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

Archive for June, 2009|Monthly archive page

City Council set to up its Statehouse lobbyist spending from $15,000 a year to $60,000 a year

In City Hall on June 30, 2009 at 6:27 pm

It’s not every year a City Council brings in some key local Statehouse lawmakers to a City Council meeting to applaud what they have done for City Hall and the city.

The current City Council, though, did just that.

By the council’s count, it had a good run this year at the Iowa Legislature.

The city got special consideration to hold an expedited local-option sales tax referendum for flood-recovery, a vote that succeeded and will bring in $90 million or more into city coffers over five years.

The legislature also gave cities the ability to institute a franchise fee of up to 5 percent of gas and electric bills; gave cities recovering from natural disasters the ability to sell bonds for public buildings without asking voters first; steered $20 million in I-JOBS earmarks to flood-damaged city facilities; and on and on.

Whether in response to what the council considers legislative victories or not, the council on Wednesday evening is prepared to up its spending on lobbying in and around the Statehouse from the just-ending fiscal year’s $15,000 a year to $60,000 a year in the new fiscal year beginning today.

In recent years, the city has contracted with former state Democratic legislator Larry Murphy of L & L Murphy Consulting, Oelwein, to do the city’s lobbying in Des Moines.

In the new fiscal year, the council proposes to keep Murphy and also hire Gary Grant of Grant Consulting LLC of Cedar Rapids. Grant was district director for Republican Congressman Jim Leach from 1993 through 2007.

The total contract for the two firms is for $70,000, which includes an extra $10,000 for lobbying in Washington, D.C., if necessary, Casey Drew, the city’s finance director, noted on Tuesday.

Drew said the expanded contract will provide the city with more help in developing a Statehouse legislative strategy and will provide additional lobbying and increased communication with state elected officials and state agencies.

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City Council poised to award city towing contract to lower-scoring firm after top scorer Darrah’s drops out in response to last-minute change in contract terms

In City Hall, Greg Graham on June 30, 2009 at 5:51 pm

City Hall is ready to turn over the city’s towing contract to the lower-scoring of two bidders after a last-minute change in the bid terms prompted the top-scoring firm to drop out.

Carmela Darrah-Chiafos, owner of the top-scoring bidder Darrah’s Towing and Recovery, on Tuesday said City Hall was ready to award a new two-year contract to her firm a week ago. Darrah’s has held the contract for many years.

But at the last minute, she said the city decided to make the length of the contract just six months, instead of the two-year period stated in the city’s bid documents. The contract long has been a two-year one.

“I was stunned,” Darrah-Chiafos said on Tuesday upon learning the city suddenly was changing the terms of the city towing contract.

She was informed of the contract change two hours before last Wednesday’s council meeting when the City Clerk’s office called to say that Police Chief Greg Graham made the change in the length of the towing contract because that’s the way Graham had done it when he worked for the Ocala, Fla., Police Department.

Darrah-Chiafos said it didn’t make sense for her business to invest in equipment to continue to service the city contract if the contract was only guaranteed for six months. Her bid was based on a two-year contract, not a six-month one, and so she withdrew it, she said.

In city documents provided to the City Council and the public, city staff members acknowledge that Darrah’s scored “higher” than a second company, Pro Tow LLC, and that Darrah’s withdrew because of the change in the length of the contract.

The initial bid documents posted on the city’s Web site state that the contract was for two years, not six months.

A three-member City Hall committee — Sandi Fowler, assistant to the city manager; Cory McGarvey, a police sergeant, and Dennis Hogan, the city’s fleet services manager — scored proposals from Darrah’s and Pro Tow on five criteria. Darrah’s received 91.66 points, Pro Tow, 77.49 points.

Darrah’s won on four of five criteria.

The average age of Darrah’s equipment is 6.9 years, Pro Tow’s, 12.9 years, according to the committee.

During site visits by committee members, Pro Tow’s surveillance cameras weren’t working “due to a lightning strike.” Pro Tow did not have two-way radios installed “at this time.”

Conversely, Darrah’s had in good working order a radio and computer-aided dispatch system integrated with surveillance cameras.

The Iowa Secretary of State’s office lists Marilyn Philipp as company representative of Pro Tow at 941 66th Ave. SW.

The City Council is slated to vote on the six-month towing contract at its Wednesday evening meeting. The current contract expired Tuesday night.

