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Archive for the ‘Chuck Wieneke’ Category

City Council lets it be known: It’s not hand-outs to everyone who asks

In Chuck Wieneke, Monica Vernon, Tom Podzimek on June 17, 2009 at 8:41 am

Ask and you shall receive, it seems, can often be what happens with the City Council when a business shows up seeking a little financial consideration for doing something.

The current City Council has put something of an elaborate apparatus in place to try to help it judge whether a request for tax breaks or other incentives makes sense.

At its last council meeting, a council majority decided to use the apparatus and to follow what it was saying.

The upshot: Cedar Valley Heating & Air Conditioning won’t get a property-tax break of an estimated $75,000 over 10 years – about 44 percent of the total bill – if it builds a new 11,640 sq. ft. metal building to house its business at 60th Avenue SW and Fourth Street SW. Cedar Valley also intended to rent space in the building to four other shops.

In return for the tax break, Cedar Valley told the City Council it expected to retain four jobs and create three new ones, all with an average wage of $15 an hour.

Seven of the nine council members said they didn’t need time to think about the deal: They rejected it out of hand.

That was so even though council member Monica Vernon made mention of the issue that often can be the only one that guides such decisions. Aren’t we inviting this business to go to another community if we don’t grant the tax break? Vernon asked.

Other council members pointed to the five-point scorecard that the council established in May 2008 as part of an Economic Development Investment Policy.

The five points: Does the request facilitate significant investment that shows a strong commitment to the community? Does if help retain and create “high-quality” jobs? Does it add diversity to the region’s economy? Does it provide a long-term community benefit? Does it comply with sustainable development principles?

City staff credited Cedar Valley with only one “yes.”

The City Council majority thought that the one positive score — that the proposal created well-paid construction jobs — was a stretch. Council member Chuck Wieneke didn’t think $15-an-hour ranked as good pay for a trade job.

Council member Tom Podzimek put it most bluntly: “We’re not in the business to provide tax incentives to build a metal pole building,” Podzimek said.


Tedious debate on sidewalks pushes crucial discussion on flood insurance into last place on council’s agenda

In Chuck Wieneke, City Hall, Tom Podzimek on April 5, 2009 at 9:39 am

Sometimes it’s hard to know if the City Council starts talking about sidewalks again just so it can be sure a council meeting empties out before more important discussions to follow.

Or at least it was easy to think that last week as the council spent nearly an hour trying to fine tune its 2007 Sidewalk Installation Policy.

Getting through the talk on sidewalks got the meeting into the start of its fourth hour before the council took on the matter of the high cost of insuring flood-damaged city buildings in case there is a new flood.
Council member Chuck Wieneke was quick to the microphone on both sidewalks and flood insurance.

On assessments for sidewalks, Wieneke said there are few matters that repeatedly come before the council that provoke such upset from the public and waste so much city staff time.

The typical flashpoint on sidewalks surfaces when the city decides to install them in long-established neighborhoods where it is clear children if not adults are walking in streets to get from one stretch of sidewalk to another. Homeowners aren’t happy when the city shows up ready to charge them for a portion of the sidewalk installation.

Wieneke noted that the property owner’s share of the cost is usually some complicated formula — he used the example of 15 percent of 50 percent of the cost — that the city would be better off just to continue on with its program to install sidewalks in older sections of the city and forget about making property owners pay a part of the cost.

Council member Monica Vernon said Wieneke might have something, but council member Tom Podzimek, who led the sidewalk discussion, noted that the sidewalk issue at hand was not the one Wieneke addressed.

The council, Podzimek noted, was trying to figure out how to assess the cost of sidewalks in industrial areas or at developments on the outskirts of town that might be a half-mile or mile from the next nearest sidewalk, park, school or trail.

The city has a handful of appeals awaiting the council on that sidewalk issue and the city staff was trying to determine a policy so the matters would not have to come to the council for debate.

One thing the council insisted on when the long-winded discussion had ended was that those with sidewalk issues could still appeal their cases to the City Council.

Council member Kris Gulick noted that the council’s existing sidewalk policy has worked pretty well in that only eight people have appealed to the council in 81 cases in recent years. That’s a 90-percent batting average, he noted. Maybe it is OK, he seemed to suggest, if the sidewalk policy didn’t tie up every loose end.

Long one of the central points of debate on the sidewalk issue has come from developers who must install sidewalks in new developments at their cost. They don’t think it’s fair that the city pay to install them in existing neighborhoods where developers at the time were not forced to install sidewalks and build the cost into the price of the lots and homes.

Oh, and for that issue of flood insurance on city buildings:

It is turning up at the spot in this little story about where it turned up at last week’s council meeting — at the end, after most people had vanished from the council meeting.

The council decided to seek insurance brokers to compete to handle the purchase of $25 million in flood insurance from the National Flood Insurance Program at an estimated cost of $280,000 a year. This level of insurance will cover the cost of cleanup should the same buildings flood as they did in June 2008.

Wieneke made the point that there is no rush to buy a higher level of insurance — which the Federal Emergency Management Agency will require as part of taking FEMA money to fix the city buildings — because none of the buildings has been fixed.

Both Vernon and Wieneke said city staff had been tardy in bringing the insurance matter to the council what with the flooding season upon the city.

Casey Drew, the city’s finance director, explained that the city only began to get good damage assessments on its buildings in January and that it had taken six or so weeks for the city to get an idea of how much insurance might cost. By one estimate, it could cost $4 million a year, Drew said.

The council said it wants to work on an estimate like that. Council member Podzimek said he wanted the city to get in touch with the state insurance commissioner. FEMA rules allow state insurance commissioners to grant waivers for flood insurance on public facilities in certain instances, Drew had noted.

Proposal for new dog park gets council member Podzimek howling

In Chuck Wieneke, City Hall, Justin Shields, Tom Podzimek on January 30, 2009 at 10:46 am

The city’s Parks and Recreation Department is proposing to spend $125,000 to create a new dog park on city property near the Gardner Golf Course at Highway 100 and Highway 13.

At a Thursday evening budget session, council member Tom Podzimek said the spot was far removed from most of Cedar Rapids and seemed, instead, a great place for the taxpayers of Cedar Rapids to pay to provide a dog park for the use of residents of Marion and Linn County. Council member Justin Shields agreed.

Julie Sina, the city’s parks and recreation director, noted that the dog community liked the site, and she pointed out that users pay a fee to use it.

That prompted Podzimek to suggest that non-residents should pay double what city residents pay for the use of such a facility. Taxpayers in Cedar Rapids pay for all kinds of services non-residents use with little or no cost, he lectured.

Sina noted that some of the city’s recreation programs do give discounts for Cedar Rapids residents.

For his part, Shields wasn’t sure about charging high extra fees to non-residents. He said it was unclear where such a practice would stop. Should nonresidents pay double to golf or to listen to the opera? he asked.

Council member Chuck Wieneke said the answer was a local employment tax, which he said would make people who work in Cedar Rapids but live elsewhere help pay for city services and amenities.

The council said it will make big decisions in the next week or two about its budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Property taxes are expected to jump because of the loss of revenue from properties damaged in the June flood and because of increased costs to the city associated with flood recovery.

City Council is out there on energy issue with Obama — 30 minutes after his inaugural speech

In Chuck Wieneke, City Hall, Jim Prosser, Monica Vernon, Pat Shey, Tom Podzimek on January 20, 2009 at 7:19 pm

The City Council spent its lunch hour Tuesday – 30 minutes after President Barack Obama finished his inaugural address – talking about how city government and the city as a whole should use energy in a way that doesn’t compromise the lives of generations to come.

Obama had just said: “… and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet. These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable, but no less profound, is a sapping of confidence across our land; a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights. Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real, they are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this America: They will be met.”

Most of the nine-members on the council — whether they support Obama or not — can sound a little bit like him when it comes to thinking about the future.

“Sustainability” and a look out for the future has been a constant theme of this council and of City Manager Jim Prosser.

Developing an energy management plan is among the council’s top priorities.

In an hour-long discussion Tuesday, council member Pat Shey might have provided the best suggestion on how the council could begin to move on an energy policy and an energy management plan. He said the council should lead by example.

In the post-flood era, the council can do that, others said, by making sure that the city builds energy-efficient, LEED-certified buildings to reduce energy use in the future. The city, they noted, will be renovating or replacing many flood-damaged city buildings in the years ahead.

Shey also called on the council to create an energy-management scorecard, which local developers would be required to complete so the city had a sense of how energy-efficient and sustainable any proposed project might be.

The city already has such scorecards for smart growth and infill development, and Shey said the energy scorecard could be used like the others to make it clear — “It raises the consciousness,” he said — of what the council is trying to promote in the city.

