No local taxes! Here's how two Iowa towns did it

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

You say you feel as if you're always sending a check to yet another government tax collector?

If your idea of paradise is a respite from taxes on at least one level, you might want to consider settling down in Sageville or Moneta.

At a time when most cities are scrounging for every tax dollar they can get, these two small towns, like six others in this state, charge their residents no local taxes at all.

Recommended: Default

Admittedly, they're a bit of a challenge to find. Both Sageville and Moneta, population 291 and 43 respectively and located in the eastern and western reaches of Iowa, are on the map. But neither is marked by a road sign.

And don't expect to find a land of milk and honey in city services. Like other residents, you would be expected to invest in a septic system of your own and to drill your own well for drinking water.

But both Sageville and Moneta get enough dollars back from the state in road use and liquor taxes, awarded on a per capita basis, to take care of street maintenance and lighting and to pay nearby communities or their counties for sheriff and fire protection.

Sageville, tucked off Highway 52 just north of Dubuque and recently singled out by state authorities as the economically healthiest small town in Iowa, also earns interest on its considerable assets (it will finish this fiscal year with

''That's about all the federal money we want to accept -- we don't go much for all these grants,'' says Mayor Joseph Kalvelage, who has lived in such relative metropolises as Moline, Ill., and Chicago and much prefers Sageville's ''elbow room.'' Here he has a large yard of grass he has just finished mowing, a garden, and a small apple orchard. The town boasts two trailer parks, a light industrial plant, and some of the residents commute to Dubuque.

''We're pretty well supervised as it is -- we can hardly spend a nickel we don't have to account for,'' he says.

Tiny Moneta, once a busy town of 200 to 300 people with three gas stations, a bowling alley, a bank, and a jail, now earns $100 a year by renting out its town hall to a beekeeper who stores his equipment there.

''It probably doesn't even dawn on a lot of people here that we don't pay taxes and you probably wouldn't get that much from homeowners in a small town like this anyway,'' says Glenn Muckey, mayor of the rural farming community.

Mayor Muckey, like all residents of no-tax towns, actually pays property taxes to the county, but at a lower rate than he otherwise would since the town demands nothing back. This former truck driver, now retired, takes great pride in the fact that he pays only $17 a year in property taxes (after veterans disability and other exemptions) while his brother in the nearby larger town of Spencer pays 10 times as much.

The largest single expense in both Sageville and Moneta is for the upkeep and lighting of streets. Sageville expects to spend almost half of next year's $13, 120 budget on streets, including the electricity to keep its two stoplights and tornado warning system operating. Neither town has paved roads. Moneta just paid O'Brien County to lay fresh gravel on its streets. Sageville's Mayor Kalvelage concedes that every once in awhile someone in town decides it might be nice to have blacktopped roads, but the project is usually abandoned after a huddle with the mayor over costs.

Neither town has any full-time city employees. And only Sageville pays its elected officials on the basis of meetings they attend. Moneta abandoned that practice years ago.

''The mayor used to get paid $50 a year here in the '60s and council members got $25, but the money wasn't making anybody rich and the town needed it,'' says Mayor Muckey. He holds business meetings in his home and says everyone in town ''takes turns'' being mayor as his or her civic duty.

Both mayors admit there are occasional disadvantages in this do-it-yourself approach to community government. Now that farmers plow some of the steep hillsides in Sageville for extra income, for example, the surface soil tends to slide down and clog the community creek. It's a fact which keeps Mayor Kalvelage protesting and trying to find a good solution. And, because his wife is an out-of-town resident, she has to pay $60 a year to Dubuque to get a library card.

Similarly in Moneta, when residents have run low on water over the years, more had to be hauled in from nearby Everly. And when Moneta's community sewage tile broke down, the town had to come up with an unexpected $300.

''As a rule, if it's on your property or you caused it, you take care of it, '' says Mayor Muckey.

More recently, Moneta residents had to make a tough decision on what to do about garbage and trash. Each family had been burning and composting some and hauling the rest to dumps in other towns. But the chore was becoming more difficult. Mayor Muckey briefly considered using city funds to hire a hauler but wrote to each resident instead, asking for a $3 a month contribution. One resident balked.

''I told her it's the only tax she pays and she better not use the service if she isn't going to pay it,'' he says. ''I said, 'Don't let me catch you sneaking around putting your garbage in the dumpster or I'll put it back on your doorstep.'

''In addition to making sure that every resident's garbage is bagged and tied before pickup, Mayor Muckey counts it his job to help persuade residents to keep their dogs tied up and dissuade out-of-town youths from using Moneta's back streets as a race track.

''I can be mean but you've got to sound a lot rougher than you are,'' he says. ''If we get anybody we can't handle, we can usually keep them busy until the sheriff comes.''

As in most small towns, there are times when everyone pitches in together to do what needs to be done. After a storm, for instance, the Muckeys say everyone in Moneta usually comes out to help clean up.

''Everybody works together - just like one big happy family,'' says Lenora Muckey. ''You might not see your neighbor for a month, but if you're in trouble, someone's right there to help.''

Still, progress marches along in rural as in city areas as the years go by. When Mayor Muckey's father retires as the local postmaster, mail is to be delivered via nearby Hartley to local boxes. And a new multicounty experimental rural water system is in the works for Moneta. Residents jointly invested $400 to help get the project started and each local household will have to pay $15 a month to keep it going.

But along with new convenience comes a certain skepticism.

''If the water's chlorinated, as it probably will be, we won't be using it for drinking or cooking -- just gardening,'' insists Mayor Muckey. ''I'll still use my well for a backup.''

''I think small towns just encourage more self-sufficiency,'' concludes Sageville's Mayor Kalvalege. ''Most people here like to keep things sort of primitive and rural. They don't want too many regulations. . . . We're all familiar with the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.''

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...