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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.

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Vernon vents; dresses down City Manager Prosser for not getting police substation in storefront at 1501 First Ave. SE open quickly

In Greg Graham, Jim Prosser, Monica Vernon, Neighborhoods on June 18, 2009 at 9:10 am

Council member Monica Vernon, fresh off her decision on Tuesday not to try a run for mayor, took time at Wednesday evening’s council meeting to tear into City Manager Jim Prosser.

Vernon, who for many months has made it clear she thinks the current City Council has acceded too much power to Prosser, was angry that the Police Department had not yet gotten the city’s first police substation open in a vacant storefront at 1501 First Ave. SE.

Police Chief Greg Graham initially had said he wanted to be in the building in June in the wake of an attack on police officer Tim Davis just two blocks away.

It’s not worked out that way, and Vernon isn’t happy about it.

Wednesday evening, looking straight at Prosser, Vernon declared that the city has a crime problem, that crime is at its worst in the summer, and it was important to have gotten the substation open.

She called the matter “a can-do moment” and said Prosser has not had a “can-do attitude” about getting the project done.

Vernon then lit into City Attorney Jim Flitz, suggesting that he worries too much about preventing problems rather than solving them.

“I’m really disgusted about this,” Vernon said.

Council member Tom Podzimek calmly weighed in and suggested that the council take what steps it can to speed matters along. Then Podzimek defended Flitz: “I do think our attorney’s job is to keep us out of jail.”

Flitz said he didn’t have anything to do with the procedural steps required by state law to take bids on a renovation project.

The building needs about $50,000 in renovation work before it can be occupied. Last week, Chief Graham said it would likely be fall before the building is ready.

Prosser explained that he had taken a risk by proposing that the building’s owner do the renovations rather than the city so the job would not require public bidding and could be done faster. The cost of that was too great and couldn’t be done, he explained.

By looking at that approach, though, the project got delayed a bit, he said.

“We tried something and it didn’t work,” he said.

Even so, Prosser assured the council that the Police Department has taken additional steps to beef up their presence in the area even if the substation, which he called “symbolically” important and a good practical asset, is not yet in place.

Council member Jerry McGrane said neighborhood leaders are disappointed that the substation isn’t open yet. He called it “very unsettling.” He suggested Prosser talk to the neighborhoods.

Deadline for news on huge pot of federal buyout money has passed; City Hall upbeat that good news will arrive soon

In City Hall, Floods, Jim Prosser, Justin Shields on May 7, 2009 at 8:41 am

It’s been something of the Great Waiting at City Hall.

State officials who have come to Cedar Rapids in recent weeks, and city officials themselves, have said that the federal government would make a crucial disaster-funding announcement by the end of April on how it intended to divvy up a huge, $4-billion pot of national disaster relief.

It’s May 7.

These federal Community Development Block Grant funds are the ones that City Hall intends to use to pay for most of the buyouts of 1,300 flood-damaged Cedar Rapids homes. The city has put the cost at about $175 million.

In a talk yesterday, May 6, council member Justin Shields and Sue Vavroch, the city’s treasury operations manager who doubles as a key legislative point person for the city, both noted that they and others at City Hall were sitting on the edge of their chairs on Friday, May 1, expecting an announcement on the crucial federal funds.

Shields said there were “wild rumors” circulating. But nothing came.

Shields and Vavroch said the expectation now is that the announcement will come within the next couple of weeks.

“We are frustrated that we haven’t heard. But we are very hopeful,” Vavroch said.

Shields said he remains upbeat and confident that the dollars will come in.

A big concern of City Hall’s and of the state of Iowa’s has been the way the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development dispensed an earlier allocation of CDBG disaster funds last year. The thought is that Iowa got shortchanged in favor of former President George Bush’s state of Texas, Cedar Rapids and Iowa officials have suggested.

This week, Shields and Vavroch said that it was likely that the federal formula used to divide up the latest $4 billion in CDBG money will be more favorable to Iowa.

City Manager Jim Prosser characterized the arrival of the expected new round of CDBG funds as “huge.”

He noted that the city has been busy putting into place a buyout registration system so that it can begin the process of buyouts as speedily as possible once money arrives.

Vavroch emphasized that the announcement of the new allocation comes first. Actual allocation of funds will take another couple months at least, Prosser said.

