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

Archive for March 10th, 2009|Daily archive page

FEMA picks City Hall over Vet’s Commission in dust-up over flood-damaged Veterans Memorial Building

In City Hall, FEMA, Jim Prosser on March 10, 2009 at 9:05 pm

Maybe the city of Cedar Rapids, not the city’s Veterans Memorial Commission, owns City Hall after all.

At least the city, not the commission, has been found to be the “eligible recipient” of $20-million-plus in federal disaster relief for the building, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has concluded.

Just who owns the building has been a matter of some murkiness over the years because the building is named the Veterans Memorial Building, which City Hall occupies. The 1920s-era structure on May’s Island in the Cedar River also is managed by the city’s Veterans Memorial Commission, and so commission members have been known to make a claim to the place.

The issue began to matter in recent months as FEMA prepared to make a decision on who should be the recipient of federal and state funds to repair the flood-damaged building.

City Manager Jim Prosser has said all along that the city would be the recipient. But Pete Welch, chairman of the Veterans Memorial Commission, wasn’t so sure.

In fact, Welch, who was a bit miffed because he says the city left the commission out of much of the planning about the future of the building, filed documents with FEMA seeking to be the rightful recipient of FEMA repair funds. If nothing else, Welch says, the Veterans Commission needed to protect the city in case FEMA determined that the commission and not the city owned the building. Welch worried that FEMA might not pay anything if the commission wasn’t here to protect the building’s interests.

FEMA’s Wally Armstead on Tuesday put it short and sweet: Any FEMA check is going to the city government, not the commission.

Armstead said that “eligible applicants” are limited to only a few categories of recipients, including local governments, states and certain nonprofit groups. The commission was none of those and, in fact, is “an element of the city” in the city’s table of organization, he said.

Armstead said the money for the May’s Island building’s repair is at the ready with the state of Iowa. The city will draw down the FEMA award -– FEMA pays 90 percent, the state of Iowa, 10 percent -– as it makes repairs to the building.

Just what the city’s intends to do with the building remains up in the air as of now.

Prosser said the city must use the FEMA award to fix the building because of the historic stature of it.

Nonetheless, the City Council has embarked on a six-to-nine-month public-input process to see if the city should build a new city hall at a new location. In that event, the current building would have a new use, the city has said.

At last night’s council budget meeting, Prosser spent some time lamenting how much the city will face in annual insurance costs on the May’s Island building and the flood-damaged library and Paramount Theatre.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, the Veterans Commission’s Welch said the commission decided this week to defer to FEMA and “let” the city be the eligible recipient of the FEMA and state funds.

The commission, “rather than bickering,” wants to move forward and get the May’s Island building renovated, Welch said.

Even if, he added, the issue of who owns the building is still a matter of debate.

Recurring theme at the heart of debate on flood CEO: current City Hall can’t get it right; needs push from private sector

In City Hall, Floods, Jim Prosser, Justin Shields, Kris Gulick, Monica Vernon, Ron Corbett on March 10, 2009 at 12:58 pm

Some in the local business community have been pretty sure they can help City Hall almost since the flood waters began to recede last June.

The latest example of the private sector’s coming to the rescue surfaced last week when council members Justin Shields and Monica Vernon proposed that the city add to its payroll a flood czar of sorts.
Vernon called the position a flood CEO.

The City Council will discuss the matter at its meeting Wednesday evening and may even act on it.
There are two significant features of the proposal:

Firstly, as presented by Shields, the flood czar would report directly to the City Council and not directly to City Manager Jim Prosser. Shields said the city’s organizational chart would include a “dotted line” to Prosser, which apparently means that flood CEO and Prosser would communicate.

This part of the proposal is not particularly new: Shields and Vernon have been trying for some months, without success, to get a staff policy maker who would report directly to the City Council and not be managed by Prosser. Heretofore, the council majority has had little time for such a thing. Prosser is the council’s CEO, and Prosser and the city staff are the council’s policy advisers, the council majority has said.

A second significant feature of the latest proposal is that the cost of the new city employee would be paid by the private sector.

Asked after last week’s meeting, Vernon deferred when asked for details about whom or what this private-sector force might be.

She said it was a “captain of industry” who had come up with the idea.

“I don’t think it’s important to tell you right now,” Vernon said when asked for specifics. “We have some people (in the business community) who are very interested in this and who get it: that it (the new position) needs to be part of city government.”

Suffice to say, it will be a great discuss on Wednesday evening.

Council member Kris Gulick was quick to note last week that creating a CEO slot that reports to the council when the council already has a CEO in the city manager would cause problems for the city’s current structure of “governance.”

Shields did note that Patrick DePalma, a vice president at AEGON USA who headed up the council’s government reorganization task force, recommended a year ago and again in recent months that Prosser needed, at the least, an assistant city manager who would report to Prosser. The council and Prosser have put that idea aside in the past because of cost.

The new wrinkle -– the new allure — is that the private sector will now foot the bill.

In that regard, it’s hard to imagine a local “captain” of industry whose company doesn’t have some entanglement with City Hall.

There are street issues out by Rockwell Collins and economic development incentives as well. The city is leasing an office building as a temporary City Hall with an AEGONUSA sign out front. The city is set to approve a franchise agreement to allow Alliant Energy to continue to operate in the city.

