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

Archive for February, 2009|Monthly archive page

Mayor’s speech downtown is a reminder that all is not well there

In Brian Fagan, City Hall, Justin Shields, Mayor Kay Halloran on February 28, 2009 at 6:48 am

A mayor’s annual address on the condition of the city is generally an upbeat affair with a focus on the accomplishments in the year past and the ones sure to come in the year ahead.

That was the case on Friday when Mayor Kay Halloran and Brian Fagan, mayor pro tem, spoke at the League of Women Voters of Cedar Rapids/Marion’s annual State of the City luncheon.

This year, though, it was hard not to feel how far there is yet to go in the city’s recovery from the June 2008 flood, a recovery that must come in the midst of a troubling national economic downturn.

Friday’s event was held in what over the years has become the lone downtown venue for such gatherings: The Ballroom of the Crowne Plaza Five Seasons Hotel.

The hotel is in bankruptcy and being run by an interim hotel manager, and for more than a year now, the hotel chain that owns the Crowne Plaza moniker has threatened to withdraw it from Cedar Rapids only downtown hotel.

The previous owner of the hotel had been required to upgrade the building to keep the Crowne Plaza name, and, in fact, much of that work was completed, reports Patrick DePalma, chairman of the city’s Five Season Facilities Commission. The rooms still need new TVs, and, more to the point of the mayor’s Friday speech, there is still a need to upgrade the hotel’s Ballroom, DePalma says.

One of the typical routes to The Ballroom is through the entrance to the U.S. Cellular Center, which is joined to the hotel. You walk in the center’s lobby and head up the towering escalator to the next floor to get to the hotel lobby and The Ballroom. But the escalator has been out of service since the machinery that drives it took on water in the June flood.

Nearly nine months after the flood, there surely are some who, hiking up the stationary escalator steps, aren’t wondering if the city’s recovery from the flood will ever come.

The city’s Facilities Commission oversees the city-owned event center and it plays a role in the hotel because the city owns the land and air rights for the hotel.

The commission’s DePalma says he’s tried to impress on the city the need to get moving on fixing the flood damage to the U.S. Cellular Center’s lobby and to the escalator there. He says the work is dependent on funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and he says City Hall controls the schedule on which of the many flood-damaged city properties gets fixed first.

“We’ve talked to the city and said, ‘Let’s get this done,’” he says. “The work that needs to be done is fairly minor in terms of how much it would take and how much it would cost compared to (other projects).”

DePalma says the city’s first focus in the downtown is to fix elevators in damaged parking ramps.

“We understand that,” he says. But he says he hopes the U.S. Cellular Center comes soon after.

“Any pressure you can put on them,” DePalma says. “It’s not a difficult thing to take care of. But I can’t hire a contractor.”

Under consideration, he says, is doing away with the escalator and replacing it with an elevator and a staircase.

The public now can ride the elevator next door that leads into the hotel lobby on the second floor.

For whatever reason, the audience was a little smaller this time for the mayor’s annual address. The League of Women Voters put the count at about 300, down about 60 from the year before.

Six of nine City Council members did not attend to hear their council colleagues, Halloran and Fagan, speak. Council member Justin Shields was on hand.

The center of the city’s government has been operating out of an office building in a northeast Cedar Rapids office park since the flood. The council holds its formal Wednesday evening meetings in an auditorium nearby on the AEGON USA campus. The flood-damaged City Hall downtown remains empty and awaiting renovation.

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Halloran and Fagan bring Condition of the City speech downtown; city needs sales tax, they say; Alliant exec has few hopes for downtown steam

In City Hall on February 27, 2009 at 4:57 pm

Mayor Kay Halloran and Brian Fagan, mayor pro tem, told an audience of about 300 at Friday’s Condition of the City speech that a 1-percent local sales tax will help the flood-damaged city rebuild.