Buyouts in the proposed greenway along the Cedar River – there are 192 properties there – will be made with flood-mitigation funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Those funds are expected to arrive in the next few to several months, city officials have said.

Council passes new budget, but not without anti-Prosser theatrics by three of nine council members

In City Hall, Jerry McGrane, Jim Prosser, Justin Shields, Monica Vernon on April 9, 2009 at 9:01 am

It is easy to be caught by surprise when the City Council finally gets around to voting on the annual city budget.

The final vote always comes after much discussion and many long, nighttime meetings over three or so months with the final pre-vote meeting seeming to bring some consensus of what the council has tossed into the mix.

But once again on Wednesday evening, three of the nine City Council members – Justin Shields, Monica Vernon and Jerry McGrane — opted to use the council budget vote as theater and as symbolism which they knew would have no bearing on the majority’s vote to approve the budget.

It was the threesome’s chance to lodge a protest vote against City Manager Jim Prosser.

The new budget, approved on a 6-3 vote, adds 26 new employees, increasing the city’s total number of employees to 1,422.

The new budget is huge by Cedar Rapids city budget standards. The regular piece of the budget amounts to $392 million, but the flood fund portion of the budget adds another $359.5 million to the budget, raising the total size of the thing to $752 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

However, Shields, Vernon and McGrane rejected the budget over raises totaling $23,358 to two of the city’s top department heads, Conni Huber, human resources director, and Christine Butterfield, community development director.

The raises came outside the council’s budget deliberations as City Manager Jim Prosser has explained that he was bringing the department heads’ salaries in line with the other six department directors that report to Prosser and in line with salaries of such positions in 23 other cities in the Midwest.

On Wednesday evening, Prosser noted that the move to establish pay equity for the city’s department directors began two years ago, but got pushed aside by last summer’s flood and by the focus on flood recovery. That’s why the two raises came now.

Shields, Vernon and McGrane said they didn’t think Huber and Butterfield should have been singled out for special consideration — Huber’s raise was 15.8 percent and Butterfield’s, 10.2 percent — when the 400 or so other city employees not represented by bargaining units were getting just 2 percent raises and another 800-plus bargaining-unit employees were getting raises in the 3-percent range.

Shields wondered if Prosser had spent any time looking at other classes of city employees to see if their wages were in line with other cities.

Prosser said, in fact, the city does that on an ongoing basis.

Vernon, a business owner, said her employees aren’t given the luxury of a review of 23 other cities to justify where their salaries should be.

Council member Tom Podzimek said the issue was about “fair compensation” based on a review of many other cities. Podzimek wondered if the city really wanted to lose its top directors or if the city wanted to become a “second class city.”

In a moment unusual for him, Prosser got exercised. He said it was his decision to raise the salaries of two of his directors and if Shields or the council had a problem with it they could address it during his performance review. He said he had no difficulty defending the raises so that the salaries were in line with the city’s other department directors and other cities’ directors.

“If you don’t think I did it right, take it out of my salary,” Prosser said.

Shields came right back at Prosser: “Those comments don’t change my mind,” Shields said. “I don’t agree with singling out two employees.”

Shields and Vernon have been at public odds with the city manager.

In recent weeks, the two made a much-publicized attempt to hire a flood CEO that would sidestep Prosser and report directly to the council. McGrane agreed with them.

The council majority, though, dismissed the move out of hand, arguing that the city’s still-new council/manager government is designed with one top dog, the city manager, to report to the council. The council has agreed to hire a flood manager, but that manager will report to Prosser.

It is a City Hall election year.

Six of nine seats are up for a vote, including Shields’ District 5 seat and McGrane’s District 3 seat. Vernon, the District 2 council member, has been thinking of running for mayor.

Plenty of questions remain as deep-rooted boat-house community in flood-damaged Ellis Harbor works to return to some version of normalcy

In City Hall, FEMA, Floods, Jim Prosser on April 2, 2009 at 9:55 pm

The future is still murky for the Ellis Park Boat Harbor and the small, tightly packed little structures on the water there called boat houses.

The boat houses have been part of the local landscape for decades.

The June 2008 flood, though, bashed the little community, sending some of the houses down the river, crashing into a railroad bridge. Other houses were pushed up onto the river bank or otherwise damaged.