“But we need to start with us,” he said.

Council member Monica Vernon and others said that any energy plan needs to start immediately and be applied to all the construction that is coming in the city as flood-damaged homes and apartments and businesses are rebuilt.

Building codes can be revised as a way to help bring desired energy practices about, she and council member Chuck Wieneke said.

Council member Tom Podzimek pointed to Portland, Ore., and said that city posts on its Web site the millions and millions of dollars it has saved over the years by having an energy management policy in place.

Such an effort can make a city “a beacon,” Podzimek said.

Podzimek and Wieneke agreed to work with the city staff on the formulation of an energy policy and plan.

In signing on with Podzimek, Wieneke said, “Tom wants to deal with the universe, and I can kind of hone it down to the planet.”

Podzimek had been talking about the council’s need to focus on energy production, distribution and consumption as it develops an energy policy.

But he also looked ahead and suggested a very specific step the city might consider taking to ready for the future.

Any time the city is replacing parking meters downtown, he said the city ought to install meters with plug-ins for the fast-approaching time when people can plug their electric cars into them.

“We know that’s coming,” he said.

After the meeting, he said the city would need to put a pencil to paper and work out whether it made financial sense now to buy some electric cars in the near term and install plug-ins to see how it worked.

Long line of people want buyouts, but City Hall frantic to find 51 owners of the first 192 buyout properties; number down to 34 by Thursday afternoon

In Chuck Wieneke, City Hall, Floods, Jim Prosser, Kris Gulick on January 15, 2009 at 7:00 am

More than 1,200 property owners in Cedar Rapids have signed up to have their flood-damaged properties bought out by City Hall.

And the city figures there are at least that many properties that are too damaged to be fixed.

Yet in the first, most-certain piece of the city’s buyout plan, City Hall can’t find 51 owners of the first 192 properties slated for buyout. By Thursday afternoon, the number had dropped to 34.

These are the properties for which the city is seeking Flood Mitigation Grant Program funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the purchases, and it is a program that requires approval of the owner for the buyouts.

The city must submit its application for the FEMA money by Jan. 30.

And not being able to find owners means the city won’t be able to garner these FEMA funds for the purchases of those owners’ properties. These are properties that are unoccupied, likely far too damaged to repair and, in any event, are between the Cedar River and the proposed new system of levees and flood walls and so won’t be protected against future flooding.

It was a fairly odd sight at Wednesday evening’s council meeting: Council members were realizing that the city might get stuck with the bill of buying or at least demolishing properties for which FEMA is likely to pay money if owners can be found.

 “I’m extremely nervous,” council member Chuck Wieneke said Wednesday night about the city’s inability to find the owners of the first properties slated for buyout.. “… Guess whose hook it’s going to be on” if they aren’t found, he added.

He and other council members asked city staff Wednesday to take additional steps to find those 51 property owners. By Thursday, the city had only 34 to find, Jennifer Pratt, the city’s development coordinator, told the council.

The city has published addresses of the properties involved, and council member Kris Gulick asked if the city ought to publish the names of the owners of the properties as well.

City Manager Jim Prosser said he would have to check about that – but the owners’ names are public record and are available on the City Assessor’s Web page.

The city’s Pratt suggested Wednesday that additional properties can be added to the city’s FEMA application until the date of the FEMA award, and she said other funds or a later application to FEMA might secure money for buyouts for which the owners have not yet been found.

However, the council asked that city staff work to find more owners by Jan. 30.

Pratt said owners who haven’t been found are apt to include people who have walked away from homes and out-of-state mortgage companies.

Cedar Rapidians get shot at mastering a new skill: back-in angle parking

In Brian Fagan, Chuck Wieneke, City Hall, Downtown District, Jerry McGrane, Monica Vernon, Tom Podzimek on September 9, 2008 at 4:00 am

Sometimes it seems hard for nine people, the nine members of the City Council, to make a decision.

It seems, too, that it might be easier sometimes if they just ask the city’s experts what they think.

Take downtown parking.

It’s been little short of a free-for-all since the June flood.

No meters. No fees. No enforcement.

Giant on-street Dumpsters and disaster services crews have given way to contractors and big pickups as the downtown is in the initial throes of rebuilding what the flood damaged.