“We need it,” Fagan said bluntly, when asked about Tuesday’s upcoming sales-tax vote during the noontime event in the Ballroom of the Crowne Plaza Five Seasons Hotel.

The annual event is sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Cedar Rapids/Marion.

To a question about the viability of a low-cost steam system in the downtown, Fagan turned to Eliot Protsch, Alliant Energy’s chief operating officer, in the crowd.

Protsch came to the microphone to say that there “may be” a solution to the steam issue for large users of the steam system, including the Quaker and Cargill plants. But he said it was “difficult” to see how steam, which had been provided by Alliant’s flood-damaged Sixth Street Generating Station, could be provided to the downtown “absent” a very large subsidy.

On the sales-tax question, Fagan said the estimated $18 million a year that the sales tax will bring to the city for five years and three months will allow the city to rebuild properly. Passing the sales tax also will show federal and state lawmakers, from whom the city is asking disaster help, that Cedar Rapids is doing its share to “support ourselves locally,” he said.

Mayor Halloran noted that the City Council will use the sales-tax revenue to buy out, repair and replace flood-damaged housing vital to the city’s work force.

“I don’t want residents of Cedar Rapids leaving (town),” Halloran said.

City Manager Jim Prosser, who joined the mayor and Fagan during the  question-answer period, said the city’s share of flood-related costs could come to $500 million even if the city and community secure substantial federal and state funds. “That’s the number,” he said.

In prepared remarks that reprised ones made at the City Council meeting Wednesday evening, Halloran said the city remains “open for business” despite the 2008 flood and its aftermath. She said the council promises to be “vigilant” with its budget and to work hard and deliver efficient government.

Halloran noted, too, that the she and the council continue to push the Iowa Legislature to stop its “draconian” ways and give Cedar Rapids and other cities the freedom to raise revenue from diverse sources. That will mean the city won’t need to be so heavily on property taxes, she said.

Halloran had Fagan focus his comments on the city’s flood-recovery effort, the costs of which are “staggering,” Fagan told the audience. He said the needs and costs don’t get better if they are ignored.

As he did on Wednesday evening, Fagan defended the City Council’s use of outside experts, who he said are helping guide the city through a community recovery that could cost $5 billion. The $5-million cost for the help, he said, is small in relation to the damage.

“Yes, we needed outside experts. Yes they are ‘consultants,’” said Fagan in acknowledging that it was issue for which the council has taken criticism.

Those in Friday’s audience also asked if the city can get too much public input before it acts and if lobbying efforts to obtain disaster relief have failed.

On the question of public input, Fagan said other communities that have gone through disasters have told Cedar Rapids that their ability to get projects started and finished had been hampered by not taking time up front to listen to the public.

Prosser said cities easily can make decisions about rebuilding, but he said the key is to make decisions that actually get implemented. Without adequate public input, they don’t, he said. He pointed to Tulsa, Okla., which he said we still trying to put a flood-protection system in place 25 years after its devastating flood.

Halloran, Fagan and Prosser all noted that much has been done and is being done to lobby the federal and state governments for disaster relief. But Prosser said the truth was that “this terrible disaster doesn’t have a simple solution.”

The League of Women Voters put Friday’s attendance at about 300, which is down from 359 people who attended a year ago.

From the podium, Halloran said the audience she was addressing looked “very intent.”

“I think they care what happens to the city, and as long as we continue to tell them what we are doing, they will recognize that we’re doing a very big job,” the mayor said.

Davenport’s Gluba says what Cedar Rapids City Hall says: city leaders are at least as smart as state legislators and cities need more financial freedom

In City Hall on February 27, 2009 at 10:52 am

Davenport Mayor Bill Gluba served in the Iowa Statehouse back in the 1970s, and this week he was recalling how back then was the time when Iowa cities secured “home rule.” Back then, Gluba, a Democrat, was among state lawmakers who also pushed to give Iowa cities what he called “financial home rule.”