Some federal and state money flows, and the number and size of projects salivating in line grows

In City Hall on June 29, 2009 at 1:14 pm

Let the federal government show up with $182 million for a new federal courthouse here, and most recently, with $517 million for the state of Iowa in the latest round of flood-recovery funds, and you can get to thinking that the government trough is long and deep, the spigot always flowing.

Just today, for instance, the state’s new I-JOBS Board formally approved $45 million in economic-stimulus help to local projects: $5 million each for the Paramount Theatre, Public Works Building, library and downtown steam customers; $10 million for a new human services building; $10-million for the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library; and $5 million for a new building for Options of Linn County.

There’s another $118.5 million in I-JOBS funds to compete for now, and more than 75 local projects are lining up for a piece of that action. But the list is so long, some of the projects so costly, it’s far from clear where all the money will ever come from. But it isn’t preventing local elected officials from dreaming.

Look at some of these huge projects on the plate:

It will cost an estimated $65-million to upgrade the U.S. Cellular Center and build a new convention center next door.

There are plans for a new $35-million Southside Crossing bridge over the Cedar River connecting C Street SW with Otis Road SE. The project also would elevate C Street SW over the Union Pacific Railroad tracks.

There’s also a $70-million Multigenerational Community Life Center, which would be part senior center, community center and recreation center. And a $20-million downtown parking ramp.

Then there is a new downtown public library, which could cost as much as $45 million or twice the amount the library board estimates it may see in flood-recovery money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The city is talking about building a $35-million Public Safety Training Center and, perhaps, a new City Hall-like Community Services Center, the price tag of which is unknown.

The city also is talking about a need for $1.7 million to purchase property to create a Courthouse Square in front of the new federal courthouse, foundation work of which is about to begin.

There is much more.

Talk to advocates for most of the projects, and they point to possible funding from the federal and state government.

To date, no City Council member has talked about how much local money they’d be willing to commit to do any of it.

One local funding source that often has been mentioned in years past for such construction projects is the local-option sales tax.

The city, though, has put the local tax in place for the next five years for housing issues related to flood recovery.

Earlier this year, the city successfully lobbied the Iowa Legislature to get permission to sell bonds without asking voters first if the money is used in disaster-relief projects. Voters have the ability to amass signatures on a petition equal to 20 percent of those who voted in the city in the last presidential election to force a citizen vote.

Burglars hit mayoral candidate Ron Corbett’s home; calls it unnerving; campaign secrets still safe, he says

In Ron Corbett on June 25, 2009 at 5:09 pm

Burglars busted into mayoral candidate Ron Corbett’s home during the daytime Wednesday, ransacked the place and made off with jewelry, money, a computer, electronics, a couple bottles of wine and a bottle of champagne.

Corbett, who was in Pennsylvania at the time with four of his five children visiting his 90-year-old grandmother, was still trying Thursday to determine with his wife, Benedicte, all that was stolen.

The 48-year-old former state lawmaker said he didn’t know if the burglary was an isolated incident or if it’s a part of an uptick in crime that’s confronting the city. He said he will ask Police Chief Greg Graham about that.

Never a burglary victim before, Corbett noted that Cedar Rapids historically has been a safe, family-friendly community with a good education system and work ethic.

“That’s really been the bedrock of our community,” he said.

It appears, he said, the burglars spent some time inside his house at 321 30th St. SE because they opened every closet and drawer. He said the burglars used his children’s backpacks to carry stolen items from the house. One backpack, partially filled, was left behind, an indication that the burglars got scared away, he said.

The burglars also threw a stack of some 50 red-colored and blue-colored “Ron Corbett for Mayor” T-shirts around one room, so they know now that they burglarized the home of a possible future mayor. Corbett said the T-shirts are intended for campaign backers to wear in Saturday’s Freedom Festival parade.

“They didn’t take any campaign secrets,” said Corbett in a stab of comic relief regarding what he said was an event that had shaken up his wife and made him and his children uneasy.

“My wife comes home and the house is all torn apart. Certainly a part of her feels violated, coming into your home, seeing things in a shambles. It really is kind of unnerving,” he said.

Corbett said he supports Police Chief Graham’s call for opening a police substation on the city’s east side and Corbett said he likes the idea of opening one on the city’s west side, too.

“Whatever we can do to get police in the neighborhoods will help,” he said.

