The Veterans Memorial Commission last night held its first meeting in the Veterans Memorial Building/City Hall on May’s Island since the June 2008 flood.
It was a something of a sobering event.
The commission designed the agenda to try to encourage City Manager Jim Prosser to get work on the building started immediately, only to learn that such work must await a back-and-forth negotiation between the city and the Federal Emergency Management Agency over just how much damage the flood of almost a year ago did to the building.
Trying to rush ahead with work without following the FEMA process would only jeopardize FEMA payments to the city to make the building repairs, Prosser and John Levy, a consultant whose job it is to help the city get all that it feels it deserves from FEMA, told the commission.
Levy, of Base Tactical Disaster Recovery of Birmingham, Mich., told the commission that the city completed its “worksheet” on its assessments of damages to the building, but FEMA has not yet completed its worksheet. FEMA still has not done so, either, for other flood-damaged city buildings, including the Paramount Theatre, the city-owned Sinclair site, the city’s transit garage and former animal control shelter among other buildings, Levy noted.
Once FEMA submits its worksheet of the building’s scope of damages, Levy said the city and FEMA then sit down and debate “scope realignment” to see if FEMA and the city can agree on a final scope of damages. Then the city must submit plans to protect the building and its contents against future floods.
“It’s the process we’re stuck in, and it’s very frustrating,” said Levy, agreeing with commission members.
Levy said FEMA representatives have visited the building four times to date, and now want to return again to examine the building anew. He said it would be summer before there would be any developments.
Commission member Pat Reinert said the commission was eager to get to work on basic infrastructure of the building, what he called its “spine.” He said the commission wants to move electrical and heating air-conditioning systems to a room above the commission’s office on the building’s first floor. He said the commission even has considered using its own funds to start the process.
All of that will need to wait the FEMA process, Prosser and Levy said.
Even one modest attempt at a commission victory met with problems. The commission decided to spend about $9,000 to establish temporary electricity in the building. Reinert said the electricity will let the commission see how much damage is done to building’s air handlers and to make sure they don’t further degrade. But the commission didn’t follow city policy of written bids, a problem which could cause issues with FEMA later, Levy and Casey Drew, the city’s finance director, told the commission. The commission last night agreed to seek written bids so it can then have electricity in the building.
Prosser told the commission that cities that had experienced disasters told Cedar Rapids how much money they failed to obtain from FEMA because they embarked on work outside the FEMA process expecting to be reimbursed anyway. With the city looking at $500 million in damages to public buildings and facilities alone, the city stands to lose millions by not following procedure, Prosser told the commission.
There has been much tension between the commission and city officials and the City Council over the very basics: the commission thinks it owns the building, and the city thinks the city does. FEMA decided its payments will go to the city. Reinert last night said the commission wants to leave such disputes in the past.
Prosser noted that a public participation process begins next month on the future of city buildings. He said some people assume that city government won’t return to the May’s Island building, but he said no one has decided that.
Commission member Gary Grant said the commission doesn’t care if city government comes back or not. The commission’s concern is that the building is restored.
The lack of communication between commission members and city officials was clear last night when both sides learned that they agree that work needs to begin immediately to make improvements to the building’s celebrated Grant Wood-designed stained-glass window.
Commission members said there weren’t sure if the window had been insured prior to the flood, but Levy said it had been and that the city continues to make its case for a claim to be paid.
Both sides agreed to seek proposals to get the window assessed and fixed as quickly as possible. Both sides said they have wanted to remove the window months ago to begin the renovation of it.