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

Distrust of City Hall seems part of the subtext of approaching local-option sales tax vote

In City Hall, Floods, Justin Shields on February 21, 2009 at 7:52 am

It’s probably fair to say it couldn’t be otherwise. That is, a distrust of the City Council and City Hall in general.

After all, the city is trying to come back from a multibillion-dollar disaster in the middle of a near national depression in a nation that has seen dozens of other natural disasters in the last year. Everybody and his or her brother is competing for vital federal disaster money.

Making it all better yesterday just is an impossible task.

Even so, a level of distrust of City Hall has become quite apparent as residents in the city prepare for a March 3 vote on a 1-percent local option sales tax.

All the major players in the city are on board behind the tax, the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, Hawkeye Labor Council, Downtown District, Next Generation Commission, the chairman of the Economic Planning and Redevelopment Corp. and on and on.

There’s also a well-represented coalition of people and groups out campaigning for passage of the tax as something called Vote YES! For Our Neighbors.

The supporters see the tax as vital local help for the city’s flood recovery, and they passage as sending a vital signal to state and federal lawmakers that the city is doing all it can itself to contribute to flood recovery.

Nonetheless, the Chamber of Commerce’s endorsement of the sales tax came with a caveat: The Chamber insisted on the creation of a community oversight committee to guide how City Hall would spend the tax revenue. Vote YES! For Our Neighbors did, too.

The suggestion had the feel that, without such oversight, City Hall might not do the right thing and, without it, City Hall might actually louse up the tax’s chances for passage.

The City Council enthusiastically created such an oversight committee, which will be in place by April 1, when the tax begins to be collected if it is passed March 3.

But the distrust doesn’t end there.

Just this past week, representatives of Vote YES? For Our Neighbors spoke to The Gazette’s editorial board as they, no doubt, have been speaking to other groups around the community. The representatives said they still wanted more from the City Council. They wanted the council to pass a binding resolution that specifically promised that all the sales-tax revenue intended for flood relief would be spent for flood relief, and specifically for the purchase and rehabilitation of flood-damaged housing.

No matter, that the City Council’s voice was featured in a front-page story in The Gazette on Monday in which members promised to spend the revenue intended for flood relief on flood-damaged housing. No matter, that the council, member after member, declared the same thing at its meeting on Wednesday evening. No matter that the council-approved language on the March ballot pretty explicitly says as much.

A distrust expressed during the public comment period of the Wednesday council meeting prompted council member Justin Shields to anger. He said he couldn’t understand how the council could make its message any clearer.

That it needed to make it clearer became apparent on Friday when City Hall’s communications operation issued a press release based on the council’s Wednesday meeting with the headline “City Council Confirms Housing Buyouts & Rehab Priority.”

The news release pointed out the precise language the council on Feb. 3 approved for the March 3 ballot. It states that the tax revenue will be spent this way:

— 10 percent for property tax relief.
— 90 percent for the acquisition and rehabilitation of flood damaged housing caused by the flood of 2008, and matching funds for federal flood dollars to assist with flood recovery or flood protection.

Nonetheless, look for the council to create a council resolution next week that it can vote on anyway.

Interestingly, no one fought harder than council members to get a change in Iowa law so that the council could set a local-option sales tax vote in expedited fashion on March 3 and so that the tax could begin to be collected in expedited fashion on April 1. The special state legislation also does not tie Cedar Rapids’ vote to the block of metro cities, which is usually the case in local-option votes.

  1. The distrust of Council seems to be justified, in my mind, by their apparent power grab and money grab. First, they wanted to be able to pass a LOST without a vote. Instead, they won the right to have an expedited voting process. The Council also exudes the appearance that they want to change the law to allow them to pass bond referendums without a citizen vote, and there has also been mention of trying to change laws to increase the City’s allowable debt service (because, you know, we still have a great bond rating, so why not take advantage of that?).

    When people talk about “creative solutions to problems,” I’m sure that they weren’t thinking of things like changing the laws to allow the City to increase its debt and tax its citizens without votes.

    The Council also know EXACTLY what it’s doing to get this sales tax to pass. It uses the ambiguous language of “property tax relief” in its press releases. It’s very easy to lobby commercial property owners to vote for this if they think their property taxes will actually drop, and you can direct residential property owners with the same baton. However, “property tax relief” doesn’t necessarily mean “your property tax bill will go down.” It really could mean “your tax bill won’t go up quite as high as we originally wanted it to go up.”

    Cities are only slightly different than other business enterprises. You have income and debt. And it appears that the Council has learned NOTHING from the recent Mortgage and Credit Crisis, as their policies and attitudes very clearly reflect a “spend, spend, spend” attitude, regardless of the debt or consequences.

    News flash, folks. We’re not General Motors. Washington, DC won’t bail us out if we destroy ourselves financially, and the longer some of the current Council members are in place, the worse things will get.

  2. We all have a choice, leave the destroyed homes and vacant business building as they are and watch them fall, or maybe with some lucky we can move forward to something new. We are losing citizens when they retire and the younger generation, because there is nothing here to keep them from moving away. No one likes to pay taxes or pay for something that will not benefit their own wallet. If you can’t trust just once to see if what they say will happen, how will you ever know if things have changed. Some will never trust, why?, maybe life experiences. I admit I was this way too, but the community changed my attitude with the generosity and the support after experiencing cancer a few years back and then losing my home in the flood, your priorities change to family and friends, then fancy cars and homes. Having to start from scratch is not fun. This city has great spirit, I really would hate to see it die, due to not even trying. And no I am not with Vote Yes.

  3. Rick,

    The Chamber endorsed the temporary increase in the sales tax because it is a critical step forward for our community. My personal belief is that urging the City Council to agree to appoint a citizen oversight committee was more of a suggestion on a component needed to pass the temporary tax than a sign of any distrust of our City Council. The City Council quickly agreed to establish the oversigt committee, so this does not appear to be an issue any longer. Passing this vote will tell the State and Federal governments we are doing what we can, but need additional help. Passing this vote will provide the funds needed to help resolve the terrible housing situation so many of our neighbors are in. Passing this tax will be a sign of hope for our entire community.

  4. “to assist with flood recovery or flood protection”
    What “specifically” does that apply to? Answer:Anything the city wants.

  5. Food for thought…while Cedar Rapids uses much of their available bonding capacity, Linn County uses less than 1% of their bonding capacity. Why the disparity?

  6. We already pay far too much in taxes. The government is out of control. It is time the government learned to live like the rest of us within a budget and not seek to continual extort more money from the taxpaying citizens. I do not want to reward the government with more of my hard earned money to squander on even more wasteful spending.
    Cedar Rapids is also seeking to extort money from the drives with Scam Cameras. Every study done on red light Scam cameras shows they have no safety benefit but actually increase accidents. It is time to vote out this city council and replace them with public servants that respect the public and our hard eared tax dollars. We do not need a wasteful city council that seek to create a police state with cameras on every corner spying on our ever movement. We need a city need council that cares for local business and doesn’t try to force the public into buying our goods off the internet to avoid the out of control sales taxes. We need a city need council that respects the law and does not seek to raise revenue with unconstitutional Scam cameras extorting money from drivers.

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