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

Posts Tagged ‘Kris Gulick’

Council majority repels ‘overthrow’ of city’s government; questions remain about possible strings attached to private-sector help

In City Hall, Floods on March 11, 2009 at 7:55 pm

City Council member Tom Podzimek last night said he wasn’t going to let three of the nine members of the council “overthrow” the city’s council/manager form of government.

On a 6-3 vote, the council majority agreed with Podzimek.

At issue was an idea pushed by council members Justin Shields and Monica Vernon for the city to hire a new staff person who would be flood coordinator or what Vernon last week termed a flood CEO.

The point of contention was this: Shields and Vernon –- both who have been lone voices on the council for months saying that City Manager Jim Prosser has too much power -– insisted that this new person report directly to the nine-member City Council, and not to Prosser.

In fact, Shields turned bitter when six council members endorsed the idea of getting some help for the city’s flood-recovery effort but in stronger terms insisted that that person report to Prosser.

“I don’t know what the big issue is with who he is going to report to,” Shields said. “… You people just have something in your mind that says the city manager is in complete control of everything. I just don’t understand that.

“We hired the city manager. He reports to us. But we can’t hire this person and have him report to us and ask those two people to work together very closely to get a job done for the citizens of Cedar Rapids?”

He and Vernon, though, were on the short end of the vote along with council member Jerry McGrane.

The vote result proved a strong endorsement of the central role of a city manager in the city’s just-3-year-old council/manager government, while at the same, it left puzzling questions about an unnamed private-sector person or persons who has dangled money at the council to help pay for the new flood help.

In fact, immediately prior to the vote last night, Shields said the council ought to check to see if the private-sector entity ready to pay 80 percent of the cost of the new employee was still willing to pay if the person reported to Prosser.

Vernon, though, suggested that the council vote on the matter and check with the person or persons later about helping pay.

A week ago, Vernon identified the person as a local “captain of industry.” A week ago, too, Shields and Vernon said the entity would pay the entire cost of the new employee, But last night they said the entity would pay just 80 percent of the cost.

No one on the council made any effort last night to ask about or shed light on where the private-sector money would be coming from.

In truth, Shields and Vernon weren’t even close to finding a majority on the council.

“Who drafted this?” council member Brian Fagan asked about a proposed resolution that would require a new flood-recovery coordinator report to the council.

Fagan said he had a “fundamental disagreement” with the proposal to fill such a position if it meant that person would bypass the council’s existing CEO, Prosser.

Council member Kris Gulick agreed. In the week since the idea of a flood CEO was proposed by council members Shields and Vernon, Gulick said he had sought out experts on how a council/manager government should work. He said he found “very few” who thought it a good idea to have “two bosses” making demands on the same city staff.

Podzimek, a contractor, called himself just “a simple carpenter.”

But he said that the line of authority that Shields and Vernon were proposing for a new flood coordinator was like building a house and having the job turn tough. He said he didn’t need a second contractor “crisscrossing over me,” taking his carpenters and electricians this way and that “when I’m still trying to build my home.”

Vernon did extract this from her council colleagues: The council will help Prosser interview and select the new employee, called a flood recovery program coordinator.

SEE PREVIOUS POST: Private sector and recurring theme at City Hall.

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Recurring theme at the heart of debate on flood CEO: current City Hall can’t get it right; needs push from private sector

In City Hall, Floods, Jim Prosser, Justin Shields, Kris Gulick, Monica Vernon, Ron Corbett on March 10, 2009 at 12:58 pm

Some in the local business community have been pretty sure they can help City Hall almost since the flood waters began to recede last June.

The latest example of the private sector’s coming to the rescue surfaced last week when council members Justin Shields and Monica Vernon proposed that the city add to its payroll a flood czar of sorts.
Vernon called the position a flood CEO.

The City Council will discuss the matter at its meeting Wednesday evening and may even act on it.
There are two significant features of the proposal:

Firstly, as presented by Shields, the flood czar would report directly to the City Council and not directly to City Manager Jim Prosser. Shields said the city’s organizational chart would include a “dotted line” to Prosser, which apparently means that flood CEO and Prosser would communicate.

This part of the proposal is not particularly new: Shields and Vernon have been trying for some months, without success, to get a staff policy maker who would report directly to the City Council and not be managed by Prosser. Heretofore, the council majority has had little time for such a thing. Prosser is the council’s CEO, and Prosser and the city staff are the council’s policy advisers, the council majority has said.

