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

Archive for January, 2009|Monthly archive page

Council sends city staff to the wood shed over buyout letter; Read the letter for yourself

In Brian Fagan, City Hall, Floods, Tom Podzimek on January 31, 2009 at 12:08 pm

The City Council has gotten an earful in recent days from property owners apt to have their properties bought out in the future because they are will be in the way of the city’s proposed new flood protection system of levees and flood walls.

What got the phone ringing at City Hall was a letter — see it at these owners seeking signatures to allow permission for JCG Land Services Inc., of Nevada, Iowa, to enter on to their property.

To some homeowners, the letter was unclear and seemed to be seeking permission to allow some unknown company to invade a property to prepare for buyouts that the city has not yet committed to.

Jon Galvin, vice president of the Northwest Neighbors, fired off a letter to City Hall telling it to take care of first things first: Buy out the properties, and then worry about the rest.

Council members across the board acknowledged that the letter was less than artful, and council member Brian Fagan asked city staff to write a new, clearer one. There was the suggestion, too, that staff run a draft of such letters past a few citizens to see how the letter might be improved before launch.

Council member Tom Podzimek said the letter caused citizen headaches while a clearer letter would not have.

“This isn’t anything harmful,” Podzimek said of what the city is asking in the letter. The letter, he said, only makes it seem so.

The letter seeks to get permission from property owners so surveyors and geologists and others can walk on property to conduct tests needed to build a new flood system. Having to find a property owner – particularly when most of the properties are not inhabited – at the time the work is being conducted would add months to the work, city staff added.

Of the 750 or so parcels so far identified as ones slated for possible buyout in the future, 192 are in an area closest to the Cedar River that is proposed to become a greenway.

To date, 157 owners in the proposed greenway have signed buyout agreements with the city, 22 have declined and 13 have not been located.

Another 554 property owners likely will be subject to buyouts because they are in an area identified as a possible construction area for levees and  flood walls.

A third group of property owners also may have their homes bought out: Those are ones whose homes are beyond reasonable repair and are outside the proposed greenway or construction area.

As the city pursues federal money, the hope is that some will arrive to be used to buyout homes more quickly than had been thought, city officials have said. 


Followers of the East Post Road bridge flap: Here’s how bridge might look

In City Hall on January 30, 2009 at 1:37 pm

Here are images — 

 that the City Council looked at this week as it pushed the project ahead to replace the East Post Road bridge over Indian Creek.


The council broke 5-4 on keeping a sidewalk on the downstream side of the new bridge. It also will include a 14-foot trail on the upstream side.


There are formal council votes yet to come, so nothing is set in stone.


The images show the bridge now and renderings of what it might look like.


Both the trail and sidewalk are elevated six inches above the roadway to calm fears from citizens that the bridge one day will be converted to a four-lane structure.

Proposal for new dog park gets council member Podzimek howling

In Chuck Wieneke, City Hall, Justin Shields, Tom Podzimek on January 30, 2009 at 10:46 am

The city’s Parks and Recreation Department is proposing to spend $125,000 to create a new dog park on city property near the Gardner Golf Course at Highway 100 and Highway 13.

At a Thursday evening budget session, council member Tom Podzimek said the spot was far removed from most of Cedar Rapids and seemed, instead, a great place for the taxpayers of Cedar Rapids to pay to provide a dog park for the use of residents of Marion and Linn County. Council member Justin Shields agreed.

Julie Sina, the city’s parks and recreation director, noted that the dog community liked the site, and she pointed out that users pay a fee to use it.

That prompted Podzimek to suggest that non-residents should pay double what city residents pay for the use of such a facility. Taxpayers in Cedar Rapids pay for all kinds of services non-residents use with little or no cost, he lectured.

Sina noted that some of the city’s recreation programs do give discounts for Cedar Rapids residents.

For his part, Shields wasn’t sure about charging high extra fees to non-residents. He said it was unclear where such a practice would stop. Should nonresidents pay double to golf or to listen to the opera? he asked.

Council member Chuck Wieneke said the answer was a local employment tax, which he said would make people who work in Cedar Rapids but live elsewhere help pay for city services and amenities.

The council said it will make big decisions in the next week or two about its budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Property taxes are expected to jump because of the loss of revenue from properties damaged in the June flood and because of increased costs to the city associated with flood recovery.