What had been 130 homes now is down to about 70.

After their meeting on Thursday, members of the city’s Riverfront Improvement Commission suggested that life will return to the remaining boat houses in some form this spring, but they said it likely will be 2010 before a semblance of normalcy was back in place.

This summer, owners of the boat houses look as if they will have to pay to restore temporary electric service to their homes until a longer-term, permanent service is installed.

Such a permanent solution will need to await the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the city coming to a decision on damages to the harbor and a plan of action to make repairs, council member Chuck Wieneke, who represents the west-side council district where the harbor is located, said after the Riverfront Improvement Commission on Thursday.

Wieneke said the current estimate is that the 2008 flood caused $1.8 million in damage to the public infrastructure in the harbor.

The boat house owners actually have endured two poundings. First there was the flood, and then an announcement in the wake of the flood by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources that the boat houses were illegal structures as set out by state regulations.

After much discussion between owners and the DNR, the DNR has decided to grant variances for a fee of $25 each to the owners to allow them to stay for now. In the meantime, the DNR said it will rewrite rules that will allow boat houses with roofs and sides to stay in the harbor. Boat house owners and commission members Carl Cortez and Jeff McLaud, though, said they still waiting to see the new rules.

Even with new rules, the DNR is insisting that the owners upgrade the way the houses are moored in the river, Cortez said, and the agency also is requiring that owners take better steps to insure that waste water in the form of sewage and shower/sink water not enter the river.

A problem a little farther down the road, said Cortez, is another DNR rule, which says owners’ boat houses must be removed from the harbor once they are sold or passed on to relatives or someone else. Unless changed, it is a rule that will guarantee the boat house community dies out.

The city now charges $360 a year for the typical boat house to sit in the Ellis Harbor, and Bob Fox, one of the house owners, told the commission that he is going to be reluctant to pay the fee if he can’t get electricity to his boat house this summer. Cortez said he wants to see his DNR variance permit before he invests money to temporarily restore electricity to his property.

In recent weeks, the City Council voted to step back and let the DNR take responsibility for the harbor.

On Thursday, though, members of the six-member Riverfront Improvement Commission, four of whom own boat houses, expressed a fresh sense of optimism after City Manager Jim Prosser attended the commission meeting and made some commitments to them.

Prosser heard first hand from Tom Furnish Jr., the commission chairman, and the others how frustrated the commission has been over some years now. The told Prosser how a City Council in recent years, but prior to his time, did away with the commission’s own paid staff and rolled the riverfront responsibility into the Parks and Recreation Department.

In the last couple years, City Hall has all but ignored the commission, members told Prosser.

“We just felt like we’ve been swimming upstream,” Furnish said. “… We were getting somewhat frustrated.”

Prosser made a commitment to the commission that he and council member Wieneke would identify a city employee to facilitate meetings between the commission and city staff. The exercise will try to bring some clarity and resources to the commission’s mission both at the harbor and at many other places along the city’s riverfront, Prosser said.

Commission member McLaud said he’d long had an interest in all parts of the river here, not just the harbor, and commission member Walter Cheney wondered how the commission could add members in the future.

Prosser told the commission that he would expect to start the exercise with the commission within 30 days and to have something accomplished in 90 days.

“I think you told us what we wanted to hear,” Furnish said.

City officials say temporary, multimillion-dollar flood protection systems they purchased did yeoman’s duty on the Red River of the North

In City Hall, Floods, Jim Prosser on April 1, 2009 at 4:54 pm

Two Cedar Rapids city staffers have trekked to Fargo, N.D., and Moorhead, Minn., to see how those cities’ temporary flood-protection systems stood up against the Red River of the North.

The systems included the use of Hesco wire baskets that are filled with sand and rubber bladders filled with water, both of which the city of Cedar Rapids has purchased for temporary flood protection.

In an discussion Wednesday with The Gazette’s editorial staff, Dave Elgin, the city’s public works director, and Craig Hanson, the city’s public works maintenance manager, said they are satisfied with how the two systems worked up north and are satisfied the city made the right purchase for temporary flood protection for Cedar Rapids.