A second significant feature of the latest proposal is that the cost of the new city employee would be paid by the private sector.

Asked after last week’s meeting, Vernon deferred when asked for details about whom or what this private-sector force might be.

She said it was a “captain of industry” who had come up with the idea.

“I don’t think it’s important to tell you right now,” Vernon said when asked for specifics. “We have some people (in the business community) who are very interested in this and who get it: that it (the new position) needs to be part of city government.”

Suffice to say, it will be a great discuss on Wednesday evening.

Council member Kris Gulick was quick to note last week that creating a CEO slot that reports to the council when the council already has a CEO in the city manager would cause problems for the city’s current structure of “governance.”

Shields did note that Patrick DePalma, a vice president at AEGON USA who headed up the council’s government reorganization task force, recommended a year ago and again in recent months that Prosser needed, at the least, an assistant city manager who would report to Prosser. The council and Prosser have put that idea aside in the past because of cost.

The new wrinkle -– the new allure — is that the private sector will now foot the bill.

In that regard, it’s hard to imagine a local “captain” of industry whose company doesn’t have some entanglement with City Hall.

There are street issues out by Rockwell Collins and economic development incentives as well. The city is leasing an office building as a temporary City Hall with an AEGONUSA sign out front. The city is set to approve a franchise agreement to allow Alliant Energy to continue to operate in the city.

In truth, the city has had relationships with some or all of these private companies for a number of years in the form of donations of executive expertise. No one has suggested any problems with that.

In the broad picture, that the private sector is apparently willing to pay for a flood CEO or specialist is a piece of a recurring theme: that City Hall isn’t doing that good a job on flood recovery.

Chuck Peters, CEO of Gazette Communications, recounted at a recent meeting of the Downtown Rotary Club how he and a few others jumped on an AEGONUSA corporate plane in the days after last June’s flood to see how Grand Forks, N.D., had recovered from a similar disaster in 1997.

That Peters is still telling the story is an indication he doesn’t think lessons learned on the trip got much of an audience at City Hall.

In recent weeks, the Downtown Rotary Club devoted four straight meetings to a newly created, local flood-recovery entity called the Economic Planning and Redevelopment Corp.

The corporation has City Council member Monica Vernon on its four-person board as well as Linda Langston, Linn County supervisor. But the push to create the corporation came from some in the private sector who feel the city’s flood recovery needs private-sector know-how.

The chairman of the EPRC is John Smith, president/CEO at trucking firm of CRST International Inc. Smith, incidentally, is the boss of newly announced mayoral candidate Ron Corbett, who is a CRST vice president.

Clay Jones, CEO at Rockwell Collins, also has turned up in public talking about Cedar Rapids’ flood recovery. That happened when he crossed paths and spoke briefly with President Obama after the president’s speech to The Business Council on Feb. 13 at the White House.

Keep in mind, the city of Cedar Rapids, after much debate and many meetings of the Home Rule Charter Commission in 2004 and 2005, voted overwhelmingly to get rid of the commission form of government that the city had had in place from the early years of the 20th Century. In its place, voters picked a city government with professional management and a part-time mayor and council.

It’s no little irony that the commission form of government came to be in Galveston, Texas, after a hurricane devastated that city in 1900. Back then, the private sector stepped forward and said that city government needed its expertise if the city was to recover. In the commission government, council members double as experts in certain fields like finance, public works and public safety.

After a few years, the council-manager government, which most cities now have, began to replace commission governments.

Council not using L-word or F-word, but it seems to sense: big hike in property taxes might louse up sales tax

In City Hall, Kris Gulick, Monica Vernon, Pat Shey on February 8, 2009 at 9:11 pm

At last Thursday evening’s budget meeting, City Council member Pat Shey put it this way: “We’re going to ask a lot from citizens this year.”

Shey mentioned higher fees: The proposed new budget includes a 14-percent hike in the city utility bill — for water, waste water, storm sewer and garbage services; and the proposed budget includes a brand-new 2-percent fee on electric and natural gas bills.

And then Shey mentioned the 1-percent local-option sales tax, which the council is asking voters to approve on March 3.

With the fees and the sales tax, he didn’t think the public would take kindly to a 14-percent boost in property taxes at the same time.

That level of property-tax increase was what the city manager had proposed for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

But Shey said, maybe the question was this: “What can we do to trim services.”

