The Real Debt for All Public Entities in Iowa

by Jennifer L. Crull

Last month’s Iowa Transparency Newsletter discussed how the debt load of the state has improved over the last few years and how finally we have a surplus instead of a taxpayer burden, but this isn’t the case as we take a look at the debt for public entities in Iowa.  On February 10, 2014, 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 $14.8 billion is owed by these entities, and this is money that has to be paid back with taxpayers’ dollars.[1]

Jason Noble reported in the February 9, 2014 issue of the Des Moines Register, “Spread evenly across Iowa’s population, the state’s $14.85 billion in outstanding government debt translates to more than $4,800 per man, woman, and child.”[2]  That statement may make you pause, given the report from last month about the state’s finances.  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 $14.8 billion, which is an increase of just over 3 percent from the previous year. 

Chart One shows the percentage breakdown of all the debt.  As you can see from the chart, 35.87 percent of the debt is held by cities, and the next largest portion of the debt is held by school districts at 21.49 percent.  Thus, over 50 percent of all debt by public entities is held by cities and school boards.  This means the remaining 42.64 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 Highest Per-Capita-Debt Cities



Debt per Capita




Arnolds Park






St. Ansgar






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 Cedar Rapids with an outstanding debt of $445,488,310, but it has a population of 127,905, thus the debt per capita is only $3,483.[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 Highest Per-Capita-Debt School District

School District


Debt per Capita







West Central (Maynard)



Clear Creek Amana






Source:  Iowa State Treasurer's Office


While the Urbandale School has the largest debt per capita, Waukee School district actually has the highest outstanding debt at $134,175,000.  With their population, this makes the debt per capita only $7,721.  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, give 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 five year, 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 five years are the State Authorities; they have decreased 7.62 percent.  Now if we look at a one-year change from FY12 to FY13, we see that State Authorities and State Agencies have both decreased their debt load.  The Board of Regents and Counties had the largest percentage increase from last year to this year, with 14.7 percent and 12.5 percent respectively.

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

The taxpayers of the state are well aware of the new Children’s Hospital in Iowa City and the new state prison in Fort Madison, but IJOBS is a large part of 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 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 Slightly in 2013,” State Treasurer of Iowa Michael L. Fitzgerald, <> accessed on February 11, 2014.
[2] Jason Noble, “Governments’ $14.85B in debt spread unevenly,” Des Moines Register, February 9, 2014, <> accessed on February 11, 2014.
[3] Fitzgerald, loc. cit.


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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