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Archive for April, 2009|Monthly archive page

After years of neighbor complaints about racket and stray bullets, state ombudsman descends on Police Department shooting range

In City Hall, Police Department on April 30, 2009 at 2:15 pm

The pleas from property owners next to the Police Department’s regional outdoor shooting range out on Old River Road SW reach back to at least 2004.

Those neighbors, led by retired Cedar Rapids firefighter Don Sedrel, made their way to the state office of Citizens’ Aide/Ombudsman, which asked the neighbors to try to reach a compromise with City Hall and the Police Department. In March 2007, the neighbors said the problem – the volume and frequency of noise and potential safety hazards from stray and ricocheting bullets – had changed little.

That’s when Bert Dalmer, assistant citizens’ aide/ombudsman, began looking into what state law might say about the police firing range so close to neighbors, Dalmer now tells City Hall in a letter.

In that letter that arrived at City Hall this week, Dalmer concludes that the outdoor range, at 2727 Old River Rd. SW, may violate state law.

He makes note that the particular section of state law in question falls under a section of state law that prohibits hunting near buildings and feedlots.

Nonetheless, Dalmer argues that the law prohibits discharging a firearm within 200 yards of a building occupied by people without the consent of the owner or tenant.

He says four buildings are within 200 yards of the police firing range: Tracy and Cheryl Sedrel’s home at 2901 Old River Rd. SW; the home of Pat Freilinger at 2949 Old River Rd. SW; the home of Chris Simonsen at 2849 Old River Rd. SW; and a business operated by Mike McMurrin at 2665 Old River Rd. SW. Don Sedrel’s place at 3261 Old River Rd. SW is a little farther away, though on Thursday he said he now owns 2901 Old River Rd. SW, too.

Dalmer says the specific section of state law allows exceptions for target shooting ranges that are open to the public and have been used prior to the erection of a building occupied by the public after May 14, 2004.

However, the police range is not open to the public and does not meet the second part of the exception. The range opened in the late 1960s, and two of the occupied buildings nearby were build many years before that.

Dalmer says city officials have noted in the past that the city has taken steps to better supervise the shooting range and to limit the times when shooting occurs.

But he says, “Regardless, I question whether these mitigating actions are adequate to address the prohibitions (in state law).” Neighbors have continued to complain that too little has changed, he adds.

Neither Police Chief Greg Graham nor City Attorney Jim Flitz returned calls on Thursday.

Out at Freilinger’s home and shop on Old River Road SW on Thursday afternoon, he and Don Sedrel said little had changed to make living next to the shooting range tolerable. Law enforcement officers were shooting at the range Thursday morning, they said, and shooting practice had taken place every day this week, Sedrel noted.

Sedrel said what has started out 50 years ago as a pistol gallery for city police officers has become a regional range with city, county, state and federal agencies using it. There are days when neighbors might have to listen to 8,000 rounds of shooting go on, he said.

“There’s absolutely no excuse that anyone should have to live with that kind of noise,” Sedrel added.

Neither he nor Freilinger have heard anything from city officials about the range for what Sedrel thought might be two years.

Both wondered if the city could take its shooting practice to the Matsell Bridge Natural Area near Viola where there is a public shooting range and where the Linn County Sheriff’s Department is establishing a range.

Both said they would not consent to the status quo, but Freilinger said he might be open to working with the Police Department if there is no option in the short run and if closing the range prevented the department from performing its job.

One thing that has changed is that the Linn County Sheriff’s Office has decided to leave the city’s shooting range and open its own in rural Linn County. Meanwhile, the Iowa City Police Department, which also has used the Cedar Rapids range, has been looking for its own place to practice.

Most interestingly, in January 2009, Cedar Rapids Police Chief Greg Graham and other city officials proposed building a $35-million Regional Public Safety Training Center with an indoor shooting range. One of the arguments cited for the need to build a new center was the problems associated with the city’s existing shooting range.

“The State Ombudsman is investigating the possibility of closing the police shooting range because of noise pollution and its proximity to houses and businesses in the area,” the city’s written request for federal funds for the new training center states.

The request went on to say that “the current situation dictates drastic changes and soon.”

In his letter to City Hall in late April, the state’s Dalmer asks city officials to respond within 30 days if it believes his arguments are in error or if the state law does not apply to the city’s police shooting range. After a review of the city’s response, he will decide if formal recommendations to the city are warranted, he says.