City Hall doesn’t help itself on the consultant-bashing front

In City Hall, Floods on January 30, 2009 at 10:33 am

City Hall might have done a little better job on the timing of amendments to its contract with one of the city’s principal consultants, Sasaki Associates Inc., Watertown, Mass.

The contract includes at least 10 other professional firms that are working alongside Sasaki in the development of the city’s flood protection system and, now, on a neighborhood planning process.

The Boston-area firm has been a presence in Cedar Rapids since the June flood.

These things cost money.

That was clear in mid-December when the City Council amended Sasaki’s earlier contract with the city, adding $2.487 million to it and bringing the total to $3.943 million.

There was a news item about that.

Well, again this week, the council amended the contract, adding another $300,000 to it. The new amendment brings the total to $4,243,736.

The council agenda noted that total contract price in December. This week, the council agenda just noted the $300,000 figure.

Life was much different in the spring of 2008 when the City Council held a competition among riverfront design teams and selected Sasaki to create a downtown riverfront improvement plan for the city. Sasaki had done such work in Indianapolis, Cincinnati and many other places, and as council member Pat Shey pointed out at the time, Sasaki had just won a first-place design award for its work at the upcoming Beijing Summer Olympics.

The cost of the Sasaki contract at that time was $150,000. Then the June flood arrived.

Mayor Halloran reports: Council’s plan for now is a 5-year sales tax; 20% for property-tax relief, 80% for flood relief

In City Hall, Mayor Kay Halloran on January 29, 2009 at 1:24 pm

The Cedar Rapids City Council’s preliminary draft of ballot language for a March 3 local-option sales tax vote will ask voters in Cedar Rapids to approve the 1-percent tax for five years beginning April 1, Mayor Kay Halloran reports.

Additionally, the draft language calls on the revenue raised by the tax to be used in Cedar Rapids in two ways: 20 percent of the revenue would be used for property-tax relief; and 80 percent would be used for flood protection and for the acquisition and rehabilitation of flood-damaged housing, the mayor said.

Halloran noted that the language is in draft form and could change.

The Cedar Rapids City Council indicated Wednesday evening that it is at the ready to put a local-option sales tax on the ballot March 3.

It is awaiting word from Des Moines to see if the Iowa House follows the Iowa Senate and gives the city and others in disaster areas permission to set aside current timing procedures and get the measure on the ballot on March 3.

The legislative measure, as now written, would require cities intending on a March 3 vote to approve a measure by Tuesday, Feb. 3.

Halloran said the City Council is prepared to vote to put the measure on the ballot before the Feb. 3 deadline once the Legislature approves it and the governor signs it. Halloran has said the governor has told her he will sign the measure.

A 1-percent tax is expected to raise between $18 million and $23 million for the city of Cedar Rapids, city officials have estimated.

Much-fussed-over East Post Road bridge likely to include trail, sidewalk

In Brian Fagan, City Hall, Jerry McGrane, Justin Shields, Kay Halloran, Monica Vernon on January 29, 2009 at 8:05 am

It has been a couple years – years.

That’s how long the City Council has gone around and around about trying to build a little bridge on East Post Road SE over Indian Creek.

Last night, in what is still not entirely clear, the council discussed the latest design of the bridge and, when it came up for air, council members said they broke, 5-4, to build a new two-lane bridge with a 14-foot-wide trail on the upstream side and a 6-foot-wide sidewalk on the downstream side.

The 5-4 vote was in favor of tentatively adding the sidewalk.

It was unclear exactly who was for what. But council members Brian Fagan, Jerry McGrane and Mayor Kay Halloran were clearly against the sidewalk, while council member Monica Vernon said the city doesn’t build bridges every day and so builds bridges for what might come in 30 or more years. All city bridges have walkways on both sides, so why not here? Vernon asked.

Few local projects have generated more citizen interest and more citizen cynicism of City Hall.

Originally, the city’s engineering staff and the city’s transportation consultants designed the bridge as a three-lane one with a middle-turn lane. The engineers said the turn lane was needed for people making turns on Cottage Grove Parkway SE just to the north of the bridge.

An outpouring of citizens, though, wanted no part of a third lane. They came to believe that a third lane, coupled with a wide trail on one side of the new bridge and sidewalk on the other, was all a ruse: City Hall’s real intent was to convert what was built into a four-lane thoroughfare as a prelude to widen all of the pretty, curvy, two-lane East Post Road SE into a four-lane road.

