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Archive for April 6th, 2008|Daily archive page

Attention to sidewalks matters, too

In City Hall, Tom Podzimek on April 6, 2008 at 3:25 pm

It’s not all big ball at City Hall.

It’s not all reorganizing government, pushing for downtown revitalization, debating controversial subjects like a troubled Westdale Mall and financially challenged city golf operation.

For a year or more, the City Council has been wrestling with what to do about sidewalks.

Sidewalks seem like small ball. In truth, though, not so many matters have confounded the council more than one a year ago when the council wanted to install sidewalks in a long-established neighborhood in the vicinity of Cleveland Elementary School on the city’s west side.

Here were children walking in the streets to get to school because of an absence of sidewalks in a neighborhood where many homeowners now were retired and on fixed incomes.

In one case, an elderly woman on a corner lot faced a sidewalk assessment on two stretches of sidewalk that reached $7,000.

As council member Tom Podzimek pointed out last week, the size of that proposed assessment was seven times the size of the woman’s annual property-tax bill.

He called such a proposed assessment “quite a burden.”

The sidewalk matter actually is the result of City Hall decisions stretching back decades in which City Hall allowed some residential developments to be built without sidewalks.

Now sidewalks are seen as important in many established spots in the city, but the question is, who is going to pay for them.

In recent years, neighbors confronted with having to pay the sidewalk assessments have not always done so without complaint.

As the start of the street construction season arrives, city staff and the council last week tried to put the final touches on a new city sidewalk policy in the city’s single-family home areas.

In the proposed policy:

Residents will pay 100 percent of the assessment in newer-built neighborhoods in which assessment agreements were signed at the time of neighborhood development. This has been the recent city practice – allowing developers in some places to delay building sidewalks until the need for them became clearer.

In established neighborhoods, residential property owners will pay 50 percent of the installation cost for the first 100 feet of sidewalk, the city the other 50 percent. For sidewalk lengths longer than 100 feet, the total percentage of the cost assessed to the property owner declines. For a sidewalk of 190 feet or longer, the property owner pays 35 percent of the total installation, according to the proposed plan.

The typical sidewalk in the city is 4-foot wide. In places in which the council decides to build a wider sidewalk, the city will pay for the additional width. The city also will pay for retaining walls under the proposed plan.

Additionally, a property owner can construct a concrete sidewalk in lieu of any assessment if approved by city staff. The owner will be reimbursed 25 percent of the cost, under the proposed plan.

In truth, the sidewalk dilemma in some older neighborhoods has been on the City Hall radar screen for a number of years and a number of city councils.

A former citizen regular to City Council meetings, one-time city employee Ed Kral, used to ask the council about sidewalks at one point nearly every week in the public comment period at council meetings. Kral since has passed away.

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Verdict still out on Cedar Valley Humane Society shelter; society’s board assures public again

In City Hall, Humane Society, Jerry McGrane, Marion on April 6, 2008 at 4:02 am

With word still out on a Marion police investigation into billing practices at the Cedar Valley Humane Society’s animal shelter, the society’s board of directors on Saturday announced steps to shore up its credibility.

The board said it will:

— Hire an independent consultant to review and provide advice on the operation of the society’s shelter at 7411 Mount Vernon Rd. east of Cedar Rapids.

— Ask Doug Fuller, a Humane Society board member, active shelter volunteer and retired police detective, to take a formal leadership role at the shelter.

— Invite the Iowa Veterinary Board to conduct random inspections to put to rest any allegation of animal mistreatment.

— Ask the Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission to investigate the accusations of a former employee critical of the shelter and its work environment.

 In a written statement, Charles Abraham, the society’s board chairman and a veterinarian, said the four steps announced Saturday reflect many of the goals that have been a part of the shelter’s strategic plan.

 At the same time, Abraham denied allegations that either employees or animals at the shelter had been mistreated.

He noted that a national consulting firm, Shelter Planners of America, examined the Humane Society shelter’s performance in recent months and gave the shelter a rating of 7 out of 10. Most shelters score less well on such first reviews, he said.

Several members of the Humane Society’s board spoke to The Gazette on March 26, the day after the evening raid at the shelter by the Marion police. The Marion department, with the help of an Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation agent, has said it is looking at the shelter’s past billing practices.

On March 26, board member Fuller said he had been working the phone to try to put shelter supporters’ minds at ease.

“And it’s difficult when you don’t have a clue exactly what you’re being accused of,” he said then.

In addition, board member Wilford Stone, a local attorney, said that there is always a possibility of accounting errors and “some things falling through the cracks.” But he said errors were not crimes.

A district court judge has sealed court records related to the search warrant in the Marion police raid of the shelter. Those warrants usually detail who is making allegations and what the allegations are.

The Gazette earlier reported that two former shelter employees, Joy Jager and Sarah Young, have filed lawsuits against the Humane Society in the last few months. Stone said the two are asking for compensation they say is owed them.

In January, the Iowa Employment Appeal Board denied Jager’s claim for jobless benefits. On a 2-1 vote, the board concluded, as an administrative law judge had earlier, that Jager resigned and so was not entitled to jobless benefits. Jager was ordered to return $1,676 in jobless benefits that had been paid her pending the appeal.

According to the appeal board’s ruling, Jager had alleged in her jobless claims appeal that the Humane Society had put sick cats up for adoption, had incomplete medical records and had operated on short staff.

The Cedar Valley Humane Society is a private, non-profit organization that depends on donations and volunteers. Donations and support for the shelter is up since allegations have surfaced against the shelter, board members say.

The Humane Society just six weeks ago launched a public campaign to raise money for a $1.5-million expansion of its shelter.

The shelter has handled about 3,000 animals a year, as does Cedar Rapids animal shelter off Old River Road SW. The Cedar Rapids shelter, which is run by public dollars with the help of volunteers, is looking to upgrade its facility independent of the Humane Society’s shelter.

Just last week, Cedar Rapids City Council member Jerry McGrane noted that both the Humane Society shelter and the city’s shelter were looking to invest in costly improvements, and he suggested the two shelters once again discuss the possibility of merging into one, better operation.

Such a discussion did not lead to anything in recent months, and in recent weeks, the Humane Society has said it isn’t interested and that the metro area is large enough for two facilities.