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

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.

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