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Red-light and speed-enforcement cameras a step closer as city seek proposals for “bullet-resistant” cameras that provide “indisputable” proof

In City Hall, Police Department on April 29, 2009 at 8:01 am

City Hall and the Police Department weren’t kidding.

The two have now moved ahead and are seeking proposals, due May 18, from contractors who will install and maintain red-light enforcement cameras at up to 10 intersections as well as a mobile speed-enforcement camera and a fixed speed-enforcement camera.

For the contractor who wins the city’s business, cameras are expected to be in place at four intersections within 90 days after the award of a contract and in place at six others within six months. The mobile speed-enforcement camera should be ready by Sept. 1 and the fixed speed-enforcement camera by Oct. 1.

For violators, warning tickets with snapshots of a violation will arrive in the mail for the first month the system is in operation.

The city is seeking an automated, digital traffic-camera enforcement program that is a “total turn-key operation with no program expenditures to be incurred by the city.”

Just how much an actual ticket will cost a violator to cover the contractor’s needs and the city’s needs will be part of each contractor’s proposal to the city.

The contractor pays for cameras, computer hardware, computer software, poles, wiring, installation, maintenance, training, reporting, community education and awareness on issues related to red-light violations.

Some intersections may have cameras at more than one approach to the intersection, and the city also wants a system that can expand to more intersections.

In its request for proposal, the city says it would prefer a camera system that provides both still photos and video of sufficient resolution to ensure “indisputable” proof of violations.

The cameras will capture an image of a vehicle’s rear license plate as well as a view of the specific intersection in which the violation is alleged to have occurred. The cameras must have a capability of flashing to take pictures at night and the cameras must be tamper-resistant and “bullet-resistant.”

The city’s request for proposals notes, too, that the red-light and speeding infractions will be city offenses and so will not be reported to insurance companies or the state motor vehicle office. Cedar Rapids police officers will review all photos and determine if an offense has occurred. Appeals of infractions will be made to the court system.

The contract is for three years.

The city’s proposal requires the contractor to remove the system at no cost to the city if the state of Iowa or the courts in the future decide that the cameras no longer are permitted. (To date, state courts have allowed the cameras). At each one-year point in the contract, the city also can ask that the system be removed if the city determines it is not effective.

The city is asking each of the companies submitting proposals to provide a fee structure, which details how much revenue goes to the company and how much to the city.

The city will pick a contractor based on 10 criteria, including qualifications and experience, references, total scope of services being offered and fee structure.

In the city budget for the fiscal year beginning July, the city anticipates it can raise $750,000 for the city from the enforcement cameras.

Tickets go to the owners of vehicles, whether they were driving or not. The city has said the owner has the responsibility to get the ticket to the driver or pay the ticket.

The flood of 2008 eroded riverbank in crucial spots; without $800,000 in repairs, water and waste water infrastructure remains at risk

In City Hall, Floods on April 28, 2009 at 12:07 am

The flood of 2008 also loused up and eroded the banks of the Cedar River in places.

Sufficiently so as the 2008 flood damage, that the city, in concert with the federal Emergency Watershed Protection program, is spending up to $815,065 to stabilize the riverbank in six crucial spots. Without the repairs, certain water lines, water wells and sewer lines along the river will be at risk of being damaged, Pat Ball, the city’s utilities director states in a memo to the City Council.

The city is responsible for 25 percent of the cost of the improvements, and much of that share of the project expense will go to hire Foth Infrastructure and Environment LLC, for the engineering part of the riverbank stabilization project.

In his memo, Ball said the city is likely to do additional riverbank stabilization work at its own cost to make sure its water and waste water infrastructure is protected.

Costs to city climb for its sewage sludge while providing area farmers with free fertilizer

In City Hall on April 27, 2009 at 12:02 am

The city’s nearly unending supply of sewage sludge keeps costing even as it keeps farmers in a steady supply of fertilizer with no expense to them.

The city’s travails with biosolid sludge, which is the byproduct left over after the waste water treatment process at the city’s huge Water Pollution Control plant, are just another result of the June 2008 flood.

The flood, among other things, damaged the WPC facility, which is located on Bertram Road SE near Highway 13. And among the flood damage at the plant was damage to the plant’s incinerator, which is used to burn the sludge left over after the treatment plant. With the incinerator out of commission, the city has had to do something else with the sludge.

For a few months after the flood, the city was forced to transport the sludge to a private Illinois landfill at high cost because the local solid waste agency did not want to take up any of its limited landfill space with the sludge.

