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

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‘Staggering’ disaster costs are like a Twilight Zone; City Hall bidding on two costly contracts should help cut through one piece of the mystery

In City Hall, Floods, Monica Vernon on September 22, 2008 at 1:24 am

It’s as if the value of money loses its understandability when it comes to funding wars, Wall Street bailouts and national disasters.

The talk now is $700 billion for the latest rescue of Wall Street firms. Hasn’t the war in Iraq exceeded a trillion dollars? And locally, City Hall says June’s historic flood has caused a half-billion dollars in damage just to city-owned buildings and facilities.

Cedar Rapids City Manager Jim Prosser used the word “staggering” last week to describe the costs facing City Hall, not to mention that building a system of flood protection for the city is apt to cost $1 billion here. Most of that would be paid by Uncle Sam.

Frankly, the eyes glaze over. So fantastic are the numbers that it’s easy to simply ignore them. It’s like a Twilight Zone.

Last week, council member Monica Vernon said the City Council shouldn’t just build any flood-protection system. She wanted to see what she called “cool” features built into a system, which would attract people and employers and keep the ones who are here already. What’s another $50 million, she suggested, when the plan is talking about $1 billion in protection.

It is into this fiscal fantasyland that the news media last week landed on a number that seemed to be one that, finally, someone could get hands around.

City Hall, it turns out, is paying Globe Midwest Risk Management, of Southfield, Mich., $475 an hour for its top manager, John Levy, to help the city oversee cleanup and the hiring of flood-recovery contractors. Working under Levy, other Globe Midwest staffers are being paid $385 an hour, $325 an hour and $275 an hour.

In the first three months after the June flood, the city has paid Globe Midwest about $691,000.

A second company, Adjusters International, has been working in tandem with Globe Midwest. The city, though, is paying Adjusters International only $285 an hour for its top staff member, not the $475 that Globe Midwest gets.

At the three-month date since the June flood, the city has paid Adjusters International an estimated $645,000, the city reported.

Late last week, City Manager Prosser defended the hiring of Globe Midwest and Adjusters International, saying the companies have saved the city several million dollars by cutting pork out of contractors’ contracts and by extracting more from FEMA than FEMA was readying to pay for certain damage.

Prosser, who had been a financial consultant for a number of years before taking the Cedar Rapids city manager’s post in August 2006, also said that the pickings are kind of slim when it comes to disaster services. There aren’t that many firms that provide the services, he said. He called it the law of “supply and demand:” You pay when demand outstrips supply.

But like the numbers related to the Iraq war and the current Wall Street bailout, it’s hard to really know what is happening.

One thing does seem clear. Globe Midwest and Adjusters International showed up in the very first days after flood waters pounded Cedar Rapids in June. There does not appear to have been any bidding procedure at a time when the city declared a state of emergency. Prosser said other firms were reviewed.

In contrast, a different thing is happening now.

Prosser said the city now is moving into a second phase of post-flood recovery, and as a result, the city is seeking bids for the work Globe Midwest and Adjusters International have been doing for the city.

Five companies are competing for the contract Adjusters International has, and bids on the contract that Globe Midwest has had must be submitted by Monday, Sept. 22.

This bidding is for professional services, so more is involved in awarding a contract than just cost.

A short review of the bids of Adjusters and the five companies bidding against it show that City Hall is going to get a better idea of just what the marketplace considers to be a reasonable cost for the service.

One bidder is an Iowa consulting company from West Des Moines. Its bid looks significantly less costly than the others. For starters, they don’t factor in airfare costs for staff to fly home periodically during the six months of the contract. Adjusters International says the airfare cost along could be $50,000, and another bidder estimated it would be in the $40,000 range.

What will be interesting, too, is to see if the City Council actually has a public discussion about the award of the contract, and if the discussion raises the question of whether the city would be further ahead by hiring a few employees to do the work.

Last week, Prosser said there were no sufficiently trained people in Cedar Rapids to do the work, and if there were, they’d be working for the consultants bidding for the work.

Both Prosser and Casey Drew, the city’s finance director, both noted in The Gazette last week that Globe Midwest and Adjusters International might cost some money but they were saving the city money.

This prompted a call from retired businessman Vern Dostal, who wanted to share an old story.

Dostal talked about the guy whose wife pleaded to buy a diamond necklace because the price had been dropped by $5,000. Then she begged for a fur coat because its price had been reduced by $10,000. And the same was true for a new Mercedes Benz. Finally, the guy says, “Honey, I don’t think I can afford to save any more money.”

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Surprising neighborhood-building legacy taking shape for Paul Pate

In Brian Fagan, City Hall, Paul Pate on September 18, 2008 at 2:46 am

It was nice seeing Paul Pate last week.

Pate, the city’s last full-time mayor under its former commission form of government, turned out for the city’s open house at the Crowne Plaza Five Seasons Hotel to see what options the city’s team of consultants had come up with to protect the city against future floods.

Pate was in blue suit and tie, nicely tanned and in good cheer. He always did have a great laugh.

Talking to him was a reminder that both he and Lee Clancey, whom Pate unseated as mayor in 2001, liked a city form of government that featured a full-time mayor along with a city manager or city administrator.

The city’s Home Rule Charter Commission, though, opted for a “weak-mayor” form of government with a part-time mayor and council and full-time city manager. It is the option cities have chosen over the years, seeing it as a little longer on professional management and a little shorter on local politics.

Pate, who served as mayor from 2002 through 2005, chose not to run for the part-time post once voters decided in a referendum in 2005 to go that route. He’s back running his asphalt company.

Though not in city office, Pate actually is having a city legacy created for him in the aftermath of June’s flooding.

The City Council now is moving aggressively to bring to life a neighborhood-building initiative that Pate, though he didn’t create the idea, near single-handedly insisted on bringing to life in his last year in office in 2005.

The initiative is called HAND – Housing and Neighborhood Development. It consists of the city using city money to buy up vacant lots in a 14-block area of the Oak Hill Neighborhood. Money also is available to help provide incentives for builders and homebuyers to make the new homes “attainable” and perhaps “affordable” for those who otherwise couldn’t afford them.

One home has been built to date, but Skogman Homes this week now has said it will build the next 11. The goal is for a total of 50 new homes.

It seems an improbable legacy for Pate, a pretty conservative Republican in a universe where inventive inner-city housing initiatives often are thought to come from Democrats. Beyond that, Cedar Rapids City Hall really has not invested itself much in housing matters using city funds.

But Pate, a former state senator, former Iowa Secretary of State and one-time Republican candidate for governor, did an unexpected thing. Actively participating in the U.S. Conference of Mayors when he was mayor, he got himself named as co-chairman of a national task force on homelessness and hunger. That made him determined to take a step to implement a program in Cedar Rapids to address what he was dealing with on a national level.

To commit city funding for HAND was no easy task for Pate in 2005 in a tight-budget time among a five-member City Council members scrambling to find money for firefighters, police officers and all the rest. It was not a unanimous vote in favor of Pate’s plan.

This week, at Wednesday evening’s council meeting, council member Brian Fagan noted that the HAND idea had, to date, been an “underperforming” one. And Fagan added that another model might be worth exploring down the road in other neighborhoods. But Fagan called the Skogman plan to build 11 homes in the HAND district an “exciting” one.

Both Don Canney and Sarah Palin have had a bridge issue: Cedar Rapids happy with its ‘Bridge to Nowhere’

In City Hall on September 14, 2008 at 11:49 pm

It is worth noting what with Sarah Palin slated to stop in Cedar Rapids on Thursday:

Cedar Rapids’ mayoral legend, Don Canney, and Palin, former mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, had something in common back in late 2006 when Palin was running for governor of Alaska. Of course, she’s now running for vice president.

In late 2006, both Canney and Palin were former mayors who had been strong advocates of a Bridge to Nowhere.

In Canney’s case, it was back in 1969, during his first run for mayor back, when he faced down criticism for his bridge, which one of his election opponents coined the Bridge to Nowhere.

Canney, though, convinced voters that it made sense for the city of Cedar Rapids to build a new bridge over the Cedar River on Edgewood Road, even though there was still sparse development in the area. The bridge opened the next year, Canney continued as mayor until he stepped down in 1992, and his belief in his bridge never flagged.

“That’s an area where you can see how the lives of future generations have changed with one project. You take away that bridge, you wouldn’t have that development,” Canney said of the Edgewood Road bridge when he left the mayor’s post in 1992.

There’s no dispute in most mainstream news accounts that Sarah Palin, John McCain’s running mate and governor of Alaska, was among the advocates for Alaska’s Bridge to Nowhere in late 2006 as she campaigned for governor.

Then the bridge, which was in line for $223 million in federal funds, became one of the often-mentioned examples of federal pork-barrel spending.

(Another example of much-maligned federal pork was the $50 million secured for Iowa’s indoor rainforest project. The project has never been built and most of the federal money never spent.)

Projects that get slipped into Congressional bills are now well-known as “earmarks.”

Eventually, Sarah Palin turned against Alaska’s Bridge to Nowhere. The bridge was not built and money for it reportedly was spent on other Alaska projects.

What no one ever says much about, though, is why Palin and one Alaska’s Senators and its Congressman favored Alaska’s Bridge to Nowhere in the first place.

The Alaska bridge must have been a good idea in the minds of Palin and others when they supported it.

News accounts note that the proposed bridge was called the Gravina Island Bridge, and it was intended to connect the town of Ketchikan, population about 14,000, to Gravina Island, home to about 50 people and to Ketchikan’s airport.

The island and airport, which served 222,249 passengers in 2007, currently are served by a ferry. (By way of comparison, the Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids handled 1,061,052 passengers in 2007.)

According to reports, the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities said the bridge’s intent was to provide better service to the airport and to promote development on the island.

Those are reasons.

Is there no sense of decency? Rant at City Council reaches new level of incivility

In Brian Fagan, City Hall on September 11, 2008 at 7:35 pm

Are City Council meetings supposed to be frightening?

Can a City Council ban someone from meetings?

Wednesday evening’s council meeting turned uncomfortable — frightening even — for about five minutes during an hour-long public comment period with 100 or more people in the audience and with little anyone seemed able to do.

At one point, Brian Fagan, who was leading the meeting as mayor pro tem, warned against comments that were personal in nature.

At one point, too, Police Chief Greg Graham, in uniform, and a second uniformed officer, whom Graham had eyeballed across the room and signaled to come to the front of the room, both got up and edged closer to the lectern.

By then, the speaker, former City Council candidate Robert Bates, closed his presentation, said he would be back next week, and walked out. The chief and officer followed him out, but Bates got in his truck and drove off.

Bates’ presentation had been wandering, ineffective, intimidating, abusive, finger-pointing and, at-times, podium-thumping. He used profanity, yelling and what sounded like sexual references, and at times addressed specific, pointed, personal attacks at council members and someone from Minnesota, which apparently was the city manager.

In the geography of the council’s temporary meeting place — the auditorium at AEGON USA, 4333 Edgewood Rd. NE — City Manager Jim Prosser sits closest, which is close, to the podium from which the public and city staff addresses the council.

Bates is no stranger to council meetings, and when there, usually comments from the podium. A big man, he sometimes refers to the time he spent in prison, a reference he made again Wednesday evening.

Perhaps his most spectacular outburst to date came at a City Hall session last fall in which a citizen successfully challenged signatures on Bates’ petitions, which denied him a place on the ballot for the 2007 city election ballot.

Now he may have new reason to be unhappy. He was flooded from his house on First Street NW, which faces the Cedar River levee.

One theme of his message Wednesday evening seemed to be that the council wasn’t doing enough.

Shey compares Mayor Halloran to Gen. U.S. Grant; small-business group OK with mayor’s ‘No’ vote

In City Hall, Mayor Kay Halloran, Pat Shey on September 10, 2008 at 12:25 pm

Council member Pat Shey drags out the history references with some regularity. And he did again Tuesday during a conversation about City Hall that turned briefly to Mayor Kay Halloran and her sometime penchant to drift off for few seconds during public meetings.

KGAN-TV Channel 2 has been beating hard on the mayor about nodding off, and Shey reported that he declined Channel 2’s offer to get excited about the mayor on camera.

On Tuesday, Shey called the mayor matter a “non-story.” He also bristled a bit about the news media and why it wasn’t doing a better job of covering the City Council and all it was discussing about sustainable development and the future.

Shey also was chiding his own council colleagues for using council meetings to speechify and blab and for not staying focused on the post-flood tasks at hand.

As for the mayor, Shey noted that the city’s still-new, council/manager government is designed to make the part-time mayor little different than the other eight part-time council mayors.

The setup is referred to as a “weak mayor” form of government. The mayor has one vote like the others. She has no veto power. The “strong mayor” form of government, which the city’s Charter Commission did not choose back in 2005, features a full-time mayor who has veto power.

It is not true now, Shey said, that “the city going to hell because the mayor nods off once in awhile” or “that Nero is fiddling while Rome burns.”

“She puts in a full day,” Shey said of the mayor. “There are eight others of us on the council. She’s said all along, ‘I’m one of nine.’ If she nods off once in awhile, is that really impacting how the body works as a whole? I don’t think it does.”

Shey said the whole matter reminded him of Abe Lincoln, who was called on to get rid of Gen. Ulysses Grant because of an issue particular to Grant. He drank some.

“Maybe I should get my other generals casks of whiskey,” Shey said Lincoln responded.

The conclusion: “It’s not impacting his performance. He gets the job done.”

The Channel 2 TV news reporting on the mayor began at last week’s council meeting.

At that meeting, Mayor Halloran cast the lone “no” vote against the council’s decision to release the final $2 million of $3 million in city funds to support a local Job & Small Business Recovery Fund.

Gary Ficken, who is president of the new Cedar Rapids Small Business Recovery group, wasn’t pleased with Halloran immediately after the vote. This is the same Ficken, owner of flood-hit Bimm Ridder Sportswear, who helped run Halloran’s mayoral campaign in 2005.

But on Tuesday, Ficken said he now understands the mayor’s vote.

She has called it symbolic. She knew the council majority was going to vote to release city funds for small business, and she wanted to issue a protest vote because the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce did not follow through and raise funds to match city funds, Halloran has said.

Both Ficken and Don Karr, owner of Affordable Plumbing and Remodeling and one of the founders of the Cedar Rapids Small Business Recovery group, both noted Tuesday that Halloran had donated $10,000 of her own money to the small business fund prior to her “no” vote last week.

Cedar Rapidians get shot at mastering a new skill: back-in angle parking

In Brian Fagan, Chuck Wieneke, City Hall, Downtown District, Jerry McGrane, Monica Vernon, Tom Podzimek on September 9, 2008 at 4:00 am

Sometimes it seems hard for nine people, the nine members of the City Council, to make a decision.

It seems, too, that it might be easier sometimes if they just ask the city’s experts what they think.

Take downtown parking.

It’s been little short of a free-for-all since the June flood.

No meters. No fees. No enforcement.

Giant on-street Dumpsters and disaster services crews have given way to contractors and big pickups as the downtown is in the initial throes of rebuilding what the flood damaged.

Behind the scenes, the city’s parking manager, one of its traffic engineers and the Downtown District’s executive had spent some weeks working to come up with a parking plan that might bring some order to the flood-damaged downtown as it rebuilds and comes back to life.

The hope was that a post-flood parking scheme might take affect Sept. 15. It’s been put off now until Oct. 1 at the earliest.

The plan features three components: a reduced rate for all monthly parkers; limiting parking on Second and Third Avenues SE and SW to construction vehicles and equipment; and changing parking on First Street SE and the Second Avenue and Third Avenue bridges to angle parking to add more spaces than the current parallel parking there. The extra spaces are needed because the city’s rickety, flood-hit First Street Parkade won’t reopen.

Once again, at an 8 a.m. Monday session, the City Council took on a discussion of the downtown parking matter. The discussion went an hour.

The heart of the discussion centered on angle parking and a concept foreign to Cedar Rapids — back-in angle parking.

Ron Griffith, a traffic engineer for the city, told the council that all the studies “emphatically” say that back-in angle parking results in fewer accidents than front-in angle parking.

Still, council members Jerry McGrane and Chuck Wieneke thought back-in angle parking was not something that local motorists, particularly older ones, wanted any part of.

Understand, too, this City Council for more than a year had had big hopes for revitalizing the downtown into a place of sidewalk cafes, bicycle routes, pedestrian strolls and slower traffic flow — angle parking helps slow traffic.

Many of those thoughts are still swirling as the council also is trying to get the disaster-hit downtown off its knees.

So council member Brian Fagan was asking what the new post-flood parking scheme might do for bicycles and sidewalk cafes, and council member Tom Podzimek was reminding council members not to forget the vision.

Meanwhile, council member Monica Vernon had Googled parking plans and had run on a few reports that suggested that back-in parking might not lead to more fender benders between cars, but cars hit parking meters more often, Vernon said she’d read.

At one point, someone suggested that the back-in approach made it easier for someone to put something in the trunk, while someone else said people in the downtown put items in side doors, not trunks.

None of the council members asked the city professional staff what they thought might be best.

Eventually, Vernon put her foot down and asked that the council not put off adopting some kind of parking strategy to await more data comparing accident rates of back-in verses front-in angle parking and so on.

Vernon said the council had bigger fish to fry, and in any event, the parking plan was an emergency one that would be sorted out and refined as contractors left the downtown and motorists got some experience with back-in angle parking.

Back-in angle parking it is, the council said.

You want to see it in action: The contractors along Second Avenue SE in the downtown started doing a couple weeks ago.

At meeting’s end Monday morning, the council said it supported construction zones on Second and Third Avenues and a reduced parking rate for monthly parkers as a way to keep businesses downtown.

It was still unclear if the pioneering, back-in angle parking for Cedar Rapids would be on one side or both sides of First Street SE between First and Seventh avenues SE. It will be on just one side of the Second and Third avenue bridges. Most of the back-in spots will be reserved for monthly parkers.

The city of Des Moines is one spot that has been trying back-in angle parking, and Gary Fox, that city’s traffic engineer, reported Monday it is working well in limited use in Des Moines.

Fox said the city of Des Moines is using the back-in angle parking on two downtown bridges, where most of the spaces are used by downtown employees. The spaces on the bridges are 12 feet wide or three feet wider than the typical angle parking space.

Fox said back-in angle parking also is used on a few other streets on the east side of the downtown across the Des Moines River from the core of the downtown.

Des Moines has an entertainment district on Court Avenue, which features front-in angle parking and sidewalk cafes. Fox said hitting outdoor diners with vehicle exhausts was why those angle parking spots have not be converted to back-in spaces.

Fox said traffic engineers increasingly have come to dislike the traditional front-in angle parking in an era of behemoth SUVs and pickup trucks. It is nearly impossible to see backing out of one of those spots, he said. It’s easier, he added, to drive straight out if you had backed in in the first place.

The city of Cedar Rapids’ Griffith said, in the end, back-in angle parking is really little different than traditional back-in parallel parking that all drivers had to learn before getting a driver’s license.

Doug Neumann, president/CEO of the Downtown District, said the district was eager to get a parking plan in place. Businesses have returned to many buildings above the ground floor, and some of them need parking spaces on the side streets — those will remain parallel parking with meters — for their clientele. Right now, downtown employees park in the unenforced spots and stay all day, Neumann said.

According to the city of Des Moines, several cities use back-in angle parking, including Seattle, Portland, Ore., Indianapolis, Salt Lake City, Tucson, Ariz., and Pottstown, Pa.