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Archive for April 9th, 2008|Daily archive page

The state of the State of the City luncheon

In City Hall, Mayor Kay Halloran, Paul Pate, Viewpoint on April 9, 2008 at 3:09 am

One doesn’t have to reach too far back to remember annual State of the City luncheons sponsored by the League of Women Voters in Cedar Rapids that had a little dash and theater.

Mayors Lee Clancey and Paul Pate, who served as mayor six and four years respectively, come to mind.

Pate and his right-hand man, Doug Wagner, had multimedia. They handed out CDs trumpeting the progress the city had been making.

Pate even broke with the League of Women Voters a little, not sure he liked the idea that the event was a moneymaker, a fund raiser, for the group. At one point, Pate held the event at the Paramount Theatre, not at lunch, but at the end of the afternoon.

In reaction, the League said it held the copyright to the very name of the annual speech – State of the City.

Pate countered, celebrating a month of State of the City events.

Again, it wasn’t without a little theater back then.

At lunch on Tuesday, 359 people were on hand in a ballroom at the Crowne Plaza Five Seasons Hotel to listen to Mayor Kay Halloran and City Manager Jim Prosser.

The timing was a little messed up at the start.

The sit-down for lunch began at 11:30 a.m., but there was much eating yet to do when the mayor took to the microphone to deliver her speech. It was hard to hear for the clank of flatware on dishes as many in attendance went on eating as she went on speaking.

The speech was a reprise of the one Halloran had given at the end of February before the start of a city council meeting. The city charter requires the mayor to give an annual update before the end of February, and so she took the speech out for a first airing then.

This time, after her speech — one of its points was that the city was ready for a leap ahead — Prosser joined her on the dais for questions from the audience.

Keep in mind: The city has a part-time council/city manager government now. Questions from the public, they say at City Hall, often can be about the “operational.” And city managers, they say, are the nuts-and-bolts operation types.

Prosser, who can toss in flashes of stand-up, did much of the answering.

He said it was not “desirable” for the city to have waste water being pumped into storm sewers and then waterways at times of significant rain. He said the city was working to comply with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency order requiring the city to meet Clean Water Act standards.

Halloran noted that the city on Tuesday had received notice of a $200,000 grant from the EPA for an unrelated matter — brownfield clean-up.

“We’re good guys and bad guys all at the same time,” Halloran quipped, suggesting the EPA still liked the city.

Prosser noted that the winter had been tough on the city. He said it would take another few weeks to get the streets cleaned up, and he said this summer would bring more street repair than the city had anticipated because of the winter weather.

He added, though, that the city had “strong reserves” and the ability to borrow to take care of such problems.

Among other answers:

— Prosser said the city needed the proposed new transit facility in an “appropriate place” other than the location of the city’s current Ground Transportation Center bus depot. The new facility will be served by city buses, NTS neighborhood vans, LIFTs buses and inter-city buses, he said.

— He and Halloran both said the city needed the ability to diversify its sources of revenue so commercial and industrial property owners don’t carry such a large load of the cost of city government. A legislative proposal introduced by Rep. Tyler Olson, D-Cedar Rapids, would help by giving cities the ability to raise revenue via a 1 percent sales tax, a 5 percent fee on utility bills, a tobacco tax and other means. Both Prosser and Halloran doubted state lawmakers would do much on the bill until those in Tuesday’s luncheon audience got behind the tax idea. Prosser acknowledged that non-profits would face some of the new fees.

— Prosser said “the next frontier” for cities like Cedar Rapids is figuring out how to attract a work force in the years ahead. It won’t happen unless cities add amenities, different and varied kinds of housing, including downtown housing, and attractions like the city’s proposed RiverWalk, he said. He noted that some of the city’s top employers have been helping work the Iowa Legislature to secure state help for the RiverWalk and downtown revitalization. The City Council has made it “crystal clear” that downtown revitalization is vital to its vision of the city as “a vibrant, urban hometown.”

— Halloran said young college graduates often feel they need to leave for places where they can earn more so they can pay off deep college debts.

— Prosser said city staff and the city’s two hospitals have been talking about the creation of a “hospital corridor” and the development of housing in that corridor to help with the hospitals’ work force needs.

— Prosser said the city was only as strong as its weakest neighborhood as is a block only as strong as its weakest home. “Neighborhoods: That’s where lives are shaped. That’s where kids grow up,” he said.

— Prosser said the Police Department was a “pretty resilient group,” suggesting that officers were working hard even if some in the department weren’t happy with some changes there.

— No, he didn’t expect to get an assistant city manager any time soon, calling it “a little indulgent for us to do that at this time.”

At the end, Prosser and Halloran were asked about the public comment period at City Council meetings in which the current council has decided not to engage in back-and-forth interaction with the people making comments.

Prosser said he wanted to drive home the point that citizens have numerous ways to interact with his staff and council members other than the public comment period at two council meetings a month.

Halloran noted that many of the items raised during public comment periods are “operational” questions. By that, she means questions about the day-to-day operation of city government that are the responsibility of the city manager and his staff.

It’s not different at council meetings, Halloran told the audience, than it had been just then, during the State of the City question-and-answer session. That’s why Prosser talked most, she said.