In recent years, periodically some of WPC plant’s sludge has gone to area farmers for fertilizer at times when the plant’s incinerator has been down for maintenance. But with the incinerator out of commission, a much larger amount of sludge has gone to more farmers to use on more fields. In fact, in recent months, the city has had to stockpile the sludge in certain places in the country until farmers could get back into fields to apply the material.

Last week, the City Council approved additional spending on sludge because the WPC’s incinerator has taken more time to repair than had been thought, Pat Ball, the city’s utilities director, reported in a memo to the City Council.

Last October, the council had authorized spending $800,000 from WPC revenues, which are paid by user fees, to hire contractor Wulfekuhle Injection and Pumping to haul and apply sludge to farm fields.

Last week, the council added another $800,000 to the contract.

Long term, the city council and the solid waste agency board still hold out hopes that one day the sludge might be burned, perhaps along with municipal garbage, to make energy from waste.

Indian Creek Nature Center bestows a Czech name that means ‘perpetual’ on newly acquired woods

In City Hall, Indian Creek Nature Center on April 26, 2009 at 9:42 am

The Indian Creek Nature Center has named 28 newly acquired acres of woods at the corner of 44th Street and Otis Road SE the Vecny Woods. That’s pronounced VEE-etch-nee.

It means “perpetual” in Czech. The nature center’s board of directors chose the name to honor Czech immigrants who settled in the Cedar Rapids area, Julie Sina, the city’s parks and recreation director, explained in a memo to the City Council last week.

The City Council also approved the new name because the city actually owns the land, which it acquired on behalf of the center with a grant from the state of Iowa’s REAP program – Resource Enhancement and Protection. For a nominal fee, the city leases the land to the nature center, which has established an endowment fund to pay to care for the land.

The center is engraving the name Vecny Woods on a rock so it is ready for a dedication ceremony for the site on May 3, Sina said in her council memo last week.

Council wrestles over hiring local firm vs. hiring “more responsive” one and sides, 5-4, with the Minneapolis outfit

In City Hall, Floods on April 25, 2009 at 8:14 am

Do you hire a professional firm because it’s a local one with a less expensive proposal even if a City Hall review team has concluded another firm from out of state has a better proposal and brings more horses to the task?

That was the central question this week that provoked a spirited debate among City Council members, who, in a rare 5-4 vote, awarded the contract to ProSource Technologies Inc., Minneapolis, Minn.

The city will pay ProSource an estimated $516,400 over six months for the firm to provide data required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency on the estimated 1,300 flood-damaged homes and other flood-damaged properties that the city hopes to buy out.

The contractor will obtain right of entry to properties, verify ownership, document the property’s legal description, check an owner’s insurance coverage at the time of the flood and notify lien holders of the intent to demolish a property.

ProSource’s proposal charges the city $380 per property while a bid by AllTrans Inc. of Cedar Rapids would have charged $350 per property for the work.

The City Hall’s review team concluded that ProSource and a third contractor, JCG Land Services of Cedar Rapids, were the top two of four proposals based on of the four contractors’ overall proposals, experience, method of approach to the project and cost.

Council members Tom Podzimek, Monica Vernon, Jerry McGrane and Pat Shey voted to award the contract to AllTrans Inc., while Mayor Kay Halloran and council members Brian Fagan, Kris Gulick, Justin Shields and Chuck Wieneke supported the city staff recommendation to award the contract to ProSource.

Podzimek argued that the council has spent some time over many months discussing what steps it might take to purchase more products and services from local companies. It didn’t make any sense to talk about buying locally if the city wasn’t, too, going to look at hiring locally as well, he said.

Podzimek said this contract related to property acquisitions was a chance to use a local employer with local employees and a chance to give a young, local firm the opportunity to build skills that the firm then could use to bid on other jobs. The city would be using its disaster recovery, he said, to help beef up the resume of a local firm for other disaster recovery projects.

The inference was that the Cedar Rapids firm then could become the out-of-state consultant – the council here as gotten some criticism for hiring out-of-state consultants – that other cities in other states might hire.

On the other side of the debate, council member Shields used the example of a boiler and said he didn’t want anyone building a boiler under the theory that, let’s give this person the job, “You got to learn sometime.” Cedar Rapids needed to hire “the very best,” he said.

