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Archive for August, 2008|Monthly archive page

Calm replaces crisis on temporary-housing front as easy-to-pound FEMA delivers

In City Hall, FEMA, Floods, Monica Vernon on August 28, 2008 at 3:40 pm

Say what you will about FEMA.

The federal agency, which by most accounts stumbled badly in the Hurricane Katrina disaster of 2005, seemingly has delivered in Flood Cedar Rapids. The final analysis, of course, won’t be known for months or years.

But FEMA this week announced that it has provided or will provide within days a FEMA manufactured home to each of 435 households who asked for one.

This goal was met even as Cedar Rapids City Council members were still worrying that those displaced from June’s flood would be left homeless come winter.

The goal was met despite the fact that FEMA had to remove some 300 homes it had brought into the state of Iowa after questions were raised by Lt. Gov. Patty Judge and Mayor Kay Halloran about mold in an exterior compartment of some models of FEMA homes.

This goal was met even after FEMA agreed to try to purchase manufactured homes from Midwest dealerships rather than hauling the homes into Iowa from large FEMA stocks of homes in Arkansas, Maryland and elsewhere.

FEMA still has not reported on a bid process, which ended last week, to find Midwest-based homes.

FEMA representatives report that FEMA continues to bring about 15 FEMA homes into the state a day to meet the larger disaster-relief need for temporary housing in the state of Iowa. FEMA adds that it will have homes available should additional need arise in Linn County.

City Council member Monica Vernon and Linda Langston, chairwoman of the Linn County Board of Supervisors, both expect more people will seek FEMA homes in the upcoming weeks as those now living with family and friends look for other arrangements.

Nonetheless, Jim Ernst, president/CEO of Four Oaks and the Affordable Housing Network, told the City Council Wednesday evening that it should not be “overly concerned” about the need to find more temporary housing.

“I don’t think right now that is a critical issue,” Ernst said.

He noted that FEMA had provided 4,600 households with rental assistance of two months or more since the flood. FEMA reports that some of those households continue to receive rental assistance other than in FEMA homes, while others have returned to their homes or have found permanent residence elsewhere.

Flood victims in need of temporary housing can contact FEMA at 1-866-274-4392 or 1-800-621-FEMA.

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Post-flood parking plan for downtown, including next week’s registration for monthly parkers, put on hold. Parking remains free for September

In City Hall, Floods on August 28, 2008 at 2:44 pm

Downtown parkers, take a breath.

The city will continue free, post-flood parking downtown throughout September.

In addition, the city’s plan to register existing monthly parkers and new ones, which was slated for next week, now has been postponed until late September, the city reports.

The city says the delay in implementing a new post-flood parking strategy is a result of a delay in restoring utility service to the city parkades.

The proposed new parking plan, which may yet be modified by the City Council, includes reducing monthly rates to $30; adding more parking on First Street SE and the Second and Third Avenue bridges by changing parallel parking to angle parking; and allowing only contractors to park on Second and Third avenues in the near-term.

Mayor Halloran works Mayor Nagin for help in securing Congressional cash

In City Hall, Floods, Mayor Kay Halloran on August 27, 2008 at 3:50 pm

Disasters can turn distant mayors into friends. If not allies.

In that regard, Mayor Kay Halloran apparently is a bit of a buddy these days with Ray Nagin, the mayor of Hurricane Katrina-damaged New Orleans.

Halloran revealed this week that she and Nagin have spoken via phone several times since Cedar Rapids’ historic flood in June.

Nagin was on the line again Monday, the mayor reports.

In a written note back to Nagin, Halloran thanks Nagin for the call, and then gets to the point.

Cedar Rapids, she writes, needs the state of Louisiana’s Congressional delegation to join with Iowa’s in an effort in September to have Congress pass a significant, supplemental appropriations bill that would send disaster-relief money to Cedar Rapids and New Orleans.

Halloran also asks Nagin to push for federal tax relief for Iowa residents and businesses similar to federal legislation passed to help New Orleans after Katrina hit in 2005.

“Time is of the essence,” Halloran writes.

She says Iowa’s Congressional delegation cannot “carry the water alone” in fighting for a supplemental funding for disaster relief.

“The prayers of thanksgiving are for the fact that we had no loss of life. In that respect we are luckier than your city,” Halloran tells Nagin.

