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

New state legislation for disaster areas will let City Council pass big bond issues for public buildings without a mandatory citizen vote

In City Hall, Floods on May 8, 2009 at 12:02 am

Late last year, the City Council presented its state lobbyist — former state lawmaker Larry Murphy of Oelwein — with a wish list of requests to take to Des Moines when the state legislative session began in January.

At one meeting last fall, Murphy went over the list with the council and singled out one item that he doubted the legislature would ever agree to. He didn’t think there was a chance lawmakers would let cities sell bonds for expensive public building projects without taking the matter to voters.

Well, it turns out Murphy was wrong.

Deep in a recently passed piece of state legislation – Senate File 457 – is wording that will allow jurisdictions in which there have been natural disasters in the last year to approve the sale of bonds for repairs, improvements and replacements of flood-damaged buildings and facilities that today would require a 60-percent approval vote from voters.

Under the legislative change, city councils like Cedar Rapids’ could approve the sale of, say, $20 million to build a new City Hall – which surely will be a controversial matter if it ever should come to that — without prior voter approval.

The new legislation, instead, replaces a required referendum with what is known as a reverse referendum. In a reverse referendumm, citizens must take the initiative and mount a petition campaign to force the measure to a citizen vote. But to do so under the new law, the citizens would need to amass at least a number of signatures equal to 20 percent of the total number of city voters in the last presidential election.

Last November, 66,662 Cedar Rapidians voted in the presidential election. That means a petition drive would need to find 13,332 signatures to force a council decision on a bond matter to a vote.

This piece of a complicated bill, which passed both houses of the legislature unanimously, makes some sense. A city like Cedar Rapids, which faces hundreds of millions of dollars in renovations and, perhaps, the replacement of public buildings isn’t interested in going to voters every time it needs to get such work completed. Some of the bonding will be necessary, for instance, to front the cost of construction until money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state of Iowa arrives once parts of construction projects are complete. Without the law change, a city would be required to have a bond vote on projects that ultimately will be paid off by federal and state dollars.

At last word, Gov. Chet Culver had yet to sign the legislation into law.

Among other legislative victories from the City Council’s priority list:

— Cities that have been declared disaster areas can sale bonds for projects and pay them off over 30 years instead of the current required 20-year period.

— Cities will be able to institute a franchise fee of up to 5 percent on electric and gas bills. The city of Des Moines, for one, had been collecting such a 5-percent franchise fee, a practice for which they now are fighting a court case over. For the first time, the Cedar Rapids council has put a franchise fee in place – a 1 percent fee – in its budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The new law will permit the council in future years to raise such a fee to 5 percent.

— Cities that have been declared disaster areas also now will be able to move quickly to take possession of abandoned, flood-damaged homes instead of having to the follow existing state law that has allowed many abandoned, empty homes in Cedar Rapids to stand as vacant eyesores for years.

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