Behind the scenes, the city’s parking manager, one of its traffic engineers and the Downtown District’s executive had spent some weeks working to come up with a parking plan that might bring some order to the flood-damaged downtown as it rebuilds and comes back to life.

The hope was that a post-flood parking scheme might take affect Sept. 15. It’s been put off now until Oct. 1 at the earliest.

The plan features three components: a reduced rate for all monthly parkers; limiting parking on Second and Third Avenues SE and SW to construction vehicles and equipment; and changing parking on First Street SE and the Second Avenue and Third Avenue bridges to angle parking to add more spaces than the current parallel parking there. The extra spaces are needed because the city’s rickety, flood-hit First Street Parkade won’t reopen.

Once again, at an 8 a.m. Monday session, the City Council took on a discussion of the downtown parking matter. The discussion went an hour.

The heart of the discussion centered on angle parking and a concept foreign to Cedar Rapids — back-in angle parking.

Ron Griffith, a traffic engineer for the city, told the council that all the studies “emphatically” say that back-in angle parking results in fewer accidents than front-in angle parking.

Still, council members Jerry McGrane and Chuck Wieneke thought back-in angle parking was not something that local motorists, particularly older ones, wanted any part of.

Understand, too, this City Council for more than a year had had big hopes for revitalizing the downtown into a place of sidewalk cafes, bicycle routes, pedestrian strolls and slower traffic flow — angle parking helps slow traffic.

Many of those thoughts are still swirling as the council also is trying to get the disaster-hit downtown off its knees.

So council member Brian Fagan was asking what the new post-flood parking scheme might do for bicycles and sidewalk cafes, and council member Tom Podzimek was reminding council members not to forget the vision.

Meanwhile, council member Monica Vernon had Googled parking plans and had run on a few reports that suggested that back-in parking might not lead to more fender benders between cars, but cars hit parking meters more often, Vernon said she’d read.

At one point, someone suggested that the back-in approach made it easier for someone to put something in the trunk, while someone else said people in the downtown put items in side doors, not trunks.

None of the council members asked the city professional staff what they thought might be best.

Eventually, Vernon put her foot down and asked that the council not put off adopting some kind of parking strategy to await more data comparing accident rates of back-in verses front-in angle parking and so on.

Vernon said the council had bigger fish to fry, and in any event, the parking plan was an emergency one that would be sorted out and refined as contractors left the downtown and motorists got some experience with back-in angle parking.

Back-in angle parking it is, the council said.

You want to see it in action: The contractors along Second Avenue SE in the downtown started doing a couple weeks ago.

At meeting’s end Monday morning, the council said it supported construction zones on Second and Third Avenues and a reduced parking rate for monthly parkers as a way to keep businesses downtown.

It was still unclear if the pioneering, back-in angle parking for Cedar Rapids would be on one side or both sides of First Street SE between First and Seventh avenues SE. It will be on just one side of the Second and Third avenue bridges. Most of the back-in spots will be reserved for monthly parkers.

The city of Des Moines is one spot that has been trying back-in angle parking, and Gary Fox, that city’s traffic engineer, reported Monday it is working well in limited use in Des Moines.

Fox said the city of Des Moines is using the back-in angle parking on two downtown bridges, where most of the spaces are used by downtown employees. The spaces on the bridges are 12 feet wide or three feet wider than the typical angle parking space.

Fox said back-in angle parking also is used on a few other streets on the east side of the downtown across the Des Moines River from the core of the downtown.

Des Moines has an entertainment district on Court Avenue, which features front-in angle parking and sidewalk cafes. Fox said hitting outdoor diners with vehicle exhausts was why those angle parking spots have not be converted to back-in spaces.

Fox said traffic engineers increasingly have come to dislike the traditional front-in angle parking in an era of behemoth SUVs and pickup trucks. It is nearly impossible to see backing out of one of those spots, he said. It’s easier, he added, to drive straight out if you had backed in in the first place.

The city of Cedar Rapids’ Griffith said, in the end, back-in angle parking is really little different than traditional back-in parallel parking that all drivers had to learn before getting a driver’s license.

Doug Neumann, president/CEO of the Downtown District, said the district was eager to get a parking plan in place. Businesses have returned to many buildings above the ground floor, and some of them need parking spaces on the side streets — those will remain parallel parking with meters — for their clientele. Right now, downtown employees park in the unenforced spots and stay all day, Neumann said.

