Perry is a little like three wind turbines standing in a field, powerless, unturning, waiting for the wind. What will bring the engines to life and set the wheels in motion? In the 1970s, the welcome sign on the edge of town read, “Perry – A Place to Grow,” and people with an interest in Perry still ask one another what it will take to make Perry really grow.
The motto on the Perry sign now reads, “Make Yourself at Home,” and with the city council’s approval Tuesday night of an urban revitalization plan with a hefty property tax abatement plan as its centerpiece, the city leaders took a big step toward making homes in Perry.
Residential housing development is one important element in any formula for the city’s growth and prosperity, the city leaders said at the meeting.
Perry’s property tax vacation plan even attracted a flurry of attention from the metro media Tuesday, with the glare of the capital’s newspapers and televisions leaving city leaders a little breathless at Tuesday’s council session.
“It turned out to be a much busier day than I expected,” said Perry Mayor Jay Pattee. “Even as we’re having this meeting, they’re probably airing information about our abatement program in Perry and how exciting it is and how we’re probably going to see some new housing starts out of it and how it works. I really do believe we’re going to see a lot of exciting things about this program.”
Residential property development within the city limits of Perry, particularly single-family dwellings, has been almost at a standstill for a decade or more. While Perry’s neighbors to the southeast have seen rapid growth in their residential subdivisions, the northern tier of Dallas County’s communities have so far lagged behind.
The urban revitalization plan aims to kick start local home building in Perry. It takes effect Sept. 16.
Much of the city’s housing stock is old and running down, as revealed in the recent housing needs assessment. The average assessed value of a home in Dallas County is about $185,000. In Perry the average is $85,000. A 2015 housing assessment found one-third of the city’s housing meets the definition of blighted.
Perry’s median household income is $42,354, and the median for the county as a whole is $73,847. Education often tracks with income, and about 12 percent of Perry residents have bachelor’s degrees, while the countywide rate is 44 percent. These and similar factors influence people’s decisions when they consider moving to a town and buying a house.
The urban revitalization plan approved Tuesday night by the city council is the culmination of at least two year’s worth of concerted effort on several fronts by many Perry people. A report by the Residential Housing Task Force in April 2015 put a property-tax abatement plan at the top of its list of recommendations to the Perry City Council.
Other studies, by the Iowa Economic Development Authority and a Drake Master’s class in communications leadership, made similar recommendations, and housing was an important part of the city’s 2013 Comprehensive Plan.
For its part, the city council approved a rental code reform and began an inspection regime this year, intended to improve the condition of the city’s rental stock. One-third of the housing units in Perry are rentals.
The city also sponsored a housing needs assessment and blight assessment, which qualified Perry for urban revitalization and allowed it a more generous abatement schedule than the Iowa Code regularly offers.
Perry’s property tax abatement program has two plans: on the rehab side, a homeowner who makes at least $20,000 worth of improvements to her property can abate 100 percent of the increased value for five years.
On the new-construction side, the owner of a newly built house in Perry can abate 100 percent of the property tax for five years, 85 percent in the sixth year, 70 percent in the seventh year and so on for 10 years in 15 percent decrements. The plan also offers incentives for green construction.
“We’ve got this tax abatement program to build efficient, sustainable homes, not just cookie-cutter homes,” said Perry City Administrator Sven Peterson. “Because in the long run, the tax abatement is there to incentivize home building, save money and encourage that new building and rehab. But on top of that, why not make it so it’s still saving money past the 10 years for the lifetime of the home just purely out of efficiency?”
A similar tax abatement scheme in Adel is succeeding. Steve Nichols, Adel’s building inspector and code compliance officer, said the number of building permits issued by his office has quadrupled since the city started its abatement program. He issued 26 building permits in 2011, the first year of the program, and 119 in 2015. As of May 31, 2016, 65 permits have been issued, he said.
Not everyone is a fan of the program, Nichols said, particularly residents paying property taxes.
“People say, ‘They’re not paying taxes,'” Nichols said, “but if your town’s not adding homes, then sooner or later your levy rate will rise, or you’ll have to cut services or lay people off. That tax money isn’t lost. It’s an investment in the town’s future.”
The investment seems to be paying off for Adel, which recently extended the abatement’s sunset date from 2018 to 2025. Adel City Administrator Anthony Brown said communication has been crucial to the success of Adel’s abatement program, and he encouraged his Perry friends to get the word out early and often.
“It’s a great idea to get as much information out to the community as possible,” Brown said, “so people understand what the abatement is, who is eligible for it, what they have to do to receive it. To be able to communicate that and make sure everybody understands the rules and the opportunities seems really important.”
Brown, city administrator since 2013, said it is satisfying to see the abatement program’s success.
“It’s doing what we wanted it to do,” he said. “We wanted it to spur residential growth, and it’s certainly doing that.” He attributes the city’s housing starts in part to the tax vacation but also to the “sweet spot” of Adel’s proximity to the metro area and the quality of its school system.
“We have the small-town feel with quiet streets and friendly neighbors but also access to the metro’s amenities like Jordan Creek and the restaurants,” he said. “The abatement definitely helps, but I think the driver is other things.”
Perry has its quality-of-life attractions, too, and few residents wish to see the town imitate the sprawling, sterile suburbs to the southeast. Perry will soon be home to the start — or end — of the High Trestle Trail, where that most popular bicycle route in central Iowa will connect with the Raccoon River Valley Trail. The Let’s Connect fundraising campaign is working to bridge the gap as soon as possible.
When it comes to jobs, Perry is also poised to attract light-industrial businesses to the Perry Industrial Park, where the 2015 attainment of site certification offers factory owners shovel-ready space for growth and development.
Perry is teed up for housing growth, job growth and business growth. The wind is in the turbines.
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