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

City Council aspires to bigger league; was split with smaller-ball Linn County inevitable?

In Brian Fagan, City Hall, Floods, Jim Prosser, Justin Shields, Linn County government on February 22, 2009 at 11:03 am

On a 3-2 vote, the Linn County Board of Supervisors has decided not to study to see if it makes sense to join forces with the Cedar Rapids City Council in a new public administration building, which is being called a Community Services Center.

Even Supervisor Linda Langston, who was one of two on the short end of the vote, said she’d only continue to participate with the city in a public planning process about a building on two conditions: if the city shortened the length of the process and if the city treated the county nicer, as a “full partner.”

Ben Rogers, one of two new supervisors and the youngest of the five, was alone in advocating that the planning process could do nothing but help no matter what it came to conclude. Rogers noted, too, that joining forces with the city didn’t necessarily mean building new buildings. It could mean renovating existing ones, he said.

As much as anything, the supervisor drama on Friday served as a reminder that the city of Cedar Rapids and Linn County are two entirely different animals. They always have been.

Cedar Rapids and its City Hall are big entities with a complicated set of responsibilities: water, waste water, airport, cultural attractions and entertainment and sports venues for starters.

There’s also a downtown, which community leaders ranging far beyond City Hall say is vital to the future vitality of Cedar Rapids and to the city’s ability to keep and attract employers and employees.

Most importantly, Cedar Rapids is what community leaders in and out of City Hall never tire of reminding people of: It is the industrial and commercial economic “engine” for the city, county and region.

City Hall plays a central role in all of that as it oversees and regulates development in the city.

Linn County doesn’t.

The differences could no more clearly have been drawn between Wednesday evening’s City Council meeting and Friday’s late-morning meeting of the county supervisors.

On Wednesday evening, the City Council enthusiastically endorsed moving ahead on a public participation process to see if it makes sense to build a new Community Services Center of some kind that city, county and school district might somehow share.

Council members Brian Fagan and Justin Shields talked passionately about the city’s need to challenge the notion that it was good enough to just restore a damaged city to the way it had been before the flood.

“Sometimes out of ashes you want to rise from those ashes and build something better than what was there before,” Shields said.

 “I think this is a unique opportunity … that the city, county and school districts have to really come together and think of all the things that we do and they do and see if we can’t come up some plan that will put those facilities together and make them better than they ever were, and look to the future that we’re building for the next 50 to 100 years,” Shields said.

Fagan put the matter in a larger framework. He said the city was doing nothing short of challenging what he said was the conventional approach that the Federal Emergency Management Agency tries to insist on. Fagan said FEMA wants jurisdictions to rebuild flood-damaged buildings as they were, while he said he wants to rebuild better than before.

His hope, he said, was that the Obama administration might share his view of how a city should come back after a flood.

“This is an opportunity for us again to be an example for the country in terms of how we rebuild,” Fagan said.

And council member Tom Podzimek wasn’t even at the meeting. He was sick. Podzimek is most insistent of the need for council members to look to the long term and to measure things like a building’s energy efficiency, its environmental impact and its life-cycle costs before making decisions about building or renovating.

Friday morning, over at the Linn County Board of Supervisors, Supervisor Brent Oleson, the new representative on the board from Marion, seemed to state the case for the supervisor majority best.

He said the supervisors didn’t want any kind of new building in which they shared a board room or council chambers with anyone else. The county needs its own, he said.

Oleson revealed  that  Podzimek had called him Thursday evening to talk about the need for more information before moving ahead.

Oelson, though, rejected the Podzimek notion, and the Fagan one for that matter.

“I’m not going to be paralyzed,” Oelson said about the need to get more facts. He said he had plenty of facts.

The county’s Administrative Office Building can live on another 70 or more years, he said. Let’s fix it, he said, and move back in.

Oleson said it was time to separate needs from wants.

Would I want a “greener” building that would be the pride of all of Iowa? Maybe, he said.

“But it’s not feasible now,” he concluded.

Supervisors Lu Barron and Jim Houser were quick to note the existing building can be made more “green.”

Barron was the swing vote on this, and she stuck with the majority in withdrawing from any co-location discussions with the city in a new Community Services Center.

After all, she noted, the public participation process calls for the hiring of two consultants to help lead the process over six or more months. Does the county want to share in those costs? she wondered.

Even Supervisor Langston questioned the need for consultants from out of state, hinting that’s what City Hall had in mind.

The city has had two consultants, national consultant Camp Dresser & McKee and local consultant Howard R. Green, leading months of behind-the-scenes discussions on the co-location idea to date.

In the longer view, this parting of the ways between the supervisors and City Hall isn’t really surprising.

It was only just a few years ago, in the early 2000s, that now-likely mayoral candidate Ron Corbett, then president of the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, worked to get city and county to merge some of their operations. He threw in the towel on it.

Instead, the city changed its government to a one with a professional city manager and a part-time council, while the county enlarged its government to five supervisors without a professional manager.

On Friday, Les Beck, the county’s chief planner, encouraged the supervisors to stay in the planning process on co-location of facilities. Beck said planning led to “informed decisonmaking,” a concept which Cedar Rapids City Manager Jim Prosser talks a lot about. Planners talk that way.

The planning process, though, would have required spending some funds on it and, maybe, a lot of money down the road on new facilities, and the county opted out.

This is a city election year. Six of nine council members face re-election, including the mayor.

What happened between the county and city last week, no doubt, will help shape the election debate with at least three questions:

Do voters want the city to be better than before? How much planning does that require? And just where does a new public building fit on the priority list?

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  1. Ah Gee, Enough already, it seems for the last 3 weeks it’s been nothing about wanting to have new buildings. All this is doing is adding fuel to the fire. Let it rest. We don’t need to bond with County, we are pass the nursing stage now. If the option tax does not pass, we will have some serious issues and hard decisions to make, expect some serious cutting in spending. You can’t expect tax payers to foot the bill and city not give up their spending habits. Won’t go over very well. So let’s get down to work and address the needs of the citizens and leave the dreaming behind.

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