Dubuque County supervisors on Sept. 7 approved asking voters in the Nov. 2 election to approve up to $40 million in bonds for outdoor recreation and conservation projects.
The measure will need to be backed by at least 60% of voters to pass.
The three county supervisors unanimously approved two resolutions for the referendum during their meeting Sept. 7. The first simply set the measure on the November ballot. The second outlined how the money will be spent.
Of the total amount for which the county bonds, 35% would be used for park improvements and expansion. Another 35% would go to water quality, land protection and habitat management. Trail improvements, development and expansion would receive 20%. Trails, kayak launches and funding to municipalities for urban trails would receive 10%.
The second resolution also requires the formation of a public review board, to be established by the Board of Supervisors, “to monitor compliance.” Supervisors directed staff to be ready to develop a proposal for the form of that board if or when it becomes appropriate.
“We have to get through an election and it has to be successful, but then, we will tackle that,” said Supervisor Ann McDonough.
Supervisors said after the meeting that there is no easy answer to how much paying back the debt on the bond is going to cost a given resident.
“You can say it is going to cost the owner of a $150,000 home $3 a month,” McDonough said. “But that’s only if a certain scenario plays out. If this debt is taken out over a period of years, as it would be, and you’re in year eight or nine of payback, you’re paying more than $3 a month.”
County Auditor Kevin Dragotto provided supervisors with a table of costs and a possible schedule of taking out the money in five $8 million installments, once every several years. In it, annual costs range from $8 for a $50,000 property and $91 for a $600,000 property in a year with just one installment outstanding, to $21.50 for a $50,000 property and $258 for a $600,000 property in a year where three of the $8 million installments still are outstanding.
“But there’s just a short time frame when you’re paying on three draws,” said Supervisor Harley Pothoff. “By the time you get to the fourth draw, the second draw is paid off. But it all depends on how the money is drawn.”
A spokesman for Dubuque County Land and Water Legacy, the nonpartisan political action committee formed to promote the measure, said he was glad the supervisors included the creation of a public review board.
“That would be a way for people to feel confident that they will have a sounding board for areas they want to see funded or areas they have concerns about,” Art Roche said. “Polk County has used that as a way to assure that proposals that come to them are appropriate.”
Roche said it also might help convince skeptics to vote in favor of the measure in November.
His group already is meeting with area organizations whose members they believe to be supportive of or at least amenable to the proposal, trying to build a voter base for the bond measure.
In recent weeks, Roche told the supervisors that his group was concerned that the November election was too soon for it to build the necessary support to get to 60%.
“We have a group of people with varying opinions,” he said. “The prevailing opinion among the group was if we could persuade the supervisors to wait, it could help. But we are ready to go to work and deliver 60%.”
Roche said a lot of planning needs to be done quickly.
“We think through the timeline now about when early voting begins,” he said. “We have a lot more meetings to schedule with other organizations, in Dubuque and the other cities — all of the organizations we think might be interested. It’s going to be important that we have a couple of public meetings to present the case and answer questions about it.”
As of Sept. 7, Roche said his group had received no pushback, even on topics that he expected.
“I expected that there might be some people who were kind of against the idea of the possibility of higher property taxes. But honestly, I have not heard that objection,” he said. “Another thing we thought we might hear was an objection to government acquisition of private property, which is a possibility. But that’s also something we’ve received no objections from people about. Typically when park land is acquired, it is usually land that is not appropriate for other uses. So, maybe that’s it.”
What Roche has heard is a lot of enthusiasm from people who love the outdoors.
“Especially at the point we are in this pandemic — as demonstrated by their use of parks and trails, sales of recreational equipment — people have an appetite for the kinds of things that would be funded by this bond,” he said.