According to the city of Des Moines, several cities use back-in angle parking, including Seattle, Portland, Ore., Indianapolis, Salt Lake City, Tucson, Ariz., and Pottstown, Pa.

Notifying you of development in the backyard: District 2’s Vernon, predecessor Henderson value getting signs up

In Brian Fagan, Chuck Wieneke, City Hall, Justin Shields, Monica Vernon, Sarah Henderson on June 7, 2008 at 11:19 pm

These developers are a finicky bunch. If it’s not land use, then it’s zoning or site plans.

At its work session on Wednesday evening, the City Council seemed to agree that it would speed up the city’s development-approval process without much if any downside if the City Planning Commission made final decisions on controversial site plans rather than the City Council, which has that task now.

Council member Chuck Wieneke said he didn’t particularly like the notion of the council’s appointees on the planning commission making final decisions on the tough stuff. But council members Brian Fagan and Monica Vernon argued that neighbors or others objecting to a developer’s site plan would have the ability to appeal the planning commission’s decision to the City Council.

It’s hard to just talk about site plans once you start talking about the city’s development-approval process. And the council proved that during its discussion Wednesday evening.

At times, a developer can have an idea for a piece of property, which requires three approval steps: a change in the city’s future land-use map; a rezoning of the parcel; and then a site approval of the details of the actual building that the developer is going to put on the site.

For instance, on May 28, the council approved a land-use change to help clear the way so a developer can build a new Walgreens drug store on C Avenue NE just north of a Road Ranger convenience store, which sits at the corner of C Avenue NE and Blairs Ferry Road NE.

In the latest council discussion, council member Vernon – who spent a number of recent years on the City Planning Commission and was chairwoman of the commission for some of those years – noted that the commission and then the council always considered a developer’s request for a land-use change and a zoning change at the same time.

Now, in an apparent recent change, the commission and then the council first consider land use, and then, in a second round of meetings, they consider the zoning change.

There’s probably a great reason for the change.

But one thing that comes with the change is also a change in how the city notifies the public.

The city posts little orange signs on a piece of property announcing that it is being considered for a change of zoning.

However, the city only sends what it calls “courtesy” letters to adjacent property owners within 200 feet of a proposed development announcing a proposed land-use change.

As it worked previously, zoning and land-use decisions were made at the same meeting, so interested neighbors who don’t get letters might still see the little orange signs and know that City Hall is readying to act on a coming development.

Separating the two matters seems to open up the possibility that a developer can win a change on the land-use map before a wider group of neighbors ever knows about it via the orange zoning signs.

Such almost was the case in the proposed Walgreens development on C Avenue NE.

In late April, not a single objecting neighbor showed up at the City Planning Commission meeting in which the commission considered the land-use change from residential to commercial to clear the way for the proposed Walgreens drug store. To the contrary, the developer did a remarkable thing, giving each adjacent property owner (the ones who were entitled to get courtesy letters) a piece of property to buffer them from the coming drug store. The adjacent property owners loved it and the commission loved it. In fact, the commission meeting was something of a lovefest between the commission and the developer’s representative.

By the time the Walgreens matter got to the City Council on May 28, objecting nearby neighbors beyond the reach of the courtesy letters showed up at the council meeting. Among them was Sarah Henderson, who preceded Vernon as District 2’s council member. The only reason they knew to show up at the council meeting was that the developer inadvertently put up the little orange signs too early for the second, separate step in the development approval process, rezoning.

Henderson and other neighbors had questions about the Walgreens store so close to a residential neighborhood and about additional traffic problems on what is already a busy street.

But one of Henderson’s central points was this: Can’t the city require the developer to put the little orange sign up for land-use changes, too?

Council member Vernon last week asked city staff when it had made land-use and rezoning two different steps requiring two different travels through the city’s development approval process.

Vernon noted that once the land use is changed, the zoning typically follows.

The inference: Why limit who City Hall informs about a proposed development until the crucial land-use change already has been made?

City Manager Jim Prosser said “the most important decision” is the zoning, not the land-use change.

The development-approval process was in front of the council because of recommendations made at what City Hall calls a “LEAN event” in April. The event was designed to “lean” or streamline the city’s process.

Council member Justin Shields asked who participated in the event, and Prosser and Vern Zakostelecky, the city’s land development coordinator, noted that city staff and members of the development community had.

Shields wondered why “no one from the general public” had, and Prosser explained that city staff had the responsibility to “make sure we were expressing those process concerns.”