In truth, the city has had relationships with some or all of these private companies for a number of years in the form of donations of executive expertise. No one has suggested any problems with that.

In the broad picture, that the private sector is apparently willing to pay for a flood CEO or specialist is a piece of a recurring theme: that City Hall isn’t doing that good a job on flood recovery.

Chuck Peters, CEO of Gazette Communications, recounted at a recent meeting of the Downtown Rotary Club how he and a few others jumped on an AEGONUSA corporate plane in the days after last June’s flood to see how Grand Forks, N.D., had recovered from a similar disaster in 1997.

That Peters is still telling the story is an indication he doesn’t think lessons learned on the trip got much of an audience at City Hall.

In recent weeks, the Downtown Rotary Club devoted four straight meetings to a newly created, local flood-recovery entity called the Economic Planning and Redevelopment Corp.

The corporation has City Council member Monica Vernon on its four-person board as well as Linda Langston, Linn County supervisor. But the push to create the corporation came from some in the private sector who feel the city’s flood recovery needs private-sector know-how.

The chairman of the EPRC is John Smith, president/CEO at trucking firm of CRST International Inc. Smith, incidentally, is the boss of newly announced mayoral candidate Ron Corbett, who is a CRST vice president.

Clay Jones, CEO at Rockwell Collins, also has turned up in public talking about Cedar Rapids’ flood recovery. That happened when he crossed paths and spoke briefly with President Obama after the president’s speech to The Business Council on Feb. 13 at the White House.

Keep in mind, the city of Cedar Rapids, after much debate and many meetings of the Home Rule Charter Commission in 2004 and 2005, voted overwhelmingly to get rid of the commission form of government that the city had had in place from the early years of the 20th Century. In its place, voters picked a city government with professional management and a part-time mayor and council.

It’s no little irony that the commission form of government came to be in Galveston, Texas, after a hurricane devastated that city in 1900. Back then, the private sector stepped forward and said that city government needed its expertise if the city was to recover. In the commission government, council members double as experts in certain fields like finance, public works and public safety.

After a few years, the council-manager government, which most cities now have, began to replace commission governments.

Two additional gauges expected this month to better predict rises in Cedar River upstream from Cedar Rapids

In City Hall, Floods on March 10, 2009 at 2:23 am

Two additional, automated river gauges should be in place in the Cedar River upstream from Cedar Rapids this month, reports Ken DeKeyser, the city’s storm water management engineer.

A lack of gauges and the failure of a key one in downtown Cedar Rapids just upstream from the Eighth Avenue bridge hurt the ability of the National Weather Service and the U.S. Geological Survey to report just what was happening to the Cedar River last June as it flooded Cedar Rapids.

On Monday came proof of how wildly forecasts of the river can move, particularly, as the city’s Craig Hanson said, in March and April when rains can be heavy, creeks feeding the Cedar River can flash flood and river levels can fluctuate dramatically.

Both Hanson, the city’s public works maintenance manager, and Steve Hershner, the city’s utilities environmental manager, both noted Monday that the river forecast at 8 a.m. Monday had been for a crest of about 8 feet. Four hours later, the prediction had jumped to 12.76 feet, they noted. By evening, the prediction had dropped to 12 feet, right at the city’s earlier flood stage and long cry from the 31.12 feet of last June.

On Monday, though, it was clear some things hadn’t yet changed from last June as Hanson was reviewing the latest National Weather Service data and making reference to river readings in Waterloo.

The river typically reaches a crest about a foot below what the crest is in Waterloo, Hanson was saying.

That standard wisdom fell apart last year, of course, as heavy rains and flash flooding between Waterloo and Cedar Rapids played the central role in the flood disaster that hit Cedar Rapids.

In recognition of that, Cedar Rapids and the flood-hit city of Palo just to Cedar Rapids’ northwest were quick to pony up funds to get the USGS to install two new river gauges, one near Palo and one near Vinton upstream from Palo.

Cedar Rapids’ DeKeyser has told the Cedar Rapids City Council that the city would find a way to get the project funded if some of the partners weren’t willing to participate.

In recent days, he reported that Linn County and Vinton have agreed to share in both the cost of the gauges and the annual fee to operate them, while the city was still waiting to see if the Duane Arnold Energy Center and the Benton County Board of Supervisors would join in.

The total cost of installation is $34,000, or $5,700 for each of six entities should all participate. USGS pays 40 percent of the $29,000 a year in operating costs with each of the six entities paying $2,900.

DeKeyser said each jurisdiction will sign an agreement with USGS, and USGS on Monday reported that the matter is still in the works. USGS and DeKeyser both said the gauges should be in place this month.

As for the gauge near the Eighth Avenue bridge in downtown Cedar Rapids, DeKeyser reports that it has been replaced with updated equipment that provides an early warning if battery backup power isn’t working.

A failure of battery power caused the gauge to fail in June just as the Cedar River crest was approaching Cedar Rapids. As a result, the National Weather Service, the USGS and the city of Cedar Rapids lost track of the river’s rise as it leaped eight to 10 feet higher than expected.