Elgin put the price tag on the city’s purchase at about $5 million, a purchase that includes additional pumps to protect the city up to a flood level of 24 feet. That level is two additional feet above what the city’s flood-action plan can protect today and four feet above what had been the city’s historic flood level. But it is seven feet lower than the level of the 2008 record flood here. Providing for temporary at the level could cost $360 million, the city officials estimated.

Hanson noted that both the Hesco baskets and the rubber bladders had their surprises in Fargo and Moorhead, but those are surprises that aren’t likely to happen here.

For instance, the water in the bladders froze up north, and frozen water floats, Hanson noted. Flooding in Cedar Rapids doesn’t usually include freezing temperatures.

Hanson noted, too, that the Hesco baskets may have tipped a bit up north in certain spots as the ground underneath them got muddy. The plan in Cedar Rapids, he said, it to place the Hesco defense on sidewalks and streets if possible.

The city intends to use the Hescos to protect both sides of the river through the downtown and at Czech Village and to use the water-filled bladders in the Time Check area.

Elgin noted that the Red River up north drains a watershed much, much larger and flatter than the Cedar River that runs through Cedar Rapids. As a result, cities along the Red River have more time to prepare for flooding because the river rises more slowly.

Here, the city has two to three days to prepare for a flood, Elgin said.

Elgin, Hanson and City Manager Jim Prosser stressed that a temporary system of flood protection has a lot of moving parts as a city deals with flood water, rain water behind the temporary protection and water filling sewers with no place to go.

“It’s more than just putting up barriers,” Prosser said.

Temporary protection, he said, will never do what the city’s proposed permanent system of levees and flood walls will be able to do.

At the same time, Prosser noted that the city’s current flood-action plan has worked well in recent years, at least until the June 2008 record flood.

Elgin pointed out that action plan easily handled a flood crest of 17.1 feet last April without anyone here really noticing.

Elgin and Hanson talked about ice jams on the river here and how that can prompt early season flooding. A newly installed sewer shut-off value at Penn Avenue and Ellis Boulevard will prevent water from backing up into the storm sewer there in the event of ice dams, Hanson said.

No, Elgin added, he didn’t think the city would institute a blasting program to break up ice as they do in North Dakota.

The city already has received its purchase of water-filled bladders, called tiger dams. It’s shipment of Hescos will arrive in about a month, Hanson said. The Hescos had been expected last week, but the city diverted its shipment for use in Fargo.

Raises for some City Hall top dogs are not AIG-like bonuses in tough times; they’re ‘reorganizational improvements’ to achieve ‘internal pay equity’

In City Hall, Jim Prosser on March 31, 2009 at 9:31 pm

Calls had been made.

Comparisons were being drawn both by employees in city government and skeptics outside of city government.

Why, the question was, are a few top city employees getting hefty pay hikes even as the 400 or so city employees not represented by bargaining units are seeing their typical annual longevity pay increase eliminated for the budget year beginning July 1.

Isn’t it, callers suggested, kind of a little like the American International Group executives who pocketed million-dollar bonuses even as the economy had soured and the federal government repeatedly had bailed the insurance company out to the tune of tens of billions of dollars?

Apparently, comments and questions similar to this settled in at City Hall, from where late Tuesday afternoon a press release emerged to explain salary increases for three of the city’s eight department directors.

Conni Huber, the city’s human resources director, has received a $13,208 raise, bringing her annual salary to $96,720. That’s a 15.8 percent raise.

Christine Butterfield, director of the Department of Community Development, has received a $10,150 pay hike bringing her salary to $109,304. That’s a 10.2 percent increase.

Pat Ball, the city’s utilities director, has received a $3,057 raise, bringing his salary to $126,588. That’s a 2.5 percent raise.

City Manager Jim Prosser said the salary adjustments were done to establish “internal pay equity” among the city’s eight department directors.

The other directors’ salaries remain the same:

Dave Elgin, public works, and Police Chief Greg Graham earn what Ball now earns, $126,588 a year.

Casey Drew, finance director, and Julie Sina, parks and recreation director, earn what Butterfield now earns, $109,304 a year.

Fire Chief Steve Havlik earns $114,774 a year.

In Tuesday’s news release, Prosser said his staff surveyed the compensation rates of department heads in 23 cities to see where the city of Cedar Rapids fit. Only Elgin’s salary is higher than the median salary of like positions in the 23 other cities.