At the same time, Corbett said he has not liked the delay in getting the proposed police substation open at 1501 First Ave. SE. He noted that the city is now hurrying to open a temporary spot in a commercial building a block away after council member Monica Vernon complained about the delay.

“You squawk a little and the city can make some things move,” he said

For now, Corbett said he needs to take care of family matters.

“I’m a victim like anybody else,” he said. “It doesn’t make me a special victim just because I’m running for office.”

Flood victims in newly purchased homes may not lose their down-payment assistance after all; city looks at using local-option sales tax revenue to help

In City Hall, Jim Prosser on June 25, 2009 at 1:53 pm

City Hall is investigating the possibility of providing targeted help to flood victims who received state Jumpstart down-payment assistance on a new home and now have learned that the amount of assistance will be subtracted from any buyout payment on their old home.

The local Jumpstart office two weeks ago said 383 homeowners had received Jumpstart down-payment help to date at a cost of $8.8 million or about $23,000 per home.

Initially, it was unclear if that money would be considered a “duplication of benefits” subject to deduction from a homeowner’s buyout settlement. However, the down-payment assistance is now considered a duplication of benefits.

City Manager Jim Prosser brought up the issue at Wednesday evening’s council meeting as he and the City Council talked about how much money the city will need to buy out some 1,300 flood-damaged homes and other properties.

There seems a growing likelihood that the city will have enough money to do the job.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will pay to buy out a first group of about 170 flood-damaged properties that sit in a proposed greenway area along the river.

Additionally, the state of Iowa has proposed setting aside $245 million of a latest round of $517 million in federal Community Development Block Grant funds for buyouts statewide. And the city has made a request for $175 million of that amount to pay help for buyouts of another 1,150 or so homes and other properties.

The city also is now collecting a 1-percent local-option sales tax, which could raise $80 million or more over five years for use in buyouts and other housing issues related to flood recovery.

It is from this last batch of money, the local-option sales tax revenue, that Prosser said the city is looking to draw to provide some relief to those who stand to essentially lose their Jumpstart down-payment assistance on a newly purchased home once the city buys out flood-damaged homes.

Prosser said such a use of sales-tax revenue was needed for those who bought a home not unlike the one they lost in the flood only to find that they do not have sufficient income to support mortgage payments on the newly purchased home.

The city has expected FEMA and CDBG money to carry much of the load on buyouts, but Prosser said the city always knew there would be funding “gaps” for which local-option sales tax revenue could be used.

Those who stand to lose their down-payment assistance may be one of those gaps, he said.

On Thursday, Prosser said his staff is still looking into how many properties might be involved and how much the city might be able to steer to help those who had gotten down-payment assistance.

Design work begins on new dog park next to Gardner Golf Course at highways 100 and 13

In City Hall on June 25, 2009 at 10:50 am

Julie Sina, the city’s parks and recreation director, reported this week that design work is beginning on the city’s new dog park that is coming to 11 city-owned acres near the Gardner Golf Course at Highway 100 and Highway 13.

Sina said the proposed cost of the new dog park is $125,000, an amount which the City Council included in its budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The city’s existing dog park, in Cheyenne Park out Old River Road SW on the far edge of the city, was damaged as was the city’s nearby animal shelter in the June 2008 flood. Sina said the city has decided not to return a permanent dog park to the site. The city isn’t returning to the animal shelter either.

The proposal for the new dog park did bring an objection from council member Tom Podzimek back in January. Podzimek said the Gardner Golf Course area was too far removed from most of Cedar Rapids. He said it seemed Cedar Rapids taxpayers were creating a dog park that would be more convenient for residents of Marion and Linn County.

Sina this week said Cedar Rapids dog lovers like the new site, and she said dog owners don’t mind driving a little to get to a dog park. Dog owners pay to use the park, she noted.

The plan now is to have the park open by Spring 2010.

A detail spotted in a City Hall handout prompts library board president to launch a press release: Yes, she says, a new library will cost $45 million

In Cedar Rapids Public Library on June 24, 2009 at 3:51 pm

The City Council and the Linn County Board of Supervisors are working to prioritize a long list of 80-plus local projects, each of which would like a piece of $118.5 million still remaining in the state’s I-JOBS economic-stimulus pot.

Among the project details that have come to light as part of the I-JOBS competition is the fact that the Cedar Rapids Library Board of Directors has plans to build a new $45-million library to replace the flood-damaged one on First Street SE.