Conflicting numbers on housing need prompt some City Council head-scratching

In City Hall, FEMA, Floods, Justin Shields, Kris Gulick, Monica Vernon on August 27, 2008 at 2:58 am

The numbers don’t always add up. But they all tell the same story: June’s historic flood hit Cedar Rapids hard. It damaged some thousands of homes. It displaced thousands of people. And of that number, some still need temporary housing, and some will need permanent housing.

This week, the City Council was left to scratch its head a little after one of the city’s consultants in recent days had concluded that the city needed 1,000 temporary housing units by the time the snow flies.

On Monday, though, a representative of the Federal Emergency Management Agency updated the council on the temporary housing matter. He reported that as of late last week, flood victims in Cedar Rapids and Linn County now were occupying 359 temporary FEMA manufactured homes, and another 152 victims had requested the homes and were in line to get them. He suggested it would take FEMA 10 more days to meet the need and to have all 511 households seeking temporary housing placed in FEMA homes.

This report perplexed some on the City Council, wondering how its consultant, Maxfield Research Inc. of Minneapolis, had said the city still needed 1,000 more temporary housing units, and FEMA was reporting the it had nearly satisfied all who were seeking such temporary housing.

Furthermore, all residents of flood-hit Palo in Linn County who had requested temporary housing had been placed in temporary housing, FEMA reported.

Council member Monica Vernon called the disparity in numbers “curious.”

Council member Justin Shields asked Vernon where she thought all the other displaced flood victims were, and Vernon suspected some entitled to FEMA temporary housing support hadn’t signed up and some didn’t know they could.

Council member Kris Gulick suspected that some are expecting to get back into their flood-damaged homes by winter and so have not signed up for temporary housing. Even so, he thought the gap between Maxfield’s 1,000 units and FEMA’s 511 was big enough that it was worth investigating.

City Manager Jim Prosser said city staff was working with the United Way to investigate under-reporting of needs.

Despite the lack of clarity on the data, the City Council on Wednesday evening will decide if it wants to approve a resolution calling for the city to set a target of 1,000 units of temporary housing to be in place for Cedar Rapids residents by Nov. 1.

The FEMA representative this week noted that those in 13 households continued to reside in the Crowne Plaza Five Seasons Hotel in downtown Cedar Rapids, where they chose to seek temporary housing after a first batch of FEMA homes were found to have some mold in an exterior compartment. Those are 13 additional households that will need different temporary housing in the weeks ahead.

This week’s council resolution on temporary housing states that 5,390 homes had varying levels of flood damage and more than 18,000 residents were displaced from their places of residents at least for a time.

Earlier this month, the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, a joint venture of two Iowa think tanks looking at flood-recovery needs, estimated that more than 12,000 residents were displaced in Cedar Rapids by the flood.

Byrd, Pelosi, Rangel: Local flood-relief effort faces need to convince big players in Congressional appropriations

In City Hall, Floods, Justin Shields, Kris Gulick, Monica Vernon on August 26, 2008 at 3:21 am

Iowa’s U.S. Senators, Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin, have plenty of Senate seniority and, with that, big shoulders to help carry the requests of a flood-damaged Cedar Rapids and a flood-damaged Iowa.

But members of the Cedar Rapids City Council, with the guidance of a K Street lobbyist in Washington, D.C., talked on Monday about the need to lean on more than just Harkin and Grassley and the city’s first-term Congressman, Dave Loebsack, from Mount Vernon.

What’s needed, too, is for Cedar Rapids to work some key Congressional giants — Sen. Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee; Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee; and Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaker of the House — if the city is going to land some quick, substantial, supplemental funding to help with its disaster relief.

“We’re playing in the big leagues now,” council member Justin Shields said. “We’re not playing in hopes and maybes.”

With the help of advice from lobbyist Mary Langowski, managing director of Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal LLP, the City Council plotted strategy for what it might be able to do next month to secure funds for the city’s post-flood recovery.

Langowski called the last three weeks of September “do or die,” the time when Congress goes back into session before it adjourns to compete in the November elections.

The hope is that Sen. Harkin and Sen. Byrd will be able to put forth a supplemental spending bill with a formidable package of funds for Iowa’s flood relief. Also in that bill, as now envisioned, will be $182 million for a long-sought new federal courthouse in Cedar Rapids. The existing courthouse along the Cedar River was flooded and needs, according to the city’s numbers, as much as $15 million in flood-related renovations.

Langowski was promising nothing about what might come in September. To provide some comfort, she noted that substantial amounts of Congressional funding continue to go to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast three years after Hurricane Katrina hit there. And Langowski imagined that the city of Cedar Rapids, similarly, will be seeking and receiving federal earmarks for flood relief in three years and more into the future.

The council spent some time talking about what kind of local delegation should venture to Washington, D.C., in September to lobby face-to-face. It sounds like a couple council members, a couple of Linn County supervisors and a couple business leaders will be in the mix. Langowski said she would take them from Harkin and Grassley and Loebsack to the offices of key members of the Senate and House appropriations committees.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi is slated to be in Iowa on Sept. 8, and Langowski advised the city of Cedar Rapids to prepare for any trip to Cedar Rapids with sites of flood damage to see and flood stories to hear.

Langowski wondered if Barak Obama was headed back to Iowa or if anyone had good ties to Sen. Joe Biden, Obama’s running mate.

Council members Monica Vernon and Kris Gulick liked the idea of seeing just what kind of contacts that corporations in Cedar Rapids might have in other Congressional districts across the nation, and if any of those districts had members on the House Ways & Means Committee.

Much of the talk was about Democrats, in part, surely, because the Democrats control both houses of Congress.

Langowski’s biography — 1999 graduate of Drake University; a masters in public administration from Drake, 2005; law degree from the University of Iowa, 2007 — includes a stint as senior policy advisor for Sen. Harkin.

Langowksi noted Monday that Sen. Grassley and Rep. Loebsack also are working on tax-relief legislation, which would, in part, provide more low-income housing tax credits to Iowa to help cities like Cedar Rapids build more affordable housing to replace what was lost in the June flooding. Support for the legislation wasn’t a sure thing, Langowski said.

At the same time as it works Congress, the city of Cedar Rapids is readying to work Gov. Chet Culver and the Iowa Legislature to try to find some revenue support from state government. Larry Murphy, a lobbyist, former state lawmaker and mayor of Oelwein, is helping.

Murphy said chances for a special legislative session have moved from doubtful to an open question for now.

Some of what the city is seeking is ambitious and seems reflective of the size of the disaster here and the amount of money it is going to take to get beyond it.

One idea, for instance, would be for the state of Iowa to allow all the state income tax paid by Cedar Rapids residents to come back to a special fund in Cedar Rapids for use in disaster relief for five years.

The city also is seeking permission to raise local revenue via sources in addition to local property taxes. Imagine a local income tax, or at least a local income for non-resident workers. Other ideas include a local sales tax without referendum, a local entertainment tax, a wheel tax and a tobacco tax. This push for alternative revenue was considered by the Iowa Legislature this spring, before the flood, without success.

Dust settles on the week: Testy Shields and Vernon get some of what they want

In City Hall, Floods, Justin Shields, Monica Vernon on August 23, 2008 at 4:30 am

Just who is the boss in a council/manager government is a question that probably never is answered for too long before it starts to get asked again.

Is the boss the city manager, who runs the day-to-day operation of the city and the city staff, or the part-time council, which ponders and defines policy?

The sometimes-murky lines between the two power centers makes for a natural tension. And this seems at the heart of a recent push by council members Monica Vernon, a business owner and a recent former president of the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, and Justin Shields, retired from Quaker Oats and president of the Hawkeye Labor Council.

Vernon and Shields seem to be focused on a couple things: That the city manager, his staff and an assortment of consultants and local advisers are doing a lot in this period of post-flood recovery, but maybe aren’t providing enough information to the City Council about it all; and that most on the council don’t seem to notice.

That council majority doesn’t feel the same way.

A tension surfaced a few weeks ago when Vernon suggested that the council endorse a plan by some of the community’s private-sector leaders, who have wanted to create some sort of flood recovery corporation to try to bring more and different players and resources into the flood recovery effort.

At the time, Shields supported the idea, but most of the rest on the council didn’t think much of it.

A couple weeks ago, too, Vernon asked just how long the council was going to keep the city in a state of emergency, a state that provided the city manager and mayor with extra power and allowed an expedited process to make purchases and sign contracts.

A week ago, an impatient Shields demanded a vote on ending the state of emergency; demanded a vote on the private-sector help; insisted on having the council vote on opening up boat ramps into the Cedar River so boaters could use it before the end of the summer season; and insisted that the council hire its own administrative assistant to help support the part-time council to keep it better informed.

A tension was noticeable in smallish things, too: A week ago, for instance, the council was told about the creation of a Replacement Housing Task Force, and Vernon made it clear the City Council would be interviewing and appointing the members, not anyone else.

Then this Wednesday, Vernon confessed impatience when she accused City Manager Jim Prosser and his staff of taking up valuable council meeting time with a presentation from a city-hired contractor/consultant that is helping the city certify contractors and issue permits in the rebuilding process.

Vernon called the whole thing “a dog-and-pony show” that was wasting council time.

Once the dust settled Wednesday evening, Vernon and Shields had gotten some of what they asked for.

The council agreed to end most of the city’s state of emergency. The emergency will continue for a few things — a curfew in the flood areas, for instance.

The council also agreed to support the private-sector creation of an Economic Planning and Redevelopment Corp., which its community advocates are expected to move on in a couple weeks.

However, the council did not snatch control of the city’s boat ramps from the fire chief. Instead, the council decided to leave a decision about the safety of the river up to the chief. Prosser noted that the fire chief works for him, not the council. In any event, the fire chief concluded that the river was clear of flood debris, and he ordered the boat ramps opened on Friday.

The council also rejected Shields’ call for a council assistant.

Vernon and Shields are hardly odd balls or extremists.

If nothing else, their agitation can’t have helped but force the council to contemplate the relationship anew between city manager and council in the city’s council/manager government, which is not yet three years old.

Maybe ending most the city’s state of emergency made sense, too.

In a presentation this week by the Institute of Building Technology and Safety (IBTS), Herndon, Va., neither Vernon — this is the what she called the dog-and-pony show — nor Shields was entirely sure what the outside contractor/consultant was actually doing for the city.

Christine Butterfield, the city’s community development director, pointed out that the council just in July had approved the hiring of IBTS for a year.

The approval came the night of July 16 as part of the council’s consent agenda, the part of the agenda that the council approves without discussion. The IBTS contract cost: $911,716.

On that July 16 evening, the council had plenty of other matters related to flood recovery to keep their attention. The council listened to a presentation by key city consultants, Sasaki Associates Inc., Watertown, Mass., and JLG Architects, Grand Forks, N.D., about future flood control and river corridor redevelopment. And the council debated and agreed to spend up to $3 million for a Job and Small Business Recovery Fund.

McGrane leans on council pulpit to talk about life as flood victim: offers new pieces of advice

In City Hall, Floods, Jerry McGrane on August 22, 2008 at 4:12 pm

Council member Jerry McGrane took a minute at this week’s council meeting to update the council and the public about his own life as a flood victim and his own interactions with constituents and others who are flood victims, too.

McGrane is willing to say what some might not be willing to say.

McGrane, for instance, encouraged those still rattled by the upheaval caused by the June flood to take advantage of both financial counseling and mental health counseling.

“I’ve done both, and I think I’m gaining on the mental health part,” McGrane said.

“I really would like people to do that,” he continued. “It’s going to be a tough year. They (the counselors) know what they’re doing. It sure helps to go talk to them.”

McGrane’s house in the Oak Hill Neighborhood is at 1018 Second St. SE, and it faces the Cedar River across the city’s expansive Park & Ride lot. It got hammered pretty good.

McGrane this week also cautioned flood victims — in particular, the few thousand outside the 100-year flood plain who also saw extensive flood damage — to be careful about selling their houses for 10 to 20 cents on the dollar to the first person who shows up.

“Take time when it comes to selling your homes,” he said. “There are a lot of speculators out there. … It’s a sad deal to see people who are selling their houses for little or nothing.”

Finally, McGrane called on the city to figure out a way to mow lawns in the flood areas rather than pushing flood victims to get back into the neighborhoods and do the work themselves. McGrane noted that, like many others, he lost his mower as well as the shed in which the mower was in during the flood.

He suggested that the city hire youngsters to do the work.

Vernon’s impatience begs the question: Do CR council meetings make for quality TV?

In City Hall, Floods, Justin Shields, Monica Vernon on August 21, 2008 at 6:52 pm

Put a TV camera in front of public officials, elected or not, and behavior can change a little.

How could it not? After all, who doesn’t stand taller or smile broader when the in-laws have the camera out during the holidays?

The best examples of what a TV camera can do are those C-SPAN channels on cable TV. There it is commonplace to capture members of Congress going on as if the entire House or Senate chamber is loaded with colleagues hanging on every syllable. In fact, the chambers are usually empty.

In that regard, it’s not hard to imagine that meetings of the nine-member Cedar Rapids City Council, which routinely now stretch to three and a half or even four hours, might run a little shorter but for the TV camera.

If you didn’t know, the council meetings are taped for rebroadcast on the local cable channel, and because it is a delayed broadcast, council members and city officials can go home and watch themselves the next night.

It’s never been very clear if many residents actually watch the council meeting rebroadcasts, and the times The Gazette has tried to poll people, typically only a few percent say they ever watch the things with any frequency.

In any event, the phenomenon of the camera might be a little bit what council member Monica Vernon was getting at Wednesday evening during a presentation from City Manager Jim Prosser’s staff and one of the city’s flood-recovery consultants, the Institute of Building Technology and Safety, Herndon, Va.

The IBTS brought three different representatives to the microphone to talk about what the non-profit organization is and does. The group talked about their work in other disasters and complimented the city of Cedar Rapids for how well it was doing in coming to grips with its flood disaster.

Then Vernon started in, saying, “I hate to rain on your parade,” adding she didn’t quite understand what the presentation was intended to accomplish.

Vernon said she didn’t have time to listen to a presentation about the IBTS’s resume. She said she wanted to know this: “What have you done for the city of Cedar Rapids?”

Why was the intent of the presentation? she added. What about the pitch required council discussion or council action?

Vernon said she was sure “these are nice people,” but she said meetings of a part-time council in a time of disaster recovery are times to discuss important matters.

“I’m losing my patience with (presentations) that take 30 minutes that are basically dog-and-pony shows,” she said.

It should be a good TV rebroadcast.

As interesting in this discussion were comments from council member Justin Shields, who also was a bit perplexed about just what IBTS is doing for the city and just when the council signed on with the group.

Christine Butterfield, the city’s community development director, noted that the council had approved a year-long contract with IBTS in July.

At the lead of a couple of council members, City Manager Jim Prosser explained that the consulting group is helping the city handle the high volume of traffic in the city’s building and permitting operation that comes with rebuilding after a disaster.

One thing these meeting presentations never mention — and no one on the council ever asks about — is the cost.

According to city records, the council approved a one-year contract on July 16 with IBTS for $911,716.

The contract was an item on the council’s consent agenda, the part of the agenda which the council approves without public discussion.

More public employees not eligible for OT pay get extra flood cash

In Cedar Rapids/Linn County Solid Waste Agency, City Hall, Floods, Justin Shields, Linn County government, Mayor Kay Halloran on August 20, 2008 at 4:15 am

Seven employees at the Cedar Rapids/Linn County Solid Waste Agency who are not eligible for overtime pay will be getting an average of $3,000 in extra pay each for extra work performed during June’s historic flood.

In this regard, the agency is following the city of Cedar Rapids, which has decided to pay 167 similarly situated employees for extra work performed during the flood and the recovery. The city expects the extra pay will reach to a total of $400,000 for those employees.

On Tuesday, the Solid Waste Agency Board voted unanimously to approve the extra pay for the seven agency employees. Karmin McShane, the agency’s executive director, asked for the funds. One of the seven presumably is her.

She told the agency’s board that she had consulted with the agency’s attorney, Ivan Webber of Des Moines, who said the extra pay was allowed as “uncompensated work outside of normal duty.”

Likewise, the Cedar Rapids City Council also had voted unanimously on the matter for city employees a couple weeks ago.

On Tuesday, Mayor Kay Halloran, a Solid Waste Agency board member, asked McShane if she wanted “to get into as much controversy as we did?” She was referring to some who had criticized the City Council’s earlier move.

Justin Shields, a Cedar Rapids council member and a Solid Waste Agency board member, said the extra pay was entirely called for.

“We were in an extreme emergency,” Shields said in explaining his reasoning for approving extra pay for city employees — many of them management employees — not eligible for overtime pay. He said he supposed the city could have gone out and hired more people, but instead the employees on staff agreed to do the work. The employees not eligible for overtime worked without expecting extra pay, he said. They showed loyalty, and so should the city and the Solid Waste Agency, Shields said.

Jim Houser, a Linn County supervisor on the agency board, noted that the county decided not to pay its managers more because the county did not have a policy in place to address such extra pay. McShane said the agency didn’t have a policy either.

Houser added that county employees not eligible for overtime will have the ability to get “adequate time off” for the extra time they put in.

Pat Ball, the city of Cedar Rapids’ utilities director and agency board member, said the city gave that approach some thought, but concluded that those ineligible for overtime who worked so many hours as a result of the flood are still needed and wouldn’t have time to take extra time off work.

The city of Cedar Rapids has estimated that it paid $1.5 million to overtime-eligible employees during the flood and in the early recovery from it.