According to the city’s data:

Ball makes $4,119 less than the median salary for utilities directors.

Butterfield makes $16,292 less than the median salary for development directors.

Drew makes $19,696 less than the median salary for finance directors.

Elgin makes $992 more than the median salary for public works directors.

Graham makes $2,864 less than the median salary for police chiefs.

Havlik makes $$14,226 less than the median salary for fire chiefs.

Huber makes $27,924 less than the median salary for human resources directors.

Sina makes $17,994 less than the median salary for parks/recreation directors.

Prosser noted that the city’s proposed new budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 will not include longevity pay increases for these eight department directors just as it won’t for the 400 or so other city employees eligible for them and not represented by a bargaining unit.

Cautionary letters from Army Corps and state of Iowa suggest a City Hall not in idle, but one pushing to open doors for flood-disaster help

In City Hall, Floods, Jim Prosser on March 24, 2009 at 10:51 pm

Two letters with a similar cautionary tone arrived at City Hall in the last few days. One was from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; one from the Iowa Department of Economic Development.

As much as anything the letters portray a Cedar Rapids City Hall unwilling to sit by and wait for state government or Uncle Sam to show up with big bags of money on the day or time upon which they decide.

Instead, the letters suggest that Cedar Rapids city government is testing the limits and the rules and working to convince the federal and state governments to use some creativity to try to give the city of Cedar Rapids the ability to buy out flood-damaged homes faster than the rules now allow.

The city’s central request is that it be allowed to use an expected large infusion of Community Development Block Grants to buy out 550 or so flood-damaged homes that now sit in a proposed construction area where the Corps is expected to build a new levee system and where it is apt to need space to move some streets and to add a series of pumping stations.

The federal rules now say that those property cannot be bought out until the Corps has its flood-protection feasibility study approved, which isn’t expected before June 2010.

What City Manager Jim Prosser is pushing for is for the city to have the ability to use CDBG funds from the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development to buy those homes out, and then to have the Corps reimburse the city for those funds (or give the city credit toward money it must provide as a local project match) as the Corps moves ahead with its levee-building project.

“I would like to make you aware that the Federal Government does not encourage land acquisition” prior to the completion of the Corps’ feasibility study and the Corps subsequent notice-to-proceed agreement with the city, Ron Williams, acting chief of the Corps’ Partnership Support Branch, Rock Island, Ill., says in a letter to the city.

Williams then talks of the “risks” to the city. Chief among the risks is that Congress at the end of the day might not fund the city’s proposed flood-protection system. In that event, there would be no Corps’ money to pay for the buy outs that might already have occurred.

At the same time, Michael Tramontina, director of the Iowa Department of Economic Development, writes to Cedar Rapids’ Prosser on a related front about the city’s plan to use city funds to pay for disaster housing relief with the anticipation that CDBG funds will be coming to reimburse the city.

“We share the goal of providing assistance as quickly as possible to eligible applicants,” Tramontina states. But he continues: “The decision to use city funds until the federal funds become available … is a risk-benefit decision for the city to evaluate.”

On Tuesday, Prosser said the letter from the Corps and the letter from the Iowa Department of Economic Development represent bureaucracy in a good sense at work. The letters put the positions of the state and federal agencies down on paper, which Prosser said helps document the issues that need resolved.

The heart of the problem, he said, is that federal programs used in disasters –- by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — are not designed for the quick actions that are needed and that people expect in a disaster.

In particular, Prosser said the city is attempting to make the case that all of the money involved is federal money whether it is CDBG funds that should be available quickly or Corps funds that won’t be available for some time.

The argument, he said, is that the federal government will save considerable money by using CDBG funds in the near-term to buy out homes in the construction area instead of waiting for the Corps to complete its flood study in the next 15 months or so. And Prosser said it also makes good public policy sense to buy out homes more quickly. Why keep people in an ongoing “indeterminate state?” he asked.

Prosser said the city is pushing ahead with “policy papers” on the matter and will be asking Gov. Chet Culver to get directly involved. Some legislative changes in Washington, D.C., might be required to allow an exception to the Corps of Engineers’ current protocols, he said.