At the time, though, state lawmakers wanted to keep a tight hold on the freedom local jurisdictions had to decide how to raise money to pay for local government, Gluba said. That’s still the case, he added.

“The people on the Cedar Rapids City Council, the mayor, the council members, they’re all as intelligent as anybody in Des Moines. I know them all in Des Moines.

“The elected officials in Cedar Rapids are responsible, caring, concerned citizens who all have the best interest at heart of the people of Cedar Rapids. And so we should have financial home rule across the board and let them make their own decisions.”

Don’t be misled: Gluba was really talking about himself and his own colleagues on the Davenport City Council as much as he was anybody at Cedar Rapids’ City Hall.

He was simply making the point that Cedar Rapids’ city leaders are in the same pickle as he thinks Davenport’s city leaders and many other city leaders are across Iowa.

He was making the point that the Cedar Rapids City Council and City Manager Jim Prosser have been trying to make for more than a year. That is, cities in Iowa are too dependent on property taxes to pay their bills, and that the Iowa Legislature needs to give cities freedom to raise revenue in other ways.

Cedar Rapids City Council members call it “revenue diversification.”

One of simplest ways to accomplish that might be to let cities charge an income-tax surcharge just like school districts in Iowa now can do.

But one thing state law now allows cities to do to diversify revenue is to pass a local-option sales tax.

Only six county-seat cities in all of Iowa – Iowa has 99 counties – do not have a local-option sales tax in place. Those are Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Des Moines, Adel, Indianola and Ida Grove. Ida Grove puts it in place this summer.’

“I really can’t believe Cedar Rapids doesn’t have it,” Gluba says of the sales tax.

Cedar Rapids and other Linn County jurisdictions vote on the tax on March 3; Iowa City and other Johnson County jurisdictions on May 5.

Davenport’s mayor: Tuesday votes on local-option sales tax in Cedar Rapids and Davenport could help both cities’ work forces and help keep both from becoming second rate

In City Hall, Floods on February 27, 2009 at 6:44 am

Davenport Mayor Bill Gluba is a proponent of the 1-percent local-option sales tax that his city has had in place since 1988.

Sixty percent of the revenue goes there has gone for property-tax relief and 40 percent for infrastructure and capital improvement projects. It’s bringing in $15 million for Davenport a year.

Why Cedar Rapids, Iowa’s second largest city, hasn’t embraced the tax is a mystery to him, Gluba says. For Davenport, Iowa’s third largest city, the tax has been little short of a Godsend, he says.

In Gluba’s view, Cedar Rapids surely needs all the extra revenue it can get as it works to recover from the June 2008 flood.

“I really can’t believe Cedar Rapids doesn’t have it,” says Gluba of the local sales tax. “It’s one of the most progressive communities in the state. I hope they will listen to the leadership of your mayor and others who know the need to do this.

“You were devastated in the flood. … Do you want to become a second-rate city?”

At the same time, not all is well in Davenport even with the local-option sales tax.

Gluba is candid: Davenport’s population is stagnant and it’s getting older and poorer. Those are the facts, he says.

With that in mind, Davenport is sending its voters to the polls on Tuesday, too. Only Davenport is seeking to change the way the city distributes the $15 million in revenue the tax provides each year.

At the heart of the change is an issue that is one that Cedar Rapids leaders have been talking about and worrying about for a few years. That is, how does a city keep and attract talented workers and employers for the future? Cedar Rapids council members and community groups supporting the local-option tax talk about the need keep and attract a quality work force as part of the reason to rebuild the city better than ever.

In Davenport, community leaders think “Davenport Promise” is the answer and they are asking voters to steer up to 30 percent of the city’s annual local-option sales tax revenue to fund the program.

Davenport Promise’s promise is to pay the tuition of every Davenport student when they go to college or a vocational school. For students who enter the military, the program will provide $7,500 in mortgage assistance should the veteran return to live in Davenport.

The program is based on a privately funded one in Kalamazoo, Mich., which Gluba says has accomplished what Davenport is looking to do. It has attracted residents, increased the number of public school children, spurred home sales, increased home prices and helped the commercial and industrial sector.

Gluba calls the Davenport Promise an economic development tool. He says it is designed to attract talented workers to live in Davenport, have them raise their children in Davenport and help prepare their children for an education after high school.

Gluba says cities in Iowa provide incentives to businesses all the time to attract or keep them. He says Davenport Promise goes a step farther and looks to use incentives to attract the workers and the families. The goal is for everyone to know that Davenport is “The Education Community,” he says.

Davenport Promise, he adds, isn’t without organized opponents.

What is surprising, perhaps, is that a vote on such a fascinating idea is coming on Tuesday in a city as close as Davenport with little or no mention in Cedar Rapids. It’s an indication that Cedar Rapids is focused on its flood and recovering from it.

Pass the tax and get on with that job, Davenport’s Gluba encourages Cedar Rapids.

Whether you do or don’t, he adds, just know Davenport has Cedar Rapids in mind.

“Davenport, we’re trying to surpass Cedar Rapids,” Gluba says. “… If you don’t get on about it, you’re going to be the third largest city in the state rather than the second.”

Fix of flood damage to beloved Cedar Rapids trails not expected for months

In City Hall, Floods on February 26, 2009 at 11:36 am

It was nice and warm enough Wednesday to start thinking about the Spandex shorts and a first bicycle ride of the year.

Go easy.

Dave Smith, the city’s parks superintendent, reports that major flood damage on sections of both the paved Cedar River Trail and the unpaved Sac & Fox Trail isn’t apt to be repaired until late summer at the earliest.

Sections of both trails are being used and have been since the flood, but it will be months before someone can traverse the full extent of either trail, Smith says. In fact, the city isn’t “recommending” use of the Sax & Fox, though that isn’t stopping some.

Both trails are in the same boat.

The city’s damage-assessment consultant has come up with a cost estimate of damage as has the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That process will result in FEMA’s decision for reimbursement to the city to make the repairs. The city will then seek bids and a winning contractor will do the work.

As for the Cedar River Trail, Smith says users can and have been able to use the trail from its northern end at Hiawatha through the downtown. Users then must move into the city’s Park and Ride lot at Ninth Avenue SE where the new railroad bridge is going up, before they can continue on the trail to just south of Czech Village.

It is the next mile of trail, though, that remains closed. At one point, the trail was ripped up for the removal of a flood-damage bridge that crosses the river at the former Farmstead plant. Farther on, the river bank is washed out right to the trail edge, with debris and a fence collapsed on the trail. Once the trail begins to gain some height, it is fine all the way to the southern end south of Ely Road.

This summer, Smith says, should see a fix of the damage and also extend the southern edge of the trail to 76th Avenue SW.

As for the Sac and Fox Trail, Smith says pretty much the entire trail was flooded. There are several places where flood water has left mud and debris and has caused blowouts and deep cuts in the trail. In addition, the pedestrian bridge just north of Mount Vernon Road SE remains collapsed and in Indian Creek. The bridge needs to be pulled out and its supports rebuilt before the bridge can be reset or replaced.

The Sac & Fox is an unpaved trail, or as Smith says, “It was a primitive trail and now it’s real primitive.”

Smith says the city is “not recommending” the trail’s use, but some are using stretches of it, and some don’t mind the additional challenge, he says.

Water-filled bladders and sand-filled baskets to provide temporary flood protection; but cost too great to protect New Bohemia/Oak Hill

In Brian Fagan, City Hall, Floods on February 25, 2009 at 9:56 pm

The City Council moved ahead to purchase a temporary flood control system to protect many of the flood-prone parts of the city to some degree until permanent protection is in place.

The temporary system, which will cost $6.6 million for materials and mobilization if needed, will be available this flood season.

The council approved the concept of a temporary system a few weeks ago, but wanted to hear more about why it was too expensive to protect the lowest-lying area along the river, the New Bohemia/Oak Hill area.

Last night, the council agreed with consultant Stanley Consultants Inc., Muscatine, Iowa, that it did not make sense to spend an additional $3 million to protect property valued at about $2 million below Eighth Avenue SE on the east side of the river in what is New Bohemia/Oak Hill.

Council member Brian Fagan suggested that maybe that area could be the first to see the coming permanent flood protection when it is built in the years ahead.

The temporary system features a product called a tiger dam, in which water fills bladders, and a product called a Hesco Concertainers, in which sand is used to fill plastic-lined mesh baskets.

The latter was used in Johnson and Des Moines counties last year.

Once the flood forecast is for the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids to reach 20 feet, the city will mobilize the temporary protection. It will protect Time Check, Czech Village and both sides of the river downtown to a river stage measured at a downtown river gauge of 24 feet.

The city twice has had flood water reach 20 feet in its history. The only time it was higher was last June, when the river reached 31.12 feet.

Protecting to 24 feet will protect 830 homes and $21.3 million in property value, consultant Jim Kill, of Stanley Consultants Inc., Muscatine, Iowa, told the council last night.

Kill called that “a good ratio” between the cost of temporary protection and the amount of value being protected.

He said the ratio “validated” the council’s earlier decision to protect to 24 feet. 

Stealth ‘Condition of the City’ address has Halloran assuring city is ‘open for business;’ Fagan says city’s flood recovery will be a model for the nation

In Brian Fagan, City Hall, Floods, Mayor Kay Halloran on February 25, 2009 at 7:33 pm

Without prior promotion, Mayor Kay Halloran and Brian Fagan, mayor pro tem, last night gave a Condition of the City speech, saying the city is working to recover from disaster in a way that makes the city better than ever.

The speech was part preview: Halloran is scheduled to reprise her comments at a public forum on Friday.

In PowerPoint-aided comments, Halloran last night forewarned Cedar Rapidians that “times will be difficult” in the city for the next few years as the city works to recover from the 2008 flood.

At the same time she assured that the city is “open for business” and she promised that she and her council colleagues will be “vigilant” on spending and continue to work to bring about an even more cost-effective, customer-friendly city government.

SEE http://gazetteonline.com/Assets/pdf/ConditionofCityPPT.pdf

 

Halloran said, too, that the city will continue to work hard to change “very draconian” state policies that she said force cities to be too dependent on local property-taxes. Those taxes “gouge” the city’s businesses and residents and will “cripple our city” as it works to recover, she said.

 

Fagan said the state of the city’s condition is a tale of two cities — a city before the flood and a city recovering from a flood.

Fagan recalled the images of last June, calling them “difficult” and at the same time “inspiring” and “representative” of the giving and generosity of Cedar Rapids.

Fagan said the city’s needs and costs remain “staggering,” and he put the cost of recovery at between $2 billion and $5 billion. For housing needs alone, the city needs more than $200 million to fix, buyout, relocate and rebuild housing, he said.

In citing the dollar figures, Fagan addressed head on the frequent criticism often heard about the City Council’s use of consultants that have and are providing the city with what Fagan called “expert guidance” in the flood recovery.

He put the cost of consultants at about $5 million, defended the spending and said the expertise was the city’s best way to ensure that Cedar Rapids’ flood recovery is “the best recovery this country has ever seen.”

Fagan, too, talked about the city’s plans to make sure it renovates or rebuilds some 300 flood-damaged public city buildings and facilities in the best way it can for future generations.

He made reference to a comment last week from a Linn County supervisor, who suggested that the city was pursuing wants and not needs as the city talked about the possibility of building new facilities. It meets a public need to study rebuilding options to see what best serves customers and what is sustainable, efficient and affordable for the long term, Fagan said.