Council member Brian Fagan had commented that the changes in the city’s handling of site plans seemed to have “checks and balances” in place. And Shields, with some sarcasm, picked up on that, saying “we have all kind of checks and balances” when Prosser said that city staff was protecting the general public.

At one point, Fagan raised the point about appropriate public notification in the development-approval process. But he seemed satisfied with the way things are.

Only Vernon seemed to place any value on former council member Sarah Henderson’s recent suggestion that the city post the little orange sign when the crucial discussion about land use is on the City Hall plate.

City Council a long way away from replacing city parking employees with a private outfit

In Brian Fagan, Chuck Wieneke, City Hall, Jerry McGrane, Justin Shields, Monica Vernon, Pat Shey, Tom Podzimek on June 5, 2008 at 3:26 am

Have you seen the 1993 movie, “Dave?” In it, Dave Kovic, played by actor Kevin Kline, turns out to be an exact look-a-like of the president of the United States. The conservative president suffers a stroke; Kovic takes over the job; and, in one scene, he decides to he needs to find some money in the federal budget for a homeless shelter. With the national press corps in the room, Kovic turns to the secretary of commerce for some help, and the reluctant secretary looks at the cameras pointing at him and agrees he can give up some of his department’s funds for the cause.

It was a little like that at last night’s City Council meeting when council member Brian Fagan at one point said he was sick of talking about problems with downtown parking and wasn’t sure he needed to hear any more proof that they existed.

He said he was ready to take on the question of the moment, should the council turn to a private manager to run the city’s parking operation instead of using city employees?

Then Fagan’s head turned to the left, facing the crowd, which included a group of a dozen or so city employees who would lose their jobs in a privatization move. He saw them looking back at him. “Of course, I don’t want to hone in on that” is what it sounded like he said. He then made reference to the fact that many of employees had 20 years of service to the city.

What is it that the city can do, he asked, to improve its downtown parking services with the employees? But he said, too, that he wanted to see the more-detailed report about Republic Parking System, the Chattanooga, Tenn., company that the City Council has been asked by a city committee to take a look at.

Last night’s hour-long council debate on public versus private was as spirited and delightful to watch as any council debate you can find.

When quiet finally came, it was clear any plan to turn the city’s downtown parking operation over to a private manager and send about a dozen long-time city employees packing isn’t anywhere near happening.

No one on the City Council last night seemed eager to hire a private management company to run the city’s parking operation, although Doug Neumann, president/CEO of the Downtown District, said many cities swear by the move to privatization as a way to get improved service, more expertise, newer technology, customer amenities and better-maintained parking facilities.

Confronted by council member Monica Vernon at one point about just what the problem was, Neumann pointed to a recent downtown parking study and years of displeasure from downtown property owners over the ways in which the city’s downtown parking operation hurts the downtown.

Neumann, though, made it clear that the Downtown District was stopping short of pushing for privatization of the parking system. The downtown property owners would settle for a plan in which the city figured out a way to provide better service and more expertise on its own, he said.

Getting the current city operation to become something more than it has been is one thing several council members, including Fagan, Tom Podzimek, Justin Shields and Vernon, seemed to want to know about.

Todd Taylor, a state representative in House District 34 in Cedar Rapids and a staff representative for AFSCME, spoke to the council last night on behalf of the city parking employees who stood to lose their jobs if the council decided to privatize the operation.

Taylor called on the council to ask the employees – whose average years of service to the city was 17, he said – to help come up with ideas to make the current parking operation better.

Council members Shields, president of Hawkeye Labor Council, Jerry McGrane and Chuck Wieneke said they had no interest in eliminating the jobs of employees simply because many of them now were at the top of their pay grades and had good city benefits.

Shields said this City Council talks on and on about its vision for a better city, adding that replacing good-paying jobs with low-paying ones wasn’t part of the vision.

McGrane said cutting these jobs would send a bad signal to the rest of the city’s loyal employees.

Wieneke, who has been an executive with Iowa Workforce Development, questioned if Republic Parking System really could limit annual turnover to 25 percent of their employees when they were paying low wages.

Last night’s debate featured some testy if civil exchanges between Vernon and Fagan and Fagan and Shields.

After Vernon said she had not heard a clear statement of what the parking problem was, Fagan pointed to a 2005 study that all council members were given to read in recent months. Fagan said the problems were well-known, he was sick of talking about them and he said reading studies and listening over and over to downtown property owners was part of being a council member.

