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 February 9, 2015, 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 billion is owed by these entities, and this is money that has to be paid back with taxpayers’ dollars.[1]

Given the Census Bureau’s estimate of the 2014 population for Iowa, this means that the average debt per man, woman, and child in Iowa is $4,828.[2] This is an increase of 0.5 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 amount outstanding for each public entity that is reported on. You will also note that the total outstanding debt for all of them is $15 billion, which is an increase of 1.7 percent from the previous year.

Chart One shows the percentage breakdown of all the debt. As you can see from the chart, 35.41 percent of the debt is held by cities, and the next largest portion of the debt is held by school districts, at 22.92 percent. Thus, over 50 percent of all debt by public entities is held by cities and school districts. This means the remaining 41.67 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. If we look at the cities with the largest amount of debt per capita, they are:

Top Five Cities With Highest Debt per Capita
Debt per Capita
Coralville $278,267,874 $14,479
Arnolds Park $12,748,000 $11,163
Okoboji $8,745,000 $10,691
St. Ansgar $8,824,084 $7,957
Lohrville $2,828,096 $7,727
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 $464,246,254, but because it has a population of 203,433, the debt per capita is only $2,282.[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
Urbandale $96,480,000 $28,485
Hubbard-Radcliffe $11,274,651 $26,404
West Central (Maynard) $7,600,000 $25,676
Clear Creek Amana $41,715,000 $24,964
Gilbert $30,901,490 $23,844
Source:  Iowa State Treasurer's Office

While the Clear Creek Amana School has the largest debt per capita, Des Moines Independent actually has the highest outstanding debt at $195,985,000. With their population, this makes the debt per capita only $6,046. 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; they have decreased 10.4 percent. If we look at a one-year change from FY12 to FY13, we see that state authorities, state agencies, and counties have also decreased their debt load. The Board of Regents and school districts/AEAs had the largest percentage increase from last year to this year, with 7.1 percent and 8 percent respectively.

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

Table Two:  Top Ten Projects for Public Entities
Government Entity Purpose Description Final Maturity Amount
1 Tobacco Settlement Authority Other Tobacco Settlement Bonds 6/1/2046 $738,316,267,,,,,,,,,,,,
Treasurer: I-JOBS Public Buildings/Schools,,,,,,
2009A IJOBS Bonds
3 Iowa Finance Authority Utilities/Sewers State revolving fund 8/1/2030 $283,605,000
4 Treasurer: I-JOBS Public Buildings/Schools 2009B IJOBS Bonds 6/1/2034 $220,950,000
5 Iowa Finance Authority Utilities/Sewers State revolving fund 8/1/2031 $219,130,000
6 Board of Regents U of I Health Care Construction of New Children's Hospital 9/1/2038 $190,000,000
7 Treasurer: I-JOBS Public Buildings/Schools 2010A IJOBS Bonds 6/1/2038 $142,160,000
8 Iowa Finance Authority Utilities/Sewers State revolving fund 8/1/2029 $1,363,389,896
9 Iowa Finance Authority Utilities/Sewers State revolving fund 8/1/2028 $135,485,000
10 Treasurer: Iowa State Penitentiary Public Safety Iowa State Penitentiary Bonds for Infrasture Projects 6/15/2027 $133,730,000
Source:  Iowa State Treasurer's Office


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 for the new state prison in Fort Madison, but I-JOBS is a large part of the debt that is being paid off with taxpayers’ dollars. We point this out because it is budget-planning time in the state of Iowa. Most public entities are working on their budget to file with the state. So 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] “Outstanding Debt Obligations Increase a Modest 1.7%,” State Treasurer of Iowa Michael L. Fitzgerald, < increase_a_modest_17&show=news&newsID=19748> accessed on March 10, 2015.
[2] United States Census Bureau, “State and County Quickfacts,” U.S. Census Bureau, <> accessed on March 18, 2015.
[3] “2014 Outstanding Obligations,” State Treasurer of Iowa Michael L. Fitzgerald,
< 2014&countyNumber=ALL> accessed on March 12, 2015.



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.

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