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

Posts Tagged ‘Jim Prosser’

City and state celebrate funding that will help put people into 177 new residences by year’s end

In CDBG, City Hall on July 9, 2009 at 1:09 pm

Sometimes a city needs a dog-and-pony show.

At least the case could be made for the one — for the news conference — on Thursday in which state and local officials met in a new housing development in northwest Cedar Rapids to celebrate a significant infusion of federal dollars designed to help build 177 owner-occupied residences here by the end of the year.
Of the 177, 94 will be single-family homes and 83 will be condominiums.

In total, the Iowa Department of Economic Development and the Rebuild Iowa Office are steering about $7.5 million in federal Community Development Block Grant funds into Cedar Rapids for the new construction. Statewide including in Cedar Rapids, a total of $17 million is being spent on the program, which will result in a total of 343 new owner-occupied residences, Mike Tramontina, director of the state economic development agency, noted at Thursday’s news conference.

Lt. Gen. Ron Dardis, who heads up the Rebuild Iowa Office, said the homebuilding is part disaster recovery and part economic stimulus that will fill a need for affordable housing in Cedar Rapids that existed before the June 2008 flood and exists even more now.

Those purchasing the 177 new residents can qualify to receive up to 30 percent of the cost of the home or condominium as down payment assistance on new homes worth $180,000 or less. The new owners must have a household income at or below the average median household income and they must be able to support a mortgage on the new residence.

Dardis said the program’s down payment assistance will open up some of the homes to those who lost residences in the flood, and as a result, will allow some flood victims to regain “a sense of neighborhood.” It’s hard to measure the extra value of that, Dardis said.

Thursday’s news conference on Moose Drive NW in the Wilderness Estates Edition took place almost directly in front of the basement of Rick Davis’ new house.

Davis, an active member of the Northwest Neighbors, lost his house in the Time Check Neighborhood, and he said he Thursday he would not be preparing to move into a new house on the edge of town except for the down payment assistance in the program that was being celebrated on Thursday.

A lover of the Time Check Neighborhood, Davis said he did not want to live there now because he didn’t trust the river.

“I’m out in the country now,” he joked. “I’ve got corn instead of the river.”

Ben Busch spoke at the news conference and said the program was allowing him, wife Jenna and their two young children to move out of apartments and into not just their first house, but a new house.

City Manager Jim Prosser noted that 20 local builders are involved in building the 177 new residences that are part of the down payment assistance program. He called the funding program a “signature” one and he said it has been well-designed to provide needed housing in an efficient way.

Prosser pointed to a January 2009 survey of the city’s flood-recovery housing needs, and he said the 177 new residences plus another 20 new homes being build in the Oakhill Jackson Neighborhood have put the city well on the way to meeting a goal of seeing 300 or so owner-occupied residences built as part of the city’s flood recovery.

Local home builders already have been inquiring about the prospects of a second round of funding for the program, and the state’s Tramontina did not rule out such a prospect. He said it would depend on money and actual housing demand in Cedar Rapids.

Kyle Skogman, president of Skogman Homes, left Tramontina with an idea. Skogman said the state of Iowa should consider similar housing incentives in the years ahead as the city buys out and demolishes flood-damaged houses and has lots, in some instances, on which new homes can be built.

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.

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.

City Hall: Changing organizational tables at PD and Code Enforcement not rearranging deck chairs on the Titantic

In City Hall on June 11, 2009 at 8:08 am

It’s called “flattening” the organization.

Police Chief Greg Graham detailed to the City Council this week how he is shifting the Police Department’s table of organization to have fewer top dogs and, so, a few more dogs to work the streets.

His changes will eliminate two captain slots – now vacant because of retirements – and add five sergeant spots to the department’s table of organization.

This will make for five captain positions instead of seven; 27 sergeant slots, up from 22; while the number of lieutenants will remain at 13, according to a count by the department on Thursday.

In addition, the department will have a civilian manage the city’s animal control operation, which will allow a police sergeant who has been in that slot to return to other department duties.

In the mix, too, Graham is eliminating a vacant detective slot as well as a vacant animal control kennel work job.

Throw all the changes together and the department will still have the same number of swore police officers – about 200. But the police chief says the department will have better “line-level supervision” and less top management.

At the City Council meeting Wednesday evening, council member Justin Shields asked Graham if cutting the number of captains slots might frustrate officers because it limited the number of top posts officers could aspire to fill.

Graham said it might frustrate officers because it does take away a few promotional opportunities. But the chief said he didn’t want to maintain a particular table of organization just so officers can be promoted. Positions need to have “viable functions,” he said.

“We had too many captains,” the chief said.

When all the budgetary math related to the reorganization is done, Graham is saving the city about $83,000, he told the council.

City Manager Jim Prosser also detailed a reorganization of the city’s Code Enforcement office.

The council earlier this year added nine new positions to the Code Enforcement operation to enable the city to more effectively oversee the flood-recovery rebuilding effort in the city.

One of the changes is to a Code Enforcement management position, which will eliminate the housing/zoning manager post and replace it with an assistant code enforcement manager position.

The reorganization will create two positions with the title “nuisance abatement officer.”

Council member Justin Shields told Prosser that he has been urging the city to take care of a couple of particular nuisances for a year. He asked the city manager if the nuisance positions might better get things done.

Code Enforcement now will have the equivalent of 38.5 full-time positions, up from 38.17, Prosser said.

City readies to take down 71 more flood-damaged homes, but not before councilman Wieneke questions costly caution over asbestos

In City Hall, Floods on May 29, 2009 at 4:32 pm

Seventy down, the next 71 or so at the ready, 1,150 or so to go.

The City Council this week gave the go-ahead to demolish 71 more flood-damaged properties.

The demolition of a first group of 70 properties, most of which were homes, was completed at the end of April.

This next group of properties is part of a group of homes tagged with red placards in the city’s worst-to-best system of purple, red, yellow and green placards. The purple-placarded homes came down first.

The decision this week to go ahead with 71 or so more homes did not come with some disagreement.

Council member Chuck Wieneke took great exception to the city’s plan to – as it did with the purple-placarded homes – treat the next 71 homes as too unsafe to enter. With that status, the city plan is that the properties can’t be checked for asbestos and the asbestos, if found, can’t be removed before demolition.

As a result, the entire property is considered to be asbestos-containing material, which requires special handling and increased costs during demolition.

Wieneke said he had “real heartburn” with the idea that the city would be paying what he said would be five times the regular demolition cost because of the decision about asbestos. He estimated the cost to demolish each house as it it had asbestos at $35,000 to $37,000.

He noted that many of the red-placarded houses have been entered by the homeowners with the assistance of city staff since the flood, and he didn’t see why city staff couldn’t do the same now to identify and mitigate any asbestos.

Wieneke said he’d be willing to walk into the homes.

City Manager Jim Prosser and Tim Manz, the city’s interim manager of code enforcement, countered, telling Wieneke that the city’s latest round of inspections found these 71 properties to be the worst of what is left standing and too unsafe to enter.

Manz said the structural instability of the 71 properties was similar to the purple-placarded homes that have now been demolished.

He noted that the city has another 140 homes that it has received permission from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to take down, and he said that group of homes likely will allow for asbestos assessment and removal before demolition.

Council member Justin Shields said it was best to err on the side of safety. Manz assured council member Tom Podzimek that the owners were being notified before the demolitions.

Bids for the work must be submitted to the city by 11 a.m. June 11.

The contract calls for an estimated 71 structures to be down by Sept. 25.

The city continues to await additional federal Community Development Block Grant funds, which it plans to use to pay for buyouts and demolitions of most of the 1,300 flood-damaged homes and other structures it expects to buy out.

FEMA has agreed to pay for demolitions of a few hundred of the worst-damaged properties.

Mr. $475-an-hour — who became Mr. $225-an-hour — still a vital cog in the city’s drive to get all it can from FEMA

In City Hall, FEMA, Floods on May 14, 2009 at 9:58 am

The City Council approved a contract extension last night for John Levy.

The extension takes Levy’s contract through June 30, adds $186,400 to the cost of it and brings the total cost to $786,400. The contract began Oct. 1.

Levy showed up at City Hall even as flood water was receding last June. He came with disaster experience from Hurricane Katrina and a message: Experience makes all the difference for cities if they are to make sure they get all they deserve in flood-disaster relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Levy was then an executive with an entity called Globe Midwest, and after the city hired him, he achieved a measure of celebrity when it became noted that the city was paying the firm $475 an hour for Levy’s services.

In the first three months after the flood, the city paid Globe Midwest $691,000.

The city had a parallel contract for other flood-recovery duties with a second disaster-services firm, Adjusters International, to which the city had paid $645,000 in the first three months of recovery.
Last September, the city put the contracts up for new bids. Several firms competed, but Adjusters International won one contract, and Levy, who created his own company, Base Tactical Disaster Recovery, won the second contract. The new contract, at least at its inception, called for Levy’s new firm to get paid $225 an hour for his services.