Susan Corrigan, library board president, defended the price tag on Tuesday evening when asked about it by a reporter at the city’s open house to discuss flood-damaged city buildings.

On Wednesday afternoon, Corrigan issued a press release to say the replacement cost for a new library will be $45 million, an amount that will cover a new building, materials, furnishing and parking.

Corrigan said the city expects to receive $22 million of that amount from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to replace the flood-damaged library. She noted that the state I-JOBS fund already has given the library $5 million, and she said the library will be seeking an additional $10 million from the I-JOBS program. Additional funds may come from the Vision Iowa program and from a private capital campaign, she said.

“FEMA will pay to build a new facility, but we owe it to the community to make our new library a smart, long-term investment,” Corrigan said.

The library board does not want to rebuild a new library on the site of the flood-damaged one. It’s preference is to get to higher downtown ground.

The library board envisions a 105,000 sq. ft. library to replace what had been an 85,000 sq. ft. one.

Neighbors prevail again on another developer’s attempt to build replacement housing around Ellis Park and Golf Course

In City Hall on June 24, 2009 at 10:43 am

City Hall and the state of Iowa have been more than willing to throw financial incentives at proposals to build housing to replace some of what was lost in the June 2008 flood.

One problem, though, is that most of the ideas are for property around Ellis Park and the Ellis Golf Course, and for now, neighbors living there have succeeded in scuttling the proposed housing ideas.

It happened again Tuesday, when the City Planning Commission, on a 4-3 vote, rejected a development proposal by High Co. to build 81 homes on Zika Avenue NW across Zika Avenue NW from the Ellis Golf Course.

Vern Zakostelecky, the city’s land development coordinator, on Wednesday said the commission majority, in rejecting the High Co. proposal, had concerns about water runoff from the development site and about the proposed number of homes on it.

Back in 2007, a different development proposal for the site won City Council approval on an 8-1 vote.
However, that development, called Somnolent Grove, proposed building 67 cottage-style homes on what had been a 25-acre farm. High Co.’s Sugar Creek proposal calls for 81 homes.

The City Planning Commission decision on Tuesday is just a recommendation not a final verdict. The City Council has the final say on the proposal should Darryl High, president/CEO of High Co., push on to the council despite the Planning Commission decision.

At the council level, High also will need to win council support for financial incentives he says are needed to build the development.

High’s Sugar Creek proposal earlier won backing from the city’s Replacement Housing Task Force, which reviews proposals in need of government financial incentives and which are designed to replace housing lost in the June 2008 flood.

The task force approved two earlier proposals near Ellis Park and the Ellis Golf Course, but neither has come to pass. Both were opposed by neighbors. One developer has given up on his idea for a project on the city’s former golf course chipping area and a second developer has put his project on hold nearby on O Avenue NW.

Yet another proposal – a 60-unit apartment complex called Ellis Preserve – surfaced a week ago. The city’s housing task force told the developer to go talk to neighbors before the task force invests more time in the proposal.

Renovation getting closer for smaller flood-damaged venues; Ellis pool, trails, police locker room, Jones golf clubhouse and Third Avenue parkade

In City Hall, FEMA, Floods on June 23, 2009 at 11:31 am

Having just passed the one-year mark of the June 2008 flood, the city is getting closer to beginning work to renovate a few of its smaller flood-damaged facilities.

This week, the City Council will hold a public hearing to discuss renovation plans for the flood-damaged Jones Golf Course/Clubhouse. The estimated cost of the work is $292,000.

Also, the council will hold a public hearing on a $330,000 repair of flood damage to the Cedar River Trail, the Sac and Fox Trail, the Ellis Trail and the A Street levee.

In addition, the council will hold a similar public hearing on July 8 to discuss repair plans for the flood-damaged Ellis Park pool, the cost of which is estimated at $367,000.

A second public hearing on July 8 will address $400,000 in repairs to the flood-damaged locker room area of the Police Department.

Also on that date is a public hearing on repairs for the flood-damaged Third Avenue SE Parkade. Renovation is expected to cost $731,000.

Meanwhile, City Hall on Tuesday is holding the first of three open houses to obtain public input as it decides what to do with the city’s major flood-damaged buildings, including the Veterans Memorial Building/City Hall, the library, the bus depot and Paramount Theatre. Other open houses will follow on Aug. 18 and Oct. 6.