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

Archive for April 13th, 2009|Daily archive page

Colorful former mayor, Robert M.L. Johnson, passes away at 88

In City Hall on April 13, 2009 at 6:27 pm

Former Mayor Robert M.L. Johnson died Monday. The funeral home’s death notice says he died of a sudden illness. He was 88.

Johnson held the mayor’s post from 1962 through 1967 at a time when the city turned its attention to urban renewal in the downtown and to building an Interstate through the city.

“He was the strongest mayor we ever had,” Don Salyer, who served as the city’s director of planning and redevelopment for 37 years until the mid 1990s, said Monday.

“He laid out policies and programs and followed through on them,” Salyer remembered. “He took charge. He was a man of action so to speak. … There was nothing wishy-washy about him, let’s put it that way.”

Johnson was first elected to city office as public safety commissioner, but Jerry Elsea, a beat reporter for The Gazette at the time who went on to be the newspaper’s editorial page editor for some years, remembered that Johnson lost the backing of voters after he touted such ideas as one-way streets in the downtown. Johnson, though, reemerged quickly and was elected mayor.

Elsea remembered Johnson’s time in office as an era of strong leadership at City Hall. The city leaders at the time — they included two future mayors, Frank Bosh and Don Canney, in addition to Johnson — was sufficiently strong, Elsea said, that it allowed Cedar Rapids to put off the idea of changing its commission-style government with full-time mayor and commissioners for years. In 2006, the city did change to a part-time council and full-time city manager, a move, by the way, that Johnson supported then and in 1996 when voters rejected the idea.

Elsea said Johnson was at the epicenter of this group of City Hall leaders back in the 1960s who he said made some “wise and far-seeing decisions,” decisions that featured the kind of contentious public hearings that come with matters like urban renewal.

“It was a pretty colorful time for a reporter, because Johnson was not shy about giving his opinions,” Elsea remembered. “He was a colorful character and it was a colorful era for the town.”

Johnson first came to public life in Cedar Rapids as a local radio and television newscaster.

While mayor, he ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Congress in 1966 as a Republican against incumbent John Culver. Later, he served in the Iowa House of Representatives. In 1971 and 1972, he served as city manager of the city of Marion.

Johnson, who resided at Cottage Grove Place, 2115 First Ave. SE, was a tireless writer of letters to The Gazette’s editorial pages over the years and had frequent contact with reporters and others in his retirement.

Former Mayor Don Canney, who was the city’s public improvements commissioner during part of Johnson’s time as mayor and then became mayor in 1969, on Monday called Johnson “a good friend.”

“We disagreed on a lot of things, but as gentlemen,” Canney said. “I really admired him, and he did a darn good job as mayor.”

Canney said he and Johnson talked on the phone just a month ago. “We talked about how we both we’re getting along,” Canney said.

Two months ago, Johnson took time with a reporter, too, tickled, he said, to see that local artist Fred Easker was painting a landscape for the interior of the new federal courthouse now going up downtown.

Johnson wanted to point out that Easker was a Jefferson High School student back in the mid-1960s when Johnson was mayor and decided the city needed a city flag. Easker came up with the winning design.

Johnson said he was also proud that he initiated the charcoal portraits of the city’s mayors that now hang outside the council chambers in what is now the empty, flood-damaged City Hall. He also held a contest for a city song.

He said the city band always used to play the song at the end of their concerts, but then he said that gave way over the years.

Johnson said he asked the band why it stopped playing the song, and he said he was told, “The minute we start to play it people start to leave.”

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For the most part, your property’s value is staying put if you live outside the flood area

In property valuations on April 13, 2009 at 3:37 pm

Property owners fit in two categories: Those who feel wealthier when their principal asset, their home, increases in value. And those who focus on the increase in property taxes such an increase in value nearly always means.

This year those inclined to think about property taxes first will be pleased with the news.

On Monday, assessors in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Linn County reported that the values will not change for the vast majority of homes, commercial properties and industrial properties in their jurisdictions in calendar year 2009 unless improvements have been made to the properties. The same is true with homes in Johnson County, though apartments and mobile home courts will see small valuation increases while office buildings and small retail shops will see small valuation decreases in Johnson County outside Iowa City, Bill Greazel, Johnson County assessor, said.

The big exception to the general trend is with the significant number of properties in the flood-impacted parts of Cedar Rapids.

Cedar Rapids City Assessor Scott Labus said he expected to send out assessment notices to about 7,400 property owners among the owners of the 54,000 parcels of property in the city. Many of those receiving assessment notices – some will be for improvements on properties outside the flood areas — will be those whose property was damaged by the flood. In the worst cases, the only value to the property is now the lot on which a flood-damaged house sits, and the value of that lot, too, may now be less than its value had been, the assessor said.

Overall, Labus estimates the city’s residential property has lost $138 million to flood damage, and the city’s industrial value another $11 million.