In the city’s flood recovery, Fagan singled out several high points: the public-private effort that saved the city’s water supply; the city’s ability to get its waste-water treatment plant back on line quickly; the city’s ability to get a flood-protection plan in place in four months. The speed of the latter two accomplishments was unrivaled in the nation, he said.

Fagan said the last eight months has brought some “incredibly tense times” and plenty of “vigorous debate” at City Hall and throughout the community.

For all of it, the city will come through the recovery a better city, he said.

Corps flood study cost increases; city agrees to front Uncle Sam funds to keep study going

In Floods, Jim Prosser on February 25, 2009 at 4:57 pm

It’s never a great confidence booster when the city of Cedar Rapids is fronting the federal government money.

That is the case, though, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers feasibility study of Cedar Rapids’ flood-protection needs. The two-year study now is expected to cost $7.5 million, up a couple million dollars from previous estimates.

The Corps has not yet secured funding for its share of the study’s cost, and so the City Council has agreed to accelerate funding to the Corps so the study can proceed until federal funds are available.

The Corps study is a prerequisite for the city to qualify for federal funding to actually pay to build a new flood-protection system, the cost of which might reach $1 billion.

The city has the burden to pay for 50 percent of the cost of the Corps study. The city, though, will get credit for an estimated $1.875 million of the study’s cost for in-kind services. It also has received a $300,000 grant to help with the city’s cost share.

The increased cost of the study comes in part because of the increased area being studied.

Initially, in May 2008, the city and the Corps had expected the Corps study to cost $1.4 million and to focus primarily on the Time Check Neighborhood. The city’s disastrous flood hit the next month and changed everything.

City Manager Jim Prosser this week said the city continues to lobby Iowa’s Congressional delegation to position the city to obtain Congressional funding quickly to actually build the flood-protection system once the Corps study is finished.

The Corps has said it might take eight to 15 years to get the system of levees and floodwalls in place, but Prosser said the hope is to cut that time down significantly.

Council ready to take yet another step to assure the distrustful

In City Hall, Floods, Justin Shields on February 25, 2009 at 9:22 am

It looks like the City Council is sufficiently eager for voters to pass a local-option sales tax to help with flood recovery that the council will bite its collective tongue and again try to assure people who think the council can’t be trusted to spend the tax money correctly.

At its meeting this evening, the City Council will approve a resolution that specifies that 90 percent of the revenue from a local-option sales tax will be used “for the buyout, rehabilitation and relocation of flood-damaged housing.”

The tax is expected to generate about $18 million a year for the city in each of five years and three months that the tax will be in place should voters approve it on March 3.

Earlier, the council voted to use 90 percent of the tax revenue for flood relief and 10 percent for property-tax relief. The council-approve language on next Tuesday’s ballot reflects that earlier vote. Of the 90-percent of the tax revenue to be used for flood relief, the ballot language says the revenue will be used “for the acquisition and rehabilitation of flood damaged housing caused by the flooding of 2008, and matching funds for federal dollars to assist with flood recovery or flood protection.”

The language was designed to give the council some flexibility to use the money in the unlikely event that federal dollars, for instance, take care of more of the housing relief than the council now anticipates it will.

However, council critics were sure that meant the council would use the money in ways other than flood relief.

At last week’s council meeting, council member Justin Shields fumed about public distrust in the council and its intentions for the sales-tax revenue. At Shields’ insistence, the council, from member to member, assured that the money would be used to address the city’s couple-hundred million dollars in flood-damaged housing relief.

City Hall, then, issued a press release on Friday.

Earlier, the council voted to create a nine-member citizen oversight committee to oversee how sales-tax revenue would be spent.

Still people were questioning the council.

So tonight the council will pass a new resolution.

At last check, no one is calling for oversight committees and new resolutions to be passed by the Linn County Board of Supervisors or the city of Marion, for instance, both of which will also bring in plenty of tax-revenue should the ballot measure pass in those cities on Tuesday.