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Archive for the ‘Linn County government’ Category

Linn’s Langston out as mayoral prospect; says she’s flattered she was asked; has plenty of fish to fry with county office and new national posts

In City Hall, Linda Langston, Linn County government on June 4, 2009 at 10:33 am

Linda Langston, Linn County supervisor, says she won’t run for the job of Cedar Rapids mayor.

A month ago, Langston acknowledged that some had urged her to make a mayoral run, a request she said on Thursday that she found flattering.

However, she said her strong interest in issues distinctively a purview of county government — mental health and development disabilities, for instance — have reminded her why she has pursued and won elective county office and why she wants to stay there.

Langston, a Democrat, said, too, that her party affiliation in a race against Ron Corbett, a former Republican state legislator, had the potential to make the local mayoral race overly partisan at a time when partisan politics should not be what the race, which is officially a non-partisan one, should be.

The city will have three or four good mayoral candidates, she said.

At the same time, just three weeks ago she assumed new national responsibilities as president of the National Democratic County Officials, a position that also places her as one of seven Iowans on the National Democratic Committee.

Building new or renovating flood-damaged public buildings? Linn’s Barron weighs in on the S word — sustainability

In City Hall, Linn County government on May 28, 2009 at 8:23 am

Advocates for returning city government to the flood-damaged and iconic Veterans Memorial Building/City Hall on May’s Island might want to talk to Lu Barron, chairwoman of the Linn County Board of Supervisors.

On June 23, the city of Cedar Rapids will begin the first of a series of open houses in what surely will be a well-attended public participation process to help the City Council decide the future of the city’s flood-damaged buildings.

Those buildings include the Veterans Memorial Building/City Hall, library, Public Works Building and the existing federal courthouse, which the city is slated to take control of once the new federal courthouse opens in the fall of 2012.

One word that will be tossed around as much as any is “sustainability.” In this context, sustainability is the notion that the city should renovate or build new with an eye to energy efficiency and other considerations that help lower a building’s operating costs over time.

It’s not been uncommon for the city officials and City Council members to toss the word “sustainability” around over the last year in a way that leaves the impression that building new buildings is the best way to achieve sustainability.

Tell that to Linn County’s Lu Barron.

In a talk with The Gazette editorial board this week, Barron defended the county’s decisions to withdrawn from a joint public participation process with the city and to return to the county’s flood-damaged Administrative Office Building on First Street SW across from the Penford Products plant.

Barron said the county needed to move more quickly than the city in making decisions about the county’s flood-damaged buildings, and she said it made fiscal sense to return to the existing building rather than building something new.

Then she mentioned the S word.

“One of the most sustainable things you can do is to use an existing building,” Barron said.

She said planned renovations to the county’s Administrative Office Building, which include adding a floor to the building, will add 30, 40 or more years to the life of the structure at, perhaps, half the cost of building a new building.

“I think taxpayers want that out of us,” she said.

Barron acknowledged that prior supervisors some years ago purchased land along the Cedar River near the current city police station with an eye to constructing a new county building and abandoning the Administrative Office Building. It makes financial sense now to stay put and remodel the existing building, Barron said.

To be sure, the county’s Administrative Office Building, which Barron said sits outside the 500-year floodplain, has less flood damage than the city’s Veterans Memorial Building/City Hall on May’s Island.

The county, though, has returned to the courthouse and jail on the island.

Linn’s Langston has new national responsibilities; says she’d give up national gig if she runs and wins Cedar Rapids mayor’s post

In City Hall, Linda Langston, Linn County government on May 18, 2009 at 4:15 pm

Linn County Supervisor Linda Langston, a big-time local Democrat, is a big-time national Democrat, too.

Langston has been elected president of the National Democratic County Officials, a position that also gives her membership on the Democratic National Committee.

Only six other Iowans are on the DNC.

Both new positions prompted the question to Langston late Monday afternoon: Will the national positions force her to set aside any thought of running for Cedar Rapids mayor, an idea that she said a few weeks ago she had been asked to entertain?

Langston said the new national responsibilities wouldn’t prevent her from running for mayor. But she said she would give up the national posts if she were elected mayor.

No, she added, she hasn’t decided yet if she will run for mayor or not. She said she’s apt to decide in June.

She said she’d issue a press release when she decides. Asked if she wouldn’t hold a news conference to announce a mayoral run rather than issue a press release, she said, in fact, she would hold a news conference. She said the fact that she said “press release” and not news conference didn’t mean anything.

Langston said she has been vice president of the National Democratic County Officials, and now has been elected president to fill the slot left by previous president, who has taken a job as a deputy director of the Department of Housing & Urban Development.

