The Real Debt for All Public Entities in Iowa

by Jennifer L. Crull

Each year in the IOWA TRANSPARENCY NEWSLETTER, we take a look at the debt for public entities in Iowa.  On January 20, 2016, the State Treasurer of Iowa, Michael L. Fitzgerald, released the report of outstanding debt obligations for state and local governments.  This year’s report shows over $15.26 billion is owed by these entities, money that has to be paid back with taxpayers’ dollars.[1]

Given the Census Bureau’s estimate of the 2015 Iowa population, this means that the average debt per man, woman, and child in Iowa is $4,885.[2] This is an increase of 1.2 percent over last year’s average debt per person.  So what does this debt mean to you as a taxpayer? 

The debt that State Treasurer Fitzgerald is reporting on is the debt that is owed by cities, counties, schools, state agencies, and community colleges, to name a few.  If you look at Table One, “Outstanding Obligations,” you will see the outstanding amount for each public entity that is reported on.  You will also note that the total outstanding debt for all of them is $15.26 billion, which is an increase of 1.06 percent from the previous year. 

Chart One shows the percentage breakdown of all the debt.  As you can see from the chart, 35.72 percent of the debt is held by cities, and the next largest portion of the debt is held by school districts at 23.54 percent.  Thus, almost 60 percent of all debt by public entities is held by cities and school districts.  This means the remaining 40.74 percent is owed by the remaining six types of entities.


That doesn’t mean that all cities and schools are in a large amount of debt, but some are.  The cities with the largest amount of debt per capita are:

Top Five Cities With Highest Debt Per Capita



Debt Per Capita




Arnolds Park



Maharishi Vedic City









Source: Iowa State Treasurer's Office


While these are the cities with the highest debt per capita, they are not the cities with the highest debt load.  That award goes to Des Moines, with an outstanding debt of $450,399,224. Because Des Moines has a population of 203,433, the debt per capita is only $2,214.[3]  While we have cities with high debt loads, we also have many cities that have NO debt.  Therefore, the debt isn’t evenly shared among the cities.

School districts and area education agencies (AEA) repeat the same extreme variation that we see with cities.  Here are the top five school districts:

Top Five School Districts With Highest Debt Per Capita

School District


Debt Per Capita

Clear Creek Amana



Midland CSD



Riverside CSD



Panorama CSD



West Central CSD



Source: Iowa State Treasurer's Office


While Clear Creek Amana School District has the largest debt per capita, Ankeny Community School District (CSD) actually has the highest outstanding debt at $191,425,000.  With Ankeny’s population, this makes the debt per capita only $19,332.  There are also many school districts that do not have any debt.  So, as you can start to see, the debt for cities and school districts/AEAs is not evenly distributed, which should make you, the taxpayer, pause and wonder why the debt isn’t more evenly spread out over all schools.  If we expect some debt, we would expect to see it more evenly represented among the schools instead of many schools with no debt and a small number with a large amount of debt.

As we look at the debt over the past six years, Chart Two shows that most public entities have increased their debt load over the past few years.  The only organizations to decrease over the last six years are the state authorities, which is made up of Honey Creek Park Authority, Iowa Agricultural Development Authority, Iowa Department of Transportation, Iowa Finance Authority, Iowa Higher Education Loan Authority, Iowa Lottery Authority, Iowa State Fair Authority, and Tobacco Settlement Authority; they have decreased 19.1 percent.  If we look at a one-year change from FY14 to FY15, we see that state authorities, state agencies, and counties have also decreased their debt load.  The school districts/AEAs and counties have the largest percentage increase from last year to this year, with 6.1 percent and 3.8 percent respectively.

You may be wondering what the top ten projects are that have caused public entities to take on debt. The following table shows the top ten projects with cost information included.

The taxpayers of Iowa are well aware of the new University of Iowa Children’s Hospital in Iowa City and the vast amount of money spent for the new state prison in Fort Madison, but I-JOBS and the tobacco settlement bonds are a large part of the debt that is being paid off with taxpayers’ dollars, as are the bonds for utilities and sewers. 

Now you have a better idea of the real debt obligation that Iowans have.  We point this out because we know that our elected officials will be bemoaning how tight the budget is for the State.  As they argue for ways to have more money in the budget, understand that they are trying to pay off this debt they have already incurred.  Every year, our public entities start the budget process in late fall and very few people show up and ask questions.  I would encourage you to attend a meeting for your city, county, or school district and watch what our elected officials are up to, because even though this debt isn’t going through the General Fund for the state of Iowa, it has a huge impact on your personal finances. 

[1] Economic Outlook, “Outstanding Debt Obligations Increase a Modest 1.06%,” State Treasurer of Iowa Michael L. Fitzgerald, < obligations_increase_a_modest_106&show=article&articleID=1933&issueID=571> accessed on July 15, 2016.

[2] United States Census Bureau, “State and County Quickfacts,” U.S. Census Bureau, <> accessed on July 19, 2016.

[3] “2015 Outstanding Obligations,” State Treasurer of Iowa Michael L. Fitzgerald, < fy=2015> accessed on July 18, 2016.

Jennifer L. Crull is an IT Specialist with Public Interest Institute.

IOWA TRANSPARENCY NEWSLETTER is a monthly newsletter reporting on government transparency in our state.

IOWA TRANSPARENCY NEWSLETTER is published by Public Interest Institute at Iowa Wesleyan College, a nonpartisan, nonprofit, research and educational institute whose activities are supported by contributions from private individuals, corporations, companies, and foundations. The Institute does not accept government grants.

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