“Certainly, they are looking for us to make a case on why there should be exceptions,” Prosser said. “The bigger problem is we’re asking them to do stuff they haven’t done before. It’s not like they are necessarily philosophically opposed to it as much as they don’t have a system in place to support the urgency that we’re pushing ahead with.”

Just a week ago, FEMA announced its willingness to provide funding support for the demolition of more than 300 more flood-damaged houses that the city has concluded are too unsafe to enter. The city is currently in the process of taking down a first group of 72 homes at FEMA expense, but it required the city to make the case to FEMA before the agency agreed to add the larger number of homes to the demolition coverage, Prosser said.

The exceptions the city is now pushing for on buyouts in the proposed levee construction zone is similar to the FEMA decision on demolitions in that it requires the city to make a case to get its way.

“Although with the buyouts, the stakes are much higher, the dollar amounts are much higher and the creativity approach is pushing the limits of what the federal government has done before,” Prosser said.

He said the federal government is willing to allow for certain property acquisition in the building of a highway even before the final approval for the highway project is made.

That model is one the city is trying now to push for buyouts to make way for a levee.

Brand-new congressional ‘earmark’ of $950,000 is intended to get the long-delayed Highway 100 Extension finally built

In City Hall, Jim Prosser, Linn County government on March 14, 2009 at 6:27 am

Cedar Rapids would already have a dazzling new $200-million federal courthouse and a new, $100-million-plus, 7-mile highway extending Highway 100 from Edgewood Road west and south to Highway 30 if only the wants of nearly every community leader and local elected official was what mattered.

Both projects have languished nearly a decade or more.

On Friday, word arrived that the Highway 100 project has benefitted from what came to the rescue of the courthouse project early last fall –- a federal “earmark,” one of those special insertions into big congressional spending bills that are often pooh-poohed but much beloved at the local level.

In the just-passed congressional Omnibus budget bill, Congress has earmarked $950,000 for the Highway 100 Extension, which Cedar Rapids City Manager Jim Prosser and Lu Barron, chairwoman of the Linn County Board of Supervisors, on Friday said is a vital boost for the highway project.

The money will come to the city of Cedar Rapids to begin the process of buying up property for the highway’s right of way, Prosser and Barron said.

The key task now, the two said, is to get the Highway 100 Extension back into the Iowa Transportation Commission’s five-year construction plan, which is where it needs to be for the highway to get built.

Prosser said the congressional earmark will get the project into that crucial Transportation Commission lineup.

The project had been in that lineup at the start of the decade and the project had a champion for it on the Transportation Commission, Cedar Rapidian Tom Aller, the Alliant Energy executive.

In fact, the highway would already be in place had proponents of the highway project, including Cedar Rapids City Hall, not been outmaneuvered by project opponents.

Those opponents fit into two groups: Those concerned about Linn County’s Rock Island Botanical Preserve, which sits along the route of the highway extension; and the developers of a higher-end housing development near the proposed highway.

The federal highway-building bureaucracy requires that a project take steps to make sure it does not damage the environment. And after all these years, the Highway 100 Extension project has cleared the environmental hurdles.

What the backers of the project had not foreseen was the imagination of developers, James Properties Inc., and the ability of a non-elected Linn County Conservation Board to join forces with them to block the project.

Back in early 2002, as the Highway 100 Extension project was working its way through the required federal environmental assessment project, the developers donated pieces of land with no development potential to the county’s Rock Island Botanical Preserve so that the preserve now extended into the alignment of the highway.

The Conservation Board gushingly accepted the donation.

It took several years for the terms of Conservation Board members to end and new appointees by the Linn County supervisors to take their places before the Conservation Board was willing to allow a right-of-way through the donated land for the highway.

By the way, it was back in the early fall of 2008 that the federal “earmark” phenomenon came to the rescue of the downtown courthouse project. That happened after the June flood damaged the existing federal courthouse here and helped Iowa’s congressional delegation to make the case to insert $182-million request into a funding bill to get a new courthouse built.

Construction will start within weeks at the site between the Cedar River and Second Street SE and Seventh and Eighth avenues SE. (First Street SE will dead end at Seventh Avenue SE for the new courthouse, and on Friday, First Street SE was closed off. Drive down there, and get a feel for the new traffic pattern.)