Labus said he continues to work on valuations for flood-damaged commercial property. Those commercial properties on the west side of the Cedar River might see valuations at 35 percent of what they had been prior to the flood. Meanwhile, those in the downtown core will see property-valuation declines depending on how close they are to the river and how many stories there are in a building. The more stories, the less the property’s decrease in value, Labus said.

Outside of the flood-impacted areas of the city, Labus said his office’s analysis of property sales has indicated that the current valuations of properties in the city have been within 98.9 percent of prices for which properties have sold.

State law requires assessors to keep valuations in line with sale prices, and Labus said the city is so close to that mark now that his office does not need to make valuation changes to most properties.

Julie Kester, Linn County assessor, noted that the Iowa Department of Revenue expects valuation changes if the value of a jurisdiction’s property is off by more than five percent from the sales prices. Kester said her office’s valuation of Linn County’s residential property is 95.1 percent of sales figures in 2008 and so does not require any changes.

Dennis Baldridge, Iowa City’s assessor, said Iowa City’s current residential valuations were at 95 or 96 percent of the sales prices in the city in 2007 and 2008, and so they, too, did not need to be changed. Johnson County’s Greazel put Johnson County’s residential valuations at about 99 percent of the sales prices.
New decisions about property valuations occur in each odd-numbered year, which are the years in which the Iowa Department of Revenue issues equalization orders in an attempt to make sure that local jurisdictions’ valuations are in line with sales prices.

Labus said the state department works with local assessors to signal where local jurisdictions’ valuations are so that the state does not have to issue an equalization order in the fall.

Labus on Monday said he intends to change his office’s practice and will begin making valuation adjustments each year and not just in odd-numbered ones. He said property owners are apt to mind a small valuation increase in each of two years less than a bigger increase every other year.

Labus and his predecessor, Rick Ellars, have divided Cedar Rapids into 173 mini-neighborhoods, each of which can be analyzed to see what sales of property have been in each mini-neighborhood.

In 2007, such a process saw some homes in one mini-neighborhood climb 23 percent in value while mini-neighborhoods saw values drop 10 percent.

As for this year, Labus said his review of sales figures and his discussions with the Cedar Rapids Area Association of Realtors indicates that the housing market in Cedar Rapids is in a period of what he called “stability,” hence the reason for keeping valuations the same this calendar year, he said.

The Cedar Rapids housing market never saw a big price “bubble” like other markets across the country and so it is not seeing a price “burst” now, Labus said.

He said his sense is that homes valued between $85,000 and $125,000 in Cedar Rapids have probably seen valuation increases because of the demand for that part of the housing market from flood victims in search replacement homes.

“I have a feeling that market is a little artificial because of the flood. But I don’t have the facts to back me up on that,” Labus said.

Two new neighborhood development corps. aren’t quite dueling; one has money; one is focused on Oakhill Jackson/New Bohemia

In City Hall on April 13, 2009 at 11:02 am

The city of Cedar Rapids had no non-profit neighborhood development corporations a month ago. It has two now. They aren’t quite dueling development outfits, but almost.

One of the new non-profit corporations is called the Neighborhood Development Corp. of Cedar Rapids is the one with deep pockets. The City Council has endorsed it, and as importantly, the council has steered $1.5 million in state Community Disaster Grant Program.

Carol Bower, the new director of NDC of Cedar Rapids, has run a similar operation in the city of Des Moines.
She reports that her new Cedar Rapids organization now has four of its nine board members in place. They are attorney Bill Prowell, developer/builder Bart Woods, architect/developer/downtown property owner Steve Emerson, and banker Bruce Anderson. One of the nine board members will be a City Council member.

Bower expects to announce the location of the NDC of Cedar Rapids’ new office at the board’s April 22 meeting.

She has found three spaces that are ready to occupy: two of them are in the downtown and one is in Czech Village, she says. She also has looked at available spaces in Wellington Heights, Oakhill Jackson and Time Check.

Eventually, Bower says she envisions the NDC of Cedar Rapids purchasing a building in a flood-damaged neighborhood and having the organization’s office on the ground flood and affordable housing above it.
One of the focuses of the NDC of Cedar Rapids will be to buy neighborhood commercial property and redevelop it.

Bower has now moved to Cedar Rapids.

If she had her druthers, she wishes that the other new neighborhood development corporation, the Oakhill Jackson New Bohemia Neighborhood Development Corp., would have used a name other than “neighborhood development corporation.”

It’s like having two Gazette newspapers in the same city, she says.

Last week, the OJNBNDC got some attention here after it created itself and elected officers. Dale Todd, former council member, is president; Scott Jamieson, CEO of Horizons helping services agency, is vice president; Michael Richards, president of the Oakhill Jackson Neighborhood Association is secretary; and Fred Timko, president/CEO of Point Builders Inc. and developer of BottleWorks Loft Condos, is treasurer.

Jamieson said the purpose of OJNBNDC is to get moving on issues in the neighborhood without having to depend on City Hall to take some action. By creating the non-profit structure, the group hopes to position itself for disaster-relief funding.

The group intends to work with other efforts and is not opposed to taking help from City Hall, from the NDC of Cedar Rapids or anyone else, Jamieson said.