The engineers have vowed no such thing, but the fear lingers.

The new, pending design, which the council will apparently formally vote on in the weeks or months ahead, includes substantial, decorative barriers between the two-lane roadway and trail and sidewalk and also raises the trail a bit above the roadway so the road one day can’t be expanded on to the trail.

In last night’s discussion, the council kind of laughed at itself for yammering away about the bridge design for so long. Along the way, council members have developed something of an affection  for staff engineer Ken DeKeyser, who has drawn the short straw on the city’s engineering staff and has had to try to shepherd the project through the public and the council to reality.

“Let’s do it and get it done,” council member McGrane said last night.

Council member Justin Shields said the bridge was an example of the council’s commitment to building something attractive and building something using the approach of “complete.” That is an approach of building streets that takes into account vehicles, bicyclists, pedestrians and aesthetics.

“I think it’s a beautiful bridge,” Shields said.

City Hall interest in replacing the bridge ramped up way back in 2002 after a flash flood on Indian Creek. Neighbors in the Sun Valley Neighborhood, which was flooded that year, pushed City Hall to look at any and all impediments to the flow of water that contributed to the flood. One thought was that the bridge itself could be improved to allow more water to flow under it.

Labor’s voice on City Council, Justin Shields, loses post as president of Hawkeye Labor Council

In City Hall, Justin Shields on January 28, 2009 at 10:30 pm

Justin Shields is a local labor force sufficiently potent that Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 2004, came to Cedar Rapids in 2005 to campaign for Shields in his successful run for a City Council seat.

Last night, Shields confirmed reports that had surfaced during the day: The Hawkeye Labor Council, a coalition of 45 unions in Linn and six other counties, picked someone other than Shields to be its president.

After last night’s council meeting, Shields said the Labor Council vote was straightforward. He said he was nominated to continue as president, Jerry Nowadzky, a member of the Machinists union, also was nominated, and Nowadzky won.

Shields said he had been president of the Hawkeye Labor Council for 10 years, maybe 11 years.

Being out of the labor post, he said, won’t change his devotion to labor.

“Right now I’m no officer, but I will remain very active in union, union politics, union affairs,” Shields said. “It’s been my whole life, dedicated to working people in Iowa, and I will definitely be part of things.

“I would never turn my back on the labor movement in this country. I’ve been part of it for years, and I’m going to be remaining part of it.”

Last February, the HawkeyeLabor Council suspended its executive director, Alan Bernard, and Shields said at the time that the Labor Council was looking into financial issues. Bernard, who often had been at Shields’ side, never returned to the post.

Last night, Shields said he didn’t think the Bernard matter had anything to do with his defeat at the Labor Council’s election this week.

Shields, a retired former Quaker employee, has used the post at the Hawkeye Labor Council to raise the profile of labor in city government and in the community. Of late, it has not been uncommon to find the Hawkeye Labor Council and the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce endorsing similar candidates for local elected office and joining forces to support the same community initiatives.

Council caves on golf course debt; utilities, bus fares headed up; new vacuum trucks for leaf pickup; monthly downtown parking at 82 percent of pre-flood levels

In Brian Fagan, City Hall, Floods, Jim Prosser on January 27, 2009 at 11:08 pm

The council’s annual budget work goes on.

It’s a different day, this flood-recovery era. All the numbers seem to be headed up.

Rates on the city’s package of four utilities -– water, waste water treatment/sanitary sewer, storm sewer and solid waste/recycling – are slated to go up 14 percent or $100 a year for the typical homeowner, Pat Ball, the city’s utilities director, proposed to the City Council last night.

Even the number of employees is climbing after years of cuts and after a major City Hall reorganization two years ago that sent some senior management talent packing. Some 30 new employees may be in the offing.

Among the most notable budget items last night had to do with the city’s golf operations.

In the year prior to the 2008 flood, there were few City Hall stories that garnered as much space in the news as one about the city’s Twin Pines Golf Course. The city had floated an idea to sell a piece of the place to raise money to fix it and make other golf course improvements. Golfers and park lovers were incensed, a City Hall task force was convened, and the city idea faded into a bottom drawer somewhere.

Even so, one City Hall position survived: the city golf operation would pay its way with golf fees as it always had done. It would get no general property-tax revenue to help balance its budget, no matter that it faced years of having to pay an annual debt bill in the range of $400,000 to cover the cost of improvements already made to the city’s Jones and Ellis courses.

Well, last night it was as if all of that debate never happened.

With little discussion, the City Council signaled that it will relieve the golf operation of its ongoing annual debt payments and pay those bills with general property taxes.

It was an easy switch of direction. After all, the golf operation’s entire budget was damaged what with the damage that the June flood did to the Jones Park Golf Course. Seventeen of the course’s 18 holes were destroyed, the clubhouse was flooded and the course was closed for the season. It will open this year, though to somewhat limited use, Julie Sina, the city’s parks and recreation director, said last night.

Sina noted that the trend here and nationwide continues: Fewer people are playing golf. And Sina predicted that the current recession will keep more people away from the courses this year, too.

City Manager Jim Prosser said the debt taken on in recent years to modernize the Jones and Ellis golf courses was not bad planning. No one could have foreseen golf’s downward trend, he said.

In an effort to lure more golfers to the city courses, the new budget keeps city golf fees where they have been.

Council member Brian Fagan wondered if Prosser and Sina had any plans to present the council with a plan to privatize one or more of the courses. Some other cities have tried such a thing.

Prosser said the council would likely see some information about that, but he added that privatization can be an unwelcome concept in some corners. There were some chilling responses to the idea of privatizing the city’s downtown parking operation, an idea which was set aside when the flood hit last June.

The city’s parking operation, which historically has paid for itself with fees, won’t in the next budget year. The council has given monthly parkers a reduction in fares to encourage businesses to return to the flood-damaged downtown.

Prior to the June flood, the city had 3,422 monthly parkers. It now has about 2,800 or 82 percent of the pre-flood number. The downtown parking system is now at 60-percent capacity. Some 1,800 spaces are available, Casey Drew, the city’s finance director, reported.

Two other budget highlights from last night: City bus fares are headed up from $1 to $1.25 a ride for adults and from 50 cents to 60 cents for seniors.

Fares cover about 15 percent of the cost of operating the city bus system, the city’s Ball told the council last night. One idea to cut costs was to eliminate Saturday bus service, which Ball said has reduced ridership whose fares cover only 6 percent of the cost of the service.

Council members, though, said they wanted to keep the Saturday service and preserve the five jobs that Ball said would be lost without it. Brad DeBrower, the city’s transit chief, said the Saturday service provides between 1,200 and 1,300 rides each Saturday.

For now, too, the council has kept in the proposed budget the purchase of new vacuum trucks that will change the city’s fall leaf pickup program.

With the vacuum trucks, residents no longer will rake leaves into the street, but will rake leaves to the edge of the street where the city trucks would vacuum them up. Without the trucks, Ball said the city would require residents to put all their leaves in Yardy carts of paper bags.

Mayor Halloran tracking Statehouse voting, says council poised to call a March 3 sales tax vote for ‘flood recovery’

In City Hall, Floods, Mayor Kay Halloran on January 27, 2009 at 9:03 pm

Mayor Kay Halloran on Tuesday evening said the City Council is at the ready to set a vote for March 3 on a 1-percent local-option tax to help with flood recovery. A portion of the money raised — between $18 million and $23 million a year — will go to lower property taxes, she said.

Any move by the council to set a March 3 referendum, though, is contingent on the Iowa Legislature passing a special piece of legislation that set aside some timing issues to allow for an expedited vote on the local-option sales tax issue. Cedar Rapids legislators, Sen. Rob Hogg and Rep. Tyler Olson, are trying to steer the bill to passage.

The law would apply to cities in every county in Iowa that has a disaster declaration. But most cities in Iowa don’t need any help. They already have the tax in place. Only six county seat cities — Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Des Moines, Adel, Indianola and Ida Grove — don’t now have a local-option sales tax.

After last night’s City Council budget session, Mayor Halloran was looking at her Blackberry phone to check on the votes in the Legislature. The Senate had passed the measure and had sent it on to the Iowa House, city staff members had reported to her.

Halloran said Gov. Chet Culver has told her he intends to sign the legislation into law if the Legislature passes it.

Halloran emphasized last night that the local-option tax in Cedar Rapids will be used for flood recovery and reducing property taxes.

For now, those property taxes are slated to jump in the new budget year beginning July 1 as the city tries to balance a budget with lost revenue from flood-damaged properties and new costs associated with flood recovery.