City Hall readies to review flood-insurance proposals; Linn supervisors are as eager to get huge costs waived by state insurance commissioner

In City Hall, FEMA, Floods, Linn County government on April 20, 2009 at 9:02 am

Local government is going to turn to the Iowa Insurance Division for help in confronting giant insurance costs that are required in exchange for accepting giant payments from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to fix flood-damaged city, county and school buildings.

Linn County Risk Manager Steve Estenson on Monday morning revealed potential annual insurance costs facing Linn County once it repairs and returns to the its courthouse and jail on May’s Island and to a few other county buildings flooded last June.

He put the first estimate of costs at about $600,000 a year, but a final total is not known other than it is not apt to be that high. That is, in part, because the county may not return to the Witwer Building downtown and it intends to move the flood-destroyed Options Building elsewhere. Even so, it will need to pay some flood insurance on the Options Building.

What the Linn supervisors were most interested in, though, was Estenson’s comment that the city, school district and county all are now planning to ask the state insurance commission for a waiver of some of the insurance costs. FEMA regulations permit such waivers, although they are not common.

The Cedar Rapids City Council said two weeks ago it was interested in exploring such a waiver.

The council is a step ahead of the supervisors. It already made a formal request for brokers to handle the city’s flood-insurance matters.

The council will be able to forgo much of the huge insurance costs this year because it will not be returning this year to City Hall, the library and Paramount Theatre, three city buildings flood-damaged in June 2008.

Joe calls Linda; wants local read on getting federal dollars to the front lines

In Linda Langston, Linn County government on April 17, 2009 at 1:02 pm

Vice President Joe Biden called Linda Langston, Linn County supervisor, this week to include her in a conference call with five other local officials from around the nation.

Biden wanted to know how the federal government’s new stimulus package — the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 — is working at the local level.

Langston says she asked Biden if there was a way for more of the federal money to be driven down to the metropolitan areas so that it doesn’t all have to go through states, or if it must all go to states, if there was a way to expedite how it gets to localities from there.

Langston says she also talked to Biden about how money gets to local communities to fund public health programs like those related to the prevention of chronic diseases.

Part of the conversation focused on transit funds and how to order and buy hybrid buses, and beyond that, how to make federal funding available for a wider assortment of fuel-efficient cars and trucks from squad cars to garbage trucks.

Langston figures she and another county official were included in the Biden call because Biden has a fondness for county officials. That’s where he got his start in public life, Langston says.

Langston says Biden is getting a follow-up letter from her about funding for public health and for matters related to flood recovery in Cedar Rapids and Linn County.

Also on the call were Carl Dean, mayor of Nashville, Tenn.; R.T. Rybak, mayor of Minneapolis; John Robert Smith, mayor of Meridian, Miss.; Barbara Fiala, county executive, Broom County, New York; and Darwin Hyman, mayor of Columbia, Mo.

One route to property-tax relief for flood victims closes; still can qualify if 65 or older or totally disabled and have income below $20,031

In Floods, Linn County government on April 8, 2009 at 12:56 pm

They wanted to. They did it. But they can’t, Gary Jarvis, assistant Linn County Attorney, told the Linn County Board of Supervisors on Wednesday.

The upshot: Owners of flood-damaged property, for now, will face property-tax bills based on the pre-flood value of their properties, and they also will face a county tax sale of their property in June if they don’t pay the tax bill.

Jarvis told the supervisors on Wednesday that their decision last week to suspend the property taxes of flood victim Dana Spore of Cedar Rapids was an incorrect one. He said the particular section of state law on which the supervisors relied limits such tax suspensions to those 65 or older or those totally disabled. The intent of the longstanding state law is to not force the elderly and totally disabled to lose their property for not paying taxes. The unpaid taxes are then recouped when the person dies and the property is sold, Jarvis said.

After Jarvis’ presentation, the supervisors reluctantly rescinded the tax suspension they had granted a week before.

Jarvis recommended that the supervisors watch and wait as the Iowa Legislature finishes its session in the next couple of weeks to see if state lawmakers will provide some property-tax relief for flood victims.

Supervisor Linda Langston said the supervisors then will have time to revisit the property-tax matter to see if they want to adopt some sort of tax abatement procedure for taxes due later this year.

The supervisors are in no rush to make any big moves because the tax revenue of cities and schools as well as the county are tied to any decision by the supervisors to abate property taxes. State law puts these decisions in the supervisors’ hands.

Langston said one good thing about granting last week’s tax suspension, which has now been rescinded, is that several people contacted the supervisors who qualify for a suspension of property taxes because they are 65 or older or are disabled.

Unpaid property taxes send a property to the Treasurer’s Office tax sale in June. Investors pay the taxes, collect interest on the amount and then can assume ownership of the property if the owner doesn’t pay the taxes and interest within two years.