He wasn’t alone among council members, who sent Casey Drew, the city’s finance director, City Manager Jim Prosser and the city government’s department heads back to the drawing board. In short, the message was this: go find some place to cut.

One inference from what Shey had said is the council has the ability to louse up passage of the local-option sales tax if it doesn’t take it easy on property taxes, which is the principal revenue source for local governments in Iowa.

And the council – and a host of local groups from the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce to Hawkeye Labor Council – doesn’t want to louse up the prospects for the sales tax, the revenue from which they say the city needs as it works to recover from the 2008 flood.

The sales tax will raise between $18 million and $23 million a year for Cedar Rapids for five years and three months.

However, it’s still unclear what the City Council is going to cut out of its proposed budget.

No council member has mentioned the L word – layoffs – or the F word – furloughs.

Two-thirds of the city’s 1,400 employees are in bargaining units, and the council pretty much agreed that those bargaining units wouldn’t have any interest in opening up contract agreements that are set to pay those employees raises of 3.25 to 3.5 percent.

So council members Kris Gulick and Monica Vernon said the council may have to lower wages for the other third of employees outside of bargaining units. The part-time council’s annual salary is tied to the cost of living index, which went up 1.1 percent in the last year, and maybe that is where wage increases should be for others, Gulick and Vernon said.

The City Council has been at its budget-making business for a good month now. That’s where council members have been Thursday evenings, and a Tuesday evening or two.

In the process, the city government’s department heads have trooped in, stating needs, making their cases for how to better deliver services.

Until last Thursday, it had been an odd few weeks. Everyone was asking for more. No one, including council members, was talking about less.

But then, after all, it was a time of recovery from a natural disaster.

Last Thursday evening, all those department heads were back, sitting, shoulder to shoulder, and listening to what the council had to say.

Suddenly, the tone shifted.

Looming slugfest between City Hall and FEMA foreshadowed in move to rebuild flood-damaged Ellis Park pool

In Uncategorized on January 25, 2009 at 8:21 am

City Manager Jim Prosser, with the full support of the City Council, is spending a total of a few million dollars on at least four consultants to help the city assess the flood damage to an assortment of the city government’s key buildings and 300 or so other city facilities ranging from the sewer plant to water wells to park pavilions.

The consultants also are putting a price tag on what the city thinks the cost will be to fix the facilities as they were, fix them and improve them or demolish them and build something else. So much rebuilding needs to take place that the consultants are helping, too, to prioritize the order in which things get rebuilt. It can’t all be done at once.

It’s been a methodical process, the value of which might very well surface in the debate in this year’s coming municipal elections. Look for some candidates to question the speed of the city’s recovery.

One read of the value of the City Hall approach will come by April 1. That’s the date in which bids are expected on the renovation of the Ellis Park swimming pool, one of those 300-plus city facilities damaged in the June flood.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has put the cost of repairs at $214,502; the city’s consultants, at $314,187. The city’s estimate is 46 percent more than FEMA’s.

Granted, $100,000 here and there is only that. But the number will be tens of millions of dollars when estimates differences in the range of 46 percent are applied to a $25-million renovation bill like the ones talked about at the Veterans Memorial Building/City Hall and the Paramount Theatre and the $17 million to $21 million estimate for the library. And then there’s the Water Pollution Control facility, city wells, park buildings and on and on.

From the earliest days after the June flood, the city’s Prosser has said that fighting for dollars from FEMA would be one of the big tasks that city government would face in repairing or replacing what it lost in the flood. Other cities that have had the experience report that they never got what they believe they should have from FEMA, Prosser has said.

Last week, Prosser shrugged off the current difference in estimates on the Ellis pool project between FEMA’s estimate and the one provided by the city consultants.

Council member Kris Gulick agreed the current estimate figures didn’t matter.

The key, Gulick said, was to correctly chronicle all of the particulars of the damage on the worksheet that the city submits to FEMA. In the end, FEMA apparently will pay the actual cost -– revealed in the contractors’ bids and the actual construction cost -– if FEMA agrees on just what was damaged in the first place.

In the first couple months after the flood and in the months since, FEMA has publicized what it thinks damage awards will be on several of the largest city items damaged in the flood. At one point, FEMA even sent out a memo questioning the hiring of consultants to add up damages.

City Hall here continued on its way.

In the end, the back and forth between City Hall and FEMA might have big value for the taxpayer. Few would want the federal government to simply hand over all that the city asked for. And at the same time, FