation to keep the house moving forward.

As I scraped pocket change together and prepared to hit the dollar menu again, the last thing on my mind was how much I’d like to see a new aquatic center in Urbandale.

And I’m not alone.

Polk County residents are willing to do our part to keep the county growing and improving, but it’s just not fair to ask us to give more to a county government that has shown itself to be addicted to frivolous spending.

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