What Linn County gave a flood victim, it apparently must take back

In Floods, Linn County government on April 3, 2009 at 2:03 pm

The Linn County Board of Supervisors this week agreed to suspend the property taxes of a Cedar Rapids flood victim based on a provision in state law.

Next week, at the advice of the Linn County Attorney’s Office and its reading of the state statute, the supervisors are apt to rescind the suspension, Lu Barron, board chairwoman, and Linn County Treasurer Mike Stevenson said Friday.

As the supervisors recently have discussed flood victims and their property taxes, Stevenson has noted that the county suspends property taxes each year for 750 or so homeowners based on a state law that permits suspensions for those over 65 or those disabled who meet certain income guidelines.

This week, though, the supervisors accorded Dana Spore of Cedar Rapids a tax suspension because she is a flood victim, not because of age or disability.

Barron on Friday said the County Attorney’s Office now has concluded that the provision of the particular state law on tax suspensions does not allow the county to extend it to someone who does not fit the age or disability criteria.

As a result, Barron said the supervisors next week — probably at their Wednesday morning meeting — will revisit the entire tax-suspension matter and see what other state laws exist that might have some bearing the property taxes of flood victims.

“We need to address this,” Barron said. “We can’t let this go.”

For now, though, the need to rescind Spore’s tax suspension will come as a disappointment to Spore and others.

Upon hearing the news about Spore’s tax suspension this week, other flood victims called the supervisors and the Linn County Treasurer seeking like suspensions of their property taxes.

The suspension is attractive to many flood victims who face paying property taxes on flood-damaged homes they cannot live in and likely will never be able to live in again. Particularly upsetting to the victims is that the taxes continue to be based on the pre-flood value of homes. That’s because Iowa’s property-tax system bases current taxes on earlier valuations, flood or no flood.

Without a suspension or tax abatement, homeowners who can’t or don’t pay their property taxes will face interest penalties and see their homes put up for tax sale in June. They could lose the home in two years if they then don’t pay the owed tax and the interest by then.

Scott Labus, the city of Cedar Rapids’ assessor, this week said his office’s new assessments of the city’s flood-damaged residential property found that it has lost $138.5 million of its value to the flood.

City, county contributing to one private-sector effort on flood recovery while private sector contributes to second effort in City Hall

In City Hall, Linn County government on March 17, 2009 at 3:34 pm

The private sector’s interest in helping with flood recovery got another boost this week.

The Linn County Board of Supervisors has agreed to contribute $20,000 to the Economic Planning and Redevelopment Corp., an upstart private-sector initiative created in Cedar Rapids to help with local flood recovery.

For one, the Linn County board’s contribution should help comfort Cedar Rapids City Private-sector help on flood recovery: City, county contributing to one business-led Council member Chuck Wieneke, who has suggested that the council take back its $50,000 grant to the EPRC if the county wasn’t willing to contribute.

Earlier, the county board had tabled the matter.

On Tuesday, Lu Barron, chairwoman of the Linn board, said Tuesday that the board first wanted to get a better feel for the EPRC’s plans and mission before it contributed to the effort. On a unanimous 5-0 vote, the board now is satisfied, Barron said.

The public support for the EPRC makes it a private-public partnership, though the push for its creation came from some local business leaders displeased with the pace of flood recovery in the city. John Smith, president/CEO of trucking firm CRST International Inc., is chairman of the four-person EPRC board.

The EPRC’s director is Doug Neumann, who also holds down a post with the Downtown District.

In the last two weeks, the EPRC’s still-new role got pushed into the background a bit as yet a second, private-sector initiative surfaced in hopes of helping City Hall better deal with the city’s flood recovery. In this second effort, which is being promoted by Rockwell Collins, local business interests have offered to pay to support a new city flood-recovery manager inside of City Hall not outside of City Hall where the EPRC is operating.

Fund-raising for the City Hall position reportedly is underway even as the city and now Linn County are spending public dollars to pay for the first private-sector initiative, the EPRC.

The EPRC’s Neumann and the EPRC board have said that the EPRC will be out chasing federal grants and private grants that the city and county are not.

“I sincerely appreciate that the county supervisors have recognized the value EPRC can have in helping find funds for flood recovery and in helping accelerate progress on the many redevelopment projects we need to revitalize this great community,” Neumann said Tuesday of the county board’s funding support.

Linn County’s Barron said the EPRC and the private-sector-supported flood coordinator inside City Hall may have efforts that overlap a bit, but she said she sees the two positions as working together.

Linn supervisor Linda Langston and Monica Vernon, Cedar Rapids council member, are on the four-member EPRC board of directors.

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.)