Disagreeing with Shields, council member Vernon – she and Shields have been a one-two punch in recent weeks in trying, unsuccessfully, to arrange to have a new flood-recovery chief sidestep City Manager Jim Prosser – said the contract to assess properties for buyouts was a “great opportunity” to buy local and award the contract to the low-cost bidder. She said the contract involved “basic things” for which previous like experience might not be as important as other work the city needs to be completed.

Both Rita Rasmussen, the city’s senior real estate officer, and Prosser emphasized that the local firm did not provide a “detailed scope” of plans of how they would deliver the service.

Rasmussen told the council that the city’s proposal review team had concerns about whether AllTrans had the capacity to do the work in a timely manner. AllTrans did not address “capacity issues,” she said.

Council member Kris Gulick asked, specifically, about “adequate staffing,” and he wondered how many staff members AllTrans would bring to the job and how many ProSource would. Rasmussen said AllTrans listed four employees while ProSource said it would bring many more than that to the job.

The 5-4 council vote backed a resolution awarding the contract to the Minneapolis firm ProSource because it had submitted the “most responsive and responsible” proposal.

In hiring professional firms, cost is only one of several variables that jurisdictions look at in a competition for a city contract.

In matters involving price bids — street contracts, for instance — jurisdictions must pick the lowest responsible bidder.

Corbett not bashful about letting would-be mayoral-race foes know that he’s beating bushes for bucks for the coming match

In City Hall on April 24, 2009 at 10:15 am

This year’s mayoral race looks like it will be richer than the 2005 race in which Kay Halloran, a retired attorney and former state lawmaker, defeated Scott Olson, a commercial Realtor and architect, in a close contest.

That conclusion comes after mayoral candidate Ron Corbett’s fund raiser downtown Thursday evening in the Armstrong Centre, an event that 135 people attended, he reports.

In brief remarks at the gathering, Corbett pushed for a greater emphasis on economic development and for what he said is the need to “repair” Cedar Rapids’ “image” as a progressive city on the move.

Corbett also announced that, to date, his campaign has raised $42,325.

It’s not May yet, it’s still six months from the Nov. 3 election, and no one else has entered the race against Corbett, vice president of trucking firm CRST Inc. and a former state legislator and former president/CEO of the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.

But Corbett already is closing in on raising as much money as Halloran did and Olson did in 2005, which was the first election in the city’s new council/manager government, a government with part-time elected officials.

In 2005, Olson took in $54,701 in campaign contributions and Halloran, $53,302, $20,050 of which included her own money.

Asked at the time what races for the part-time mayoral slot should cost in Cedar Rapids, Halloran said, “I’m glad it wasn’t any more than that, that’s for sure.”

The job is a four-year one with a salary of about $30,000.

Keep in mind, the 2005 campaign spending amounted to chicken feed compared to spending in the 2001 mayoral race here in which Paul Pate — a former state senator, former Iowa secretary of state and former gubernatorial candidate — defeated three-term incumbent Lee Clancey, the city’s first female mayor.
In that race, the two candidates together raised $226,811. The mayor’s job then was a full-time one and paid about $80,000 a year.

In the Halloran-Olson race in 2005, Olson said the $54,000 he raised was “probably the right range” for a competition for part-time Cedar Rapids mayor.

He raised $4,750 from three political action committees — Realtors, builders and building trades — and the rest from 240 individual contributors.

Halloran had about 100 individual contributors and raised about $11,000 from labor political action groups.
To date, Corbett says he has had more than 240 contributors.

Four people are considering taking Corbett on: council members Brian Fagan and Monica Vernon, Gary Hinzman, long-time director of the Sixth Judicial District Department of Correctional Services and a one-time police chief here, and 2005 candidate Olson. Incumbent Halloran has not announced her intentions.

Asked in passing this week about Corbett’s fund raising, Fagan said the 2009 mayoral race won’t be about raising money.

One campaign novelty to date — a pioneering one for a local Cedar Rapids race — is Corbett TV, which is Corbett’s own video enterprise that he runs at his campaign Web site, roncorbett.com.

Solution to downtown steam troubles now focusing on public dollars to rebuild Alliant’s Sixth Street plant as it was — as a coal plant

In Alliant Energy, Monica Vernon on April 23, 2009 at 5:51 pm

Federal, state and city officials all are looking hard to see if an infusion of public dollars could rebuild Alliant Energy’s flood-damaged Sixth Street Generating Station to what it was.

That is, a coal-fired plant delivering relatively low-cost steam for heat and other uses for the downtown and the near downtown, vital industries nearby, including Quaker and Cargill, the hospitals and Coe College.

