Des Moines Register. April 22, 2020

Nonprofits should contribute to help fund city services in Des Moines

Tax-exempt organizations that expect police and firefighters to respond to emergency calls should pay to help cover the cost

If you’re a Des Moines homeowner wondering why your property tax is so high, take a walk around the neighborhood. Within a few blocks, you’ll likely stroll past several buildings or lots exempt from property taxes or subject to partial taxation.

You’ll come across schools, churches, VFW halls, health clinics, shelters, human services organizations, food banks, cultural centers, mental health facilities, sports fields, substance abuse treatment facilities, pregnancy centers and clubs for children.

Property in Polk County is valued at a total of about $50 billion — with nearly $5 billion of that completely exempt from taxes. Charitable and benevolent organizations have property valued at more than $1.2 billion. Religious institutions have property valued at more than $900 million. There are nonprofit hospitals at $568 million, nursing homes at $82 million and low-rent housing at $51 million.

The list of tax-advantaged properties on the Polk County assessor’s website is long, and much of the property is in Des Moines. When nonprofits do not pay taxes, the rest of us pay more to compensate and fund local government operations.

So it is understandable some city leaders have expressed an interest in getting nonprofits to contribute revenue to the public purse. A mandate to do so is not politically viable. Elected officials do not want to tell universities or churches to pay up.

But nothing is stopping nonprofits from volunteering to do so. The city can negotiate more payments in lieu of taxes, or PILOTS, with organizations. Under these voluntary payments, nonprofits would contribute at least a partial substitute for their property taxes.

Kudos to the handful already doing this, including Des Moines Water Works, Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines, Des Moines Social Club, Metro Waste Authority and the parent companies of UnityPoint Health and MercyOne Medical Center.

Ted Corrigan, interim CEO and general manager of Des Moines Water Works, said the utility is fine with chipping in for public safety services.

“Somebody has to pay for them,” he said. “We want to pay our fair share.”

That is an ethic that needs to catch on with other tax-exempt entities, large and small. That is particularly true right now. COVID-19 is resulting in a significant reduction in sales and hotel/motel tax. The city of Des Moines is expected to miss out on nearly $18 million, a projection based on the pandemic lasting only 60 days.

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Dubuque Telegraph Herald. April 24, 2020

Schools should consider early start in fall

Administrators, faculty and staff at tri-state-area schools, as well as students and their families, have had to reckon with the reality that the 2019-2020 school year is over — at least in terms of in-person classes.

Governors in all three states see no immediate end to the need for social distancing and made the decision to keep schools shuttered for the rest of the year.

As administrators deal with the myriad decisions that come with this drastic change in circumstances, some thought must be given to what next school year will look like. Students will have undoubtedly fallen behind. In many cases, those who need extra attention are least likely to be able to make progress in isolation over these months. Teachers, usually concerned about the “summer slide” as students take a three-month break each year, could be looking at a “semester slide.”

At the same time, states have waived restrictions on when the 2020-21 school year can begin. While typically schools don’t start until the third week of August or later, this year it makes sense to move up the start date. A longer school year to try to make up ground for students makes sense. A two-week period of ramping up could help students gain progress and readjust to the classroom setting.

There are no guarantees for what next school year holds. A recurrence of a COVID-19 outbreak in fall or winter could mean another closure. We can hope against hope that isn’t the case, but the more days of the school year we can get in, the better off we’ll be.

In most years, starting school extra early wouldn’t be very appealing to kids. After months at home, it’s likely they’ll be eager to get started in fall. Officials should take advantage of that.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds made strides this week with the announcement that the state will add online screening for COVID-19 as well as drive-through testing sites, more than tripling the state’s ability to test for the virus.

Reynolds will dedicate $26 million toward the effort to help get a better grasp on how many Iowans have been infected. With outbreaks in nursing homes, meatpacking plants and prisons, it’s crucial that Iowa dramatically increase testing.

TestIowa.com launched Tuesday, a website that will help assess and direct those who need it toward testing. State officials are encouraging all Iowans to go to the site and complete the five-minute online assessment.

Last week, seven Midwest states announced forming a coalition to combat COVID-19 — a group that included Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota, but not Iowa. That seemed like a missed opportunity during a battle that must be fought on every front.

This week’s news that Iowa is expanding testing helps restore faith that Reynolds is stepping up efforts to meet the growing challenge.

Last fall, the Dubuque County Conservation Board embarked on strategic planning and solicited input from county residents.

Executive Director Brian Preston worked with a consulting firm to develop an evaluation of local assets and their potential, getting input from more than 500 county residents.

Through the process, they learned some key things:

1) People love trails and would like more of them.

2) Investment should be made in park infrastructure.

3) Local residents care about protecting natural resources in Dubuque County.

4) Locals view Swiss Valley Nature Center as “the gateway to the outdoors.”

For Preston and county officials, the last month has wholly proven each of those things. Perhaps like never before, citizens have flocked to Swiss Valley, taken to Heritage Trail and discovered Whitewater Canyon.

Officials were wise to take time to examine the value and potential of the county’s natural resources. Residents are seeing those lands in a new light during days of social distancing. As Dubuque County residents rediscover our own beautiful natural habitats, it’s nice to know Preston and county officials recognize this treasure for what it is.

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Fort Dodge Messenger. April 23, 2020

In Fort Dodge, good things keep happening

Acts of kindness occur amid pandemic

Good things are happening locally in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying economic fallout.

For an example, look no farther than the four Manson Northwest Webster Community School District students who raised just over $1,000 for Almost Home Humane Society of North Central Iowa. Bianca Aquino, Peyton Davis, Josie Eldal, and Addie McCullough launched a fundraising effort as part of their project for the Iowa Technology and Education Connection’s spring tech fair, which has been canceled. The project was to create a website to highlight an interest and a goal. They chose the Humane Society and dubbed their initiative A Cause for Paws.

They started with a goal of raising $200. They ended up raising $1,048.39.

Rachel Buchanan, the Almost Home shelter manager, has seen kids raise a couple hundred bucks at a time for the facility. She was impressed by what the girls accomplished, calling their success ”absolutely insane.”

For another example of good things locally, recall that Hy-Vee teamed up with the United Way of Greater Fort Dodge and a couple dozen volunteers to distribute an early taste of that summertime favorite, watermelon. The supermarket received 2,000 watermelons from SOL Melons, of Florida. The volunteers handed them out for free Tuesday morning as vehicles rolled into the supermarket’s parking lot and got into special drive-thru lanes.

Today at 11:30 a.m. Fort Dodge residents will see another example of something good happening when the staff at ShinyTop Brewing hands out 500 free spaghetti dinners. The brewery teamed up with Frontier Mortgage, Kesterson Realty, Snell Settlement, Dows Chemical, Fort and Schlegel CPA PC, L&M Ethanol, Crimmins Law Office, Daniel Tire Co, Nins Custom Creations and Troy Schroeder Photography (Memories In Focus) to make the free meals possible.

These developments show that kindness thrives in the Fort Dodge area even when things seem gloomy.

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