The Gazette covers City Hall, now a flood-damaged icon on May's Island in the Cedar River

Archive for April 3rd, 2008|Daily archive page

Road warriors Fagan and Neumann: Fresh voices in the front seat for Cedar Rapids

In Brian Fagan, City Hall, Downtown District, Viewpoint on April 3, 2008 at 12:57 pm

Oprah’s on the afternoon TV, the Cubs are playing again and the work day is winding down for a lot of people.

Yet there was Cedar Rapids council member Brian Fagan, with Doug Neumann, head of the city’s Downtown District at the wheel of his Toyota Highlander, hustling late Wednesday afternoon toward the Promised Land – the Iowa Legislature in Des Moines.

Just a couple hours before, another young Cedar Rapids leader, Rep. Tyler Olson, D-Cedar Rapids, had introduced late-inning, landscape-changing legislation in the Iowa House that has the potential to bring deep relief to the property-tax bills of the state’s commercial and industrial property-tax payers. It would do that by allowing cities to pick from a mix of local revenue sources instead of relying almost exclusively on property taxes.

However, passing the legislation will require two tectonic shifts: The Statehouse would have to cede much more of its paternalistic control to local communities over the communities’ own taxing decisions; and local city councils would have to have the fortitude to actually implement some of the new taxing authority.

The idea of the new legislative proposal, though, appears mostly about shifting the local tax burden and not raising it.

And don’t mistake this: No one in the state has been bellyaching more about the need for such a shift than City Hall in Cedar Rapids.

On a cell phone somewhere between here and a dinner Wednesday evening with seven Iowa senators, Fagan said the wish is to shift Cedar Rapids’ $86-million general operating budget from its 75-percent dependence on property-tax revenue to 30 percent or 35 percent, and to replace that revenue and that tax burden with a mix of other fees and taxes.

Hold on to your hat: The proposed legislation would permit cities to impose a 1 percent local sales tax without going to voters, though Fagan thought the provision might come with a reverse referendum so citizens could force such a matter to a vote. The legislation also talks about local franchise fees on utilities; a police and fire service tax; a tobacco tax; an increase in hotel/motel taxes; and others.

Inherent in most if not all of the mix would be the inclusion of those who do not now pay local taxes to fund a city’s streets, police, fire, parks, sewer system – you can go on and on – but use some or all of those services. That means the people who come to a city to work, shop and play, but who live elsewhere and pay property taxes elsewhere, would leave some revenue behind.

That notion long has been the central premise of the existing local-option sales tax, though as state law now stands, local communities must seek local voter approval for such a tax.

The new mix of taxes also would extract revenue from other non-payers: non-profits like hospitals and colleges, for instance, though under the proposal religious institutions would be exempt. Hospitals, as an example, could pay a police and fire service tax and/or franchise fee taxes on utility use.

For anyone who followed any of the Iowa legislative races two long years ago, among promises in many of the campaigns was one to bring real property-tax relief to commercial and industrial property-tax payers. Those are the ones, as Fagan repeated Wednesday, who continue to subsidize the local tax burden for residential property owners, who pay tax on less than half the value of their property, and for all the other users of city services.

The current burden on the commercial and industrial sector matters greatly, Fagan added, because it makes Iowa and it makes Cedar Rapids and every other city in the state less competitive with other states and cities.

Wednesday was Fagan’s third trip to the Statehouse this session, and a string of other locals from the mayor to city manager to other council members to other community representatives have been down to Des Moines, too.

Fagan said lawmakers seem the most “curious” about how allowing cities to diversify their revenue sources “supports the employers who are so important to this state.”

The proposed legislation calls for allowing up to 10 “pilot” cities to experiment with the new revenue ideas. It looks, too, like cities in a metro area could participate along with one another as one pilot city.

On its face, the proposed legislation seems tax-neutral: In other words, each dollar in revenue from the new mix of taxes would replace property taxes now being paid.

But Fagan said the Cedar Rapids message to Iowa’s lawmakers is that communities also must be able to better invest in themselves to improve their quality of life. Improving that, he said, is a key to attracting the employees that employers like the AEGON USA’s and the Rockwell Collins’ of the world need.

If you can’t guess, the Downtown District’s Doug Neumann, as good at the microphone as anyone on these matters, was driving and Fagan was riding shotgun late Wednesday afternoon.

Both, along with others, have been working lawmakers hard, too, to get some special funding for downtown Cedar Rapids projects like a RiverWalk. That actually was the focus of Wednesday’s trip to the Statehouse.

No, Fagan said, he never felt like a shoe salesman when he turned up in Des Moines to pitch for Cedar Rapids.

“No, I feel like an advocate,” he said. “We come down here because we believe in our community. We believe in what we’re doing.

“… There’s none of that snake-oil stuff. We’re here on the merits. We’re here because we have the capacity to make Cedar Rapids what we know it is. You come down here as an advocate. And it’s an easy argument to make on behalf of the city.”

Advertisements

One metro area, two animal shelters, two costly plans to upgrade: Is it time to join forces?

In City Hall, Humane Society, Jerry McGrane, Marion on April 3, 2008 at 4:25 am

It hasn’t escaped the notice of Cedar Rapids council member Jerry McGrane that the Cedar Valley Humane Society’s animal shelter has been in the headlines of late.

The Humane Society’s shelter, which serves much of Linn County outside of Cedar Rapids, was raided by the Marion Police Department last week amid questions about the shelter’s billing practices. An agent of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation is helping the Marion department analyze what it has seized.

All of this has come just as the Humane Society had recently announced plans for a $1.5-million expansion of its animal shelter at 7411 Mount Vernon Rd. just east of Cedar Rapids.

At Wednesday evening’s Cedar Rapids council meeting, McGrane suggested to the city staff that the Humane Society’s apparent public-relations pickle might make for the perfect time to again approach the Humane Society about joining forces with the city.

The city of Cedar Rapids, he noted, is looking at relocating its own animal shelter, which is located in a former solid waste treatment building at the far reaches of the city along Old River Road SW. The cost of relocation, which city staff has said might be to an existing building closer to the center of town, could be $1.5 million or more.

“This is an opportunity for the city’s animal control and the Cedar Valley Humane Society to join together,” McGrane suggested to his council colleagues and to the city staff. “I know they have problems now.”

Together, McGrane said, the two animal shelters could build “a pretty elite place” for animals that also would be nicer for employees and the volunteers that both shelters have come to depend on.

“I don’t see any reason for them building a big addition and us doing the same and for us to fighting each other for volunteers,” he said.

City manager Jim Prosser noted that city staff members had been investigating city options to relocate the city’s shelter, and Prosser said the plan had been to report to the council in upcoming weeks.

Prosser seemed to indicate that at McGrane’s request the city staff would add to its list of options the idea of approaching the Humane Society again about possible collaboration.

Such a discussion has occurred in months passed, but it ended in an impasse. The city had said that the price tag was too high for the city to help pay for the expansion of the Humane Society shelter and then to pay annual lease payments to use the place.

Both shelters handle about 3,000 animals a year.

In two interviews in recent weeks with Humane Society board members – first at the announcement of their expansion, and then in reaction to last week’s police raid – the board members expressed no interest in merging forces with the city shelter. Both shelters are needed, the board said.

The city’s Prosser, who has talked about a regional shelter, has said recently that most metropolitan areas of Cedar Rapids’ size often have more than one entity caring for animals.