Which city has more people: Rock Island, Ill., or Bettendorf, Iowa?
The answer is Rock Island. It has always been bigger. In 1950, Rock Island had almost 10 times as many residents as Bettendorf.
But times have changed. If current trends hold, Bettendorf will become the second-largest of the region's five core cities within a generation.
In fact, Bettendorf is on pace to pass the city of Rock Island by 2021.
Geographically, Bettendorf is in a privileged position with room to grow. On the Illinois side of the river, Rock Island and Moline are more landlocked, and their populations are shrinking.
“We’re blessed to have that ability to grow and expand,” said Jeff Reiter, economic development director for the city of Bettendorf. “Instead of turning a blind eye to growth and development, we’re proactively planning for the future. We’re not only looking at the next five to 10 years but the next 15 to 50.”
Quad-Citians offer numerous explanations for the growing gap between Rock Island County, which is losing residents, and Scott County, which is growing.
As data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows, the gap is principally a result of out-migration — people moving away from Illinois — and not falling birth rates.
So what’s causing the exodus?
Taxes: perception vs. reality
On both sides of the river, the blame for the diverging counties gets pinned most often on taxes.
“I talk to people, and they’re fed up with the taxes,” said Edwin Langdon Jr., a member of the Rock Island County Board, expressing a popular sentiment.
In Iowa, the reverse tends to be true, though many exceptions exist in both states.
But even small differences in property tax rates can yield substantial differences in payment.
A home valued at $250,000 in Scott County could pay around $4,000 in property taxes. The same home in Rock Island County could pay more than $6,900, according to data from the Rock Island County Treasurer's Office, the Scott County Property Tax Calculator and the financial technology company SmartAsset.
Still, Illinois leaders downplay the differences or emphasize other advantages.
“It benefits seniors to be here,” East Moline Mayor Reggie Freeman said. “In Illinois, you don’t pay income tax on your pensions. In Iowa you do.”
Sales tax schemes differ between the states, which some leaders have bemoaned. In Iowa, a sales tax is county-wide and shared evenly by municipalities. In Illinois, each municipality is responsible for its own sales taxes, which can be adjusted by home-rule towns without a referendum, Freeman said.
“That’s a difference that helps the Iowa side not compete against each other and low-ball each other,” said Luis Moreno, a former alderman in East Moline and current member of the Rock Island County Board. “On the Illinois side, we’re constantly doing that. We’re constantly low-balling one another to get companies to come to our municipality.”
But bi-state leaders push back on the idea that taxation hampers the Illinois side. The differences between the states are marginal, said Paul Rumler, CEO, and president of the Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce.
“You have to look at all of the tax burdens, on the collective level. When you do that, the disparity is not great,” Rumler said. “Perception becomes reality.”
More land, more people
A major reason for the diverging growth has less to do with taxes than with real estate.
In Scott County, there’s ample land available for development. By contrast, Rock Island County’s population centers are mostly developed, and their housing stock is older.
“From a development standpoint, it’s cheaper to plow into a cornfield than to buy properties and remodel them,” Angie Normoyle, a member of the Rock Island County Board, said.
Or, as Freeman said, “It’s easier to move cornfields than it is to move trees.”
To grow, Moline and Rock Island might have to consider annexing new land outside the city limits.
That process can be daunting. Expansions require infrastructure and utilities. Construction can be time-consuming and expensive.
As an example, longtime residents point to delays in the West Rock River Bridge project, also known as Veteran’s Memorial Bridge at Carr’s Crossing. Planning took almost 40 years of fits and starts before construction was completed in 2007.
“During that time frame, the situation continued to exacerbate,” Rumler said about the project. “Things happened over the last 40 years that we can’t go back from.”
Bettendorf, by contrast, does not have issues with land supply. Most of its residential growth has occurred in its northeastern corner, where land remains plentiful and relatively cheap.
“There’s a lot of land that can still be developed,” Reiter said. He predicted that the city will “pretty easily” surpass 40,000 people within the next decade.
But he also emphasized that Bettendorf’s fate is tied to the region and that what happens in one of the Quad-Cities invariably affects all of its neighbors.
“A lot of our economic growth is not something that is city-specific,” Reiter said. “We have to think regionally, as far as things like that. If Rock Island has a huge opportunity to draw a big manufacturing operation, it’s great for all of us. We don’t try to compare ourselves to them.”
The blame game
Blame for population loss gets put on county government, city governments, real estate agencies, even the Quad City Chamber of Commerce, which some cited as having a preference for Iowa.
“We don’t tell businesses to go to Iowa or Illinois,” Rumler said in response. “No one wants to see one community fail. We’re all in this together.”
The unequal growth has, to a limited extent, embittered some Illinois Quad-Citians who think they’re at the losing end of a rotten deal.
For many on both sides of the river, the main culprit for state population loss is Springfield.
Nearly every local resident interviewed for this series had at least heard — and occasionally shared — resentment against the Illinois state government for its alleged incompetence, corruption, recklessness or propensity to tax.
“When you go two years without a budget and keep increasing taxes, it’s a problem for everyone,” Moreno said.
Whether or not Illinois actually taxes its residents more than neighboring states gets crowded out by the widespread belief that it does. Perception becomes reality.
Springfield also fields criticism for its spending — or lack thereof.
“The state is the villain here,” said Normoyle, who previously served on the Moline-Coal Valley School Board. She explained that the state has “shirked its responsibility” by chronically underfunding public schools.
The state’s education funding formula, which was reformed in 2017, has been roundly criticized for exacerbating disparities between affluent and low-income students.
A recent report from The Education Trust, a nonprofit, singled out Illinois as having the single “largest gap, by far,” between high-poverty and low-poverty districts.
“The [state’s] neglect of funding of schools has led communities to rely very heavily on property taxes,” which in turn burdens homeowners, Normoyle said.
So what can be done?
In the next installment of the series, you will hear directly from local leaders about solutions to population change. You’ll also hear ideas from academics, politicians, journalists and community planners across the continent about what should be done.