Shields, sitting next to Fagan with his face just a couple feet away, said how come nothing had come of the 2005 parking study if it was so important.

Casey Drew, the city’s finance director, said Republic Parking System could save the city an estimated $117,646 a year in personnel expenses.

Council member Pat Shey said that wasn’t much money unless someone could make a “compelling” case for how a private manager could significantly improve service.

Shey agreed that parking in the downtown is a crucial matter for the City Council to figure out, and the Downtown District’s Neumann said it was crucial if the downtown was to become all it could as a business park, entertainment center and residential center.

Neumann, for instance, talked about the need for “capacity management” so all the parking spots in a parkade are being used to their maximum. He pointed to instances in which downtown employers asked for parking spaces in a particular parkade,  were told none were available and yet 100 spaces typically sit empty in the same parkade in any given day.

Fagan talked about the phone calls he and other council members have gotten when motorists have had to sit for an hour or more in a parkade waiting a turn to pay a cashier and get out.

Shields wondered why the private parking company was being championed as having so many years of experience in parking. How many years has the city run its own parking operation? Shields asked. How is it, he asked, that the city, after all those years, doesn’t know anything about the business?

Vernon admitted that she’s intrigued about some of the premium amenities that private-sector parking companies offer to parkers. For instance, customers can have the company arrange to have their oil changed during the day while the customers are off at work.

Vernon, though, wondered how many customers really pay an extra fee and use the service.

City Manager Jim Prosser said it could be more complicated for the city to try to offer a similar service because the city might be criticized for picking one vendor over another. However, council member Tom Podzimek wondered why the city’s own fleet management operation couldn’t provide the service and make some extra money for the city.

When Prosser explained to Vernon that the parking company also would get a vendor to do the oil changes or minor vehicle repairs, Vernon responded, “So it’s something outsourced by the outsourcers.”


Public v. Private: City Council set to discuss handing over city’s downtown parking operation to private manager

In Chuck Wieneke, City Hall, Justin Shields on June 4, 2008 at 5:30 pm

A downtown parking committee, which includes city staff and Doug Neumann, the president/CEO of the Downtown District, has met for some months to explore the prospects of turning some or all of the city’s downtown parking operation over to a private manager.

The committee selected from companies interested in the work, and interviewed two finalists a couple months ago. Republic Parking System, Chattanooga, Tenn., which manages parking systems in Lincoln, Neb., and Rochester, Minn., in the Midwest, is thought to be the frontrunner. Also interviewed was Ampco System Parking, Cleveland, which manages the parking at The Eastern Iowa Airport and the parkade system in Des Moines.

Part of the City Council debate tonight surely will come down to philosophy.

To his credit, the Downtown District’s Neumann has not glossed over what he says is a fact of privatization: higher-paid city employees would lose jobs and be replaced by the private manager’s employees, who would be paid less.

This clearly has not escaped the notice of council member Justin Shields, who is president of the Hawkeye Labor Council. Last month, Shields said he considered voting against hiring Greg Graham as the city’s new police chief because City Manager Jim Prosser had increased his pay above what Mike Klappholz was receiving as chief before his March retirement. Shields said he it was inconsistent to pay the chief more as the city was contemplating eliminating jobs in the city’s parking operation so less-well-paid private-sector employees could do the jobs.

“I don’t understand how that fits together,” Shields said. “If the philosophy is to cut wages,” then why raise the chief’s salary?

Council member Chuck Wieneke two weeks ago expressed displeasure that there was much discussion at City Hall about privatization of parking and he hadn’t heard anything about it.

This week, the Downtown District’s Neumann said he likely will speak to the council at its work session Wednesday evening. Neumann said he was not going to advocate for public or private, but for better parking service.

“I’m going to make it clear that the status quo is not an option,” Neumann said.

He said privatization offers many of the services, best practices and responsiveness that the downtown thinks it needs to be a “vibrant business park, entertainment center and residential center.”

“If those same marks can be met by the public sector, that’s fine,” he said. “It’s not an issue of who operates so much as it’s an issue of service levels.

“We feel – strongly – that current service levels are unacceptable.”

He said the issue is not private versus public, but private versus “much-improved public sector service.”

Nine full-time city employees, three half-time ones and a less-than-half-time one would be out city jobs if the city privatizing its entire parking operation.