Tom Aller, president of Alliant subsidiary Interstate Power & Light Co., emphasized in comments to The Gazette’s editorial board on Thursday afternoon that Alliant as a private utility cannot and is not seeking public financial support to rebuild the Sixth Street plant as a coal-fired plant.

At the same time, Aller said that Lt. Gen Ron Dardis, head of the Rebuild Iowa Office, City Council member Monica Vernon, who is heading up a council “steam team,” and others have talked to Alliant Energy recently about what options the utility had given customers if the Sixth Street station was rebuilt as a coal-fired plant.

Aller said he suggested soon after the June 2008 flood that public officials ought to consider the issue of rebuilding the Sixth Street plant through the prism of economic development for the city. He said public officials are now doing just that.

The city’s Vernon on Friday afternoon acknowledged that there is now a flurry of discussion on the federal, state and city level over rebuilding the Sixth Street power plant as a coal plant to provide steam.

“There are more alligators in this thing,” Vernon said. “It’s potentially doable.”

She said the Iowa Department of Economic Development may be looking to contribute $16 million to such a plan and, additionally, that U.S. Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration could be a funding source. Some city dollars would be involved, too.

In early 2009, the Sixth Street Generating Station’s eight largest customers, which have used most of the plant’s steam, rejected Alliant’s proposals to rebuild the plant as a coal plant because the proposed future steam rates, which would have had to cover the capital costs of rebuilding, were too high.

Aller said an infusion of public dollars to pay to rebuild the plant or to pay much of the cost of rebuilding it would allow Alliant to provide steam rates lower than had been proposed and lower than the current sky-high rates, which this winter were part of a temporary steam system using natural gas. With public dollars used for rebuilding, steam rates, though, would be higher than they had been before the flood, he said.

Dee Brown, Alliant’s regional director of customer operations, was much more direct that Aller when she said, unequivocally, that rebuilding the Sixth Street Generating Station as a coal plant is the only real long-term solution for the customer group — Quaker, Cargill, the hospitals, Coe College, the downtown and others — that has depended for many years on the steam plant and the steam pipeline system running from it.

Alliant could rebuild the coal-fired plant in a year, Brown said, while other long-terms solutions — one idea is to build a $250-million waste-to-energy plant — would take five or more years.

The biggest customers like Quaker and Cargill, upon which holding the group of steam users together depends, aren’t going to wait five or more years for a long-term solution, Brown said.

Aller said Alliant believes it can rebuild the coal-fired plant with new, reconfigured equipment with a natural-gas backup that will allow the plant to meet federal emission standards into the future.

Such a coal-fired plant would provide a reliable energy source with stable steam rates, which come with burning coal, and the plant also would provide a redundant natural-gas backup system, Aller said.

In recent months, much of the discussion in and around City Hall has centered on figuring out a short-term solution — perhaps subsidizing current high steam rates associated with Alliant’s interim, natural-gas system for five years — while an effort was made to come up with a long-term solution.

Aller said it has been clear to him that no one will spend money on a short-term solution unless there is a clear, long-term solution in place. He said state officials seem to agree with him on that now.

The city’s Vernon said the city is still working to begin a long-term study on a “green,” waste-to-energy power plant. But she said such a system might be appropriate elsewhere even if public money is available to help rebuild Alliant’s coal-fired Sixth Street plant as a coal plant.

City Hall 30-year loan for downtown’s flood-damaged Roosevelt clears way for $10.3-million renovation to begin

In City Hall on April 22, 2009 at 7:59 pm

The renovation of the flood-damaged Roosevelt building downtown is set to begin.

The City Council last night approved a 30-year, 1-percent loan of $1.6 million to help in the $10.3-million affordable housing project.

Much of the funding secured by developer Sherman Associates Inc., Minneapolis, Minn., consists of federal low-income housing tax credits. The city’s loan likely will lessen to a $1-million one once the renovation of the historic building secures historic tax-credit financing.

The city earlier provided other short-term funding for the project, which will be paid back once the renovation is complete.

The renovated Roosevelt, which was converted to apartments from a hotel some years ago, will consist of 96 housing units, 90 of which will be affordable ones.

Jackie Nickolaus, Sherman vice president, told the council last night that the top three floors of the Roosevelt, which had been renovated in recent years by the prior owner, might be ready to occupy within six months once the building’s mechanical systems are installed.

Sherman Associates bought the building in December for $2.2 million.