In a memo this week to the City Council, city staff members note that Levy’s current contract extended through Jan. 9, 2009, and had been extended twice, through May 9, at no additional cost.

The city says Levy matters.

At a Veterans Memorial Commission meeting earlier this week, Levy was center stage as commission members challenged City Manager Jim Prosser about why renovations to the city’s flood-damaged Veterans Memorial Building/City Hall on May’s Island hadn’t yet begun. The city has suggested the building has had $25 million in damage.

Prosser called on Levy.

Levy explained the negotiation that cities and FEMA engage in as they come to some agreement on how much damage has occurred to a building. The city has weighed in with its “worksheet” on the damages, while FEMA is still working on its worksheet. FEMA was preparing for a fourth visit to the building, he said. Negotiations then would follow. After that, a second process takes place in which the city presents its plan on how it will mitigate against flood damage to the building in the future, Levy said.

Prosser noted that the city estimates it may have as much as $500 million in damage to its public buildings and facilities. Moving FEMA by a few percentage points on the size of damages is worth millions of dollars to the city, he noted.

Vets Commission asks: Why is Linn County back in the May’s Island courthouse and jail while the Veterans Memorial Building/City Hall sits empty?

In City Hall, FEMA, Veterans Memorial Commission on May 12, 2009 at 9:24 am

Three government buildings damaged in last June’s flood sit on May’s Island in the middle of the Cedar River.
Why is it that the Linn County Courthouse and the Linn County Jail are now back in business, while the Veterans Memorial Building that houses City Hall remains empty with no plans for now to reoccupy it?

That is the question that Pat Reinert, a member of the city’s Veterans Memorial Commission and an assistant federal prosecutor in Cedar Rapids, wanted City Manager Jim Prosser to answer at the commission’s meeting Monday evening.

The answer provided by Prosser was this:

The city isn’t Linn County. The city has more than 10 times as much flood damage to its public buildings and facilities than the county. More damage means longer, more complicated negotiations with the Federal Emergency Management Agency over the amount of damages that FEMA will pay to fix the building.

To this, commission member Gary Grant stressed to Prosser that the commission does not care if city government intends to return to the building.

“We think the building has great potential even if the City Council doesn’t come back,” Grant told Prosser.

All the commission wants is to be included in the planning for the building’s future, Grant and Reinert said.

This is one of the central rubs about the Veterans Memorial Building/City Hall that only has become exacerbated as the months have passed.

The City Council has never expressed any enthusiasm for returning to the building.

Prosser on Monday evening reminded the commission members that the City Council is embarking on a several-month public participation process to determine the futures of several of the city’s flood-damaged public buildings. Much of the talk over many months now has been about “co-locating” city, county and school functions in the same buildings. The county, which seemingly had the most potential synergies with the city, dropped out of the process a few months ago, and the City Council has used the word co-locate less if at all recently.

Prosser emphasized last night that he and the City Council go into the public participation process without any idea if city government will return to the Veterans Memorial Building/City Hall or not.

But as he and several council members repeatedly mention, one important factor will be the life-cycle costs of buildings. This often has seemed a euphemism in favor of building a new, “greener,” more efficient building than the existing City Hall.

Last week, though, council member Tom Podzimek said no one was going into the decision-making over buildings with any preconceived notions. At the same time, council member Kris Gulick said he wanted to make sure that the cost to retrofit existing buildings was factored into any analysis.

Monday evening’s commission meeting was eye-opening because it showed just how great a gulf exists between the city’s Veterans Memorial Commission of volunteer appointees and the paid machinery of city government.

Prosser, Casey Drew, the city’s finance director, and John Levy, a city consultant who is helping direct the city’s plans for its flood-damaged buildings, came armed with much information that, surprisingly, eleven months after the flood, was news to the commission. It was as if the Veterans Memorial Building/City Hall, the management of which the commission is responsible for, was a great mystery and Prosser, Drew and Levy were sharing some of the secrets.

Commission members were a bit testy and eager to let Prosser know that it was time to get moving on repairing the building.

In fact, on its own, the commission has been trying to hustle around to establish temporary electrical service to the building just so government –even if FEMA was paying the bill — could stop paying huge bills to run generators.

The city can’t just do nothing and let the building continue to “degrade,” Reinert said at one point.

“Quite frankly, it’s driving me insane,” he said.

The exercise in establishing temporary electrical service at a cost of about $9,000 has proven a bit of a comedy: Prosser and Drew said written bids weren’t used, and Drew explained that two commission-employed maintenance workers had their city-issued purchase cards revoked because they attempted to pay for services before they were provided against city policy. All of this is getting cleaned up.

Commission chairman Pete Welch listed on the commission agenda all the special state grants that the city secured for other local buildings: $5 million for the library; $10 million for a new human services building; $10 million for the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library; $5 million for Options of Linn County; $5 million for the Paramount Theatre; $5 million for the Public Works Building; $16 million for the downtown steam issue. And zero for the Veterans Memorial Building/City Hall.

Commission member Gary Craig acknowledged that he had seen a city list that had sought $5 million for City Hall, but somewhere along the line that amount failed to make the final list.

Reinert said the building might get more backing if it is called its real name, the Veterans Memorial Building.

The commission noted that $118 million in state IJOBs funds are available for other public projects on a competitive basis. Prosser said the city intended to present plenty of proposals to try to win some of the money.

This is “a really critical city facility,” the city manager said of the Veterans Memorial Building.

Veterans Commission returns to May’s Island icon; frustrated commissioners learn that repairs to flood-damaged building still months away

In City Hall on May 11, 2009 at 7:27 pm

The Veterans Memorial Commission last night held its first meeting in the Veterans Memorial Building/City Hall on May’s Island since the June 2008 flood.

It was a something of a sobering event.

The commission designed the agenda to try to encourage City Manager Jim Prosser to get work on the building started immediately, only to learn that such work must await a back-and-forth negotiation between the city and the Federal Emergency Management Agency over just how much damage the flood of almost a year ago did to the building.

Trying to rush ahead with work without following the FEMA process would only jeopardize FEMA payments to the city to make the building repairs, Prosser and John Levy, a consultant whose job it is to help the city get all that it feels it deserves from FEMA, told the commission.

Levy, of Base Tactical Disaster Recovery of Birmingham, Mich., told the commission that the city completed its “worksheet” on its assessments of damages to the building, but FEMA has not yet completed its worksheet. FEMA still has not done so, either, for other flood-damaged city buildings, including the Paramount Theatre, the city-owned Sinclair site, the city’s transit garage and former animal control shelter among other buildings, Levy noted.

Once FEMA submits its worksheet of the building’s scope of damages, Levy said the city and FEMA then sit down and debate “scope realignment” to see if FEMA and the city can agree on a final scope of damages. Then the city must submit plans to protect the building and its contents against future floods.

“It’s the process we’re stuck in, and it’s very frustrating,” said Levy, agreeing with commission members.

Levy said FEMA representatives have visited the building four times to date, and now want to return again to examine the building anew. He said it would be summer before there would be any developments.

Commission member Pat Reinert said the commission was eager to get to work on basic infrastructure of the building, what he called its “spine.” He said the commission wants to move electrical and heating air-conditioning systems to a room above the commission’s office on the building’s first floor. He said the commission even has considered using its own funds to start the process.

All of that will need to wait the FEMA process, Prosser and Levy said.

Even one modest attempt at a commission victory met with problems. The commission decided to spend about $9,000 to establish temporary electricity in the building. Reinert said the electricity will let the commission see how much damage is done to building’s air handlers and to make sure they don’t further degrade. But the commission didn’t follow city policy of written bids, a problem which could cause issues with FEMA later, Levy and Casey Drew, the city’s finance director, told the commission. The commission last night agreed to seek written bids so it can then have electricity in the building.

Prosser told the commission that cities that had experienced disasters told Cedar Rapids how much money they failed to obtain from FEMA because they embarked on work outside the FEMA process expecting to be reimbursed anyway. With the city looking at $500 million in damages to public buildings and facilities alone, the city stands to lose millions by not following procedure, Prosser told the commission.

There has been much tension between the commission and city officials and the City Council over the very basics: the commission thinks it owns the building, and the city thinks the city does. FEMA decided its payments will go to the city. Reinert last night said the commission wants to leave such disputes in the past.

Prosser noted that a public participation process begins next month on the future of city buildings. He said some people assume that city government won’t return to the May’s Island building, but he said no one has decided that.

Commission member Gary Grant said the commission doesn’t care if city government comes back or not. The commission’s concern is that the building is restored.

The lack of communication between commission members and city officials was clear last night when both sides learned that they agree that work needs to begin immediately to make improvements to the building’s celebrated Grant Wood-designed stained-glass window.

Commission members said there weren’t sure if the window had been insured prior to the flood, but Levy said it had been and that the city continues to make its case for a claim to be paid.

Both sides agreed to seek proposals to get the window assessed and fixed as quickly as possible. Both sides said they have wanted to remove the window months ago to begin the renovation of it.

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.