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

Once again, who owns City Hall anyway?

In City Hall, Floods on January 23, 2009 at 1:12 pm

It happened again at last night’s City Council budget session: The City Council and Pete Welch, chairman of the city’s Veterans Memorial Commission, were discussing who owns the Veterans Memorial Building on May’s Island that houses City Hall.

City Manager Jim Prosser has said, unequivocally, that the city government owns the building. However, Welch has said, and said again last night, that the question had an uncertain answer.

At one point, council member Monica Vernon suggested to Welch that the citizens of Cedar Rapids own the building.

In response, Welch allowed that the city surely owns the ground upon which the building sits, but he said the entire building was built as a memorial to veterans. It’s a memorial, he emphasized.

The issue of land and the air above comes into play at the Crowne Plaza Five Seasons Hotel downtown: the city owns the land, the hotel owns the building.

The seven-story Veterans Memorial Building/City Hall has been there since the 1920s.

The city’s City Council-appointed veterans commission operates the building and hires a director and a maintenance staff. The operation is financed with a portion of the city’s annual property-tax levy designated specifically for the veterans memorial.

In recent months, City Manager Prosser has emphasized that city government is only a tenant of the building, and Welch has made it clear that city government has been a “rent-free” tenant at that.

There is a sense that the City Council does not intend to return city government to the building — which was significantly damaged in the June flood and still sits empty – with the presence it had had prior to the flood.

The council, the Linn County Board of Supervisors and the Cedar Rapids school district all have spent some time, largely behind the scenes, talking about the prospect of locating together in one spot, likely in a new building. The entities call it “co-location.”

The Veterans Commission’s Welch has been displeased that he has been kept largely out of the discussion about the future of the building that his commission operates.

At this point, both city staff and the Veterans Commission have filed paperwork with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to position themselves to receive FEMA reimbursement for the flood damage to the building.

FEMA will sort out to whom the reimbursement should go, Welch said last night.

This prompted council member Justin Shields to question whether the city needed FEMA to tell it who owned the building.

In his budget presentation, Welch and the commission are preparing for a new day at the city building on May’s Island whatever the future should bring.

Welch imagined the building could be used as arts center and a spot where nonprofit agencies and others could locate offices. He said he’s gotten calls from lawyers inquiring about the prospect of putting law offices in the building. The Linn County Courthouse is just across the May’s Island lawn from the Veterans Memorial Building, he noted.

As Welch approached a the council’s table to begin his budget presentation on Thursday evening, he jokingly asked if the seat he was about to sit in was wired for punishment.

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