If you ever wondered how truly leery state lawmakers and local elected officials are over raising taxes, you should have been at today’s meeting of the board of the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority. 

The panel spent an hour and seven minutes discussing whether to ask state lawmakers to give the DART commission the authority — if it chose to at some point — to raise property taxes more than state law now allows.

Eventually, commissioners voted to ask lawmakers to raise the cap on DART’s property taxes, or to allow them to use four different levies that routinely are available to municipal transit systems, but aren’t to DART. They didn’t vote to raise taxes. 

Why aren’t those other city levies, such as for debt service or liability, available to DART already? Because DART was created by a state law, and is the only such transit authority in the state at the moment. Many others are branches of city governments.

For some reason, state lawmakers set aside home rule long enough to set a property tax limit for this type of new transit authority. 

With Ankeny and West Des Moines leading the charge, DART commissioners worried aloud about the political implications of raising taxes — or being seen as interested in raising taxes. Which the commission is, out of necessity, at least to some degree, if other sources of revenue can’t be found. 

DART studies have shown that without new revenue, the current services can’t be sustained over the next few decades, let alone the expanded system millennials and others have demanded. But no decision has been made to raise taxes — the commissioners want that clear — and there has been some relatively minor fundraising from private companies to help out. 

But Commission Chairman Tom Gayman of Urbandale made it clear he thought the commission at least needed to seek the power to adjust to future revenue needs. “To do nothing is not an option,” he told the board well before the vote. 

West Des Moines City Councilman Russ Trimble couldn’t have been more blunt, repeatedly saying that if the DART commission so much as asked the Legislature to consider the higher property tax cap, political opponents would plan to send out postcards calling members raisers of property tax. 

Johnston Mayor Paula Dierenfeld told board members she was fine with asking state lawmakers to consider the two central proposals — an increase in the property tax cap or the ability to use four other types of municipal levies — but would rather avoid the political optics of creating four new levies. “I’m not sure why there is a cap,” said Dierenfeld. “We’re elected officials’’ running a local agency. 

Trimble, a state legislative analyst, said a proposal to raise the cap from 95 cents per $1,000 taxable valuation to $1.95 “is a nonstarter” on the Hill. He successfully asked that the proposal be changed to a 50 cent per $1,000 increase in the cap, and agreed to also ask state lawmakers to consider the alternative plan to allow the use of the four other municipal levies instead. He failed, at least for now, to get the commission to agree to limits on how fast the DART budget could grow per year. That discussion will come later.

Said Polk County Supervisor Angela Connolly, attending via phone: “I just want to move forward. Stop talking about it. It’s not like we’re going to [raise taxes] tomorrow.”

Trimble still had concern, but supported the compromise. “They are giving DART carte blanche to raise taxes” if the proposal clears the Legislature. “That’s what the [campaign] cards will say,” Trimble said of the political fallout he envisions should state lawmakers agree.

Commissioners said they realize next year’s session is important, because the following year will focus on campaigns.

Ankeny Mayor Gary Lorenz cast the only “no” vote. We know this because we heard it and because Connolly, twice asked in a booming voice who cast the lone dissent. “Ankeny,” replied Gayman. 

“This is all about trust and doing the right thing,” Gayman said after the vote. “I wish it had been unanimous.” He praised the long, civil discussion that preceded the vote. 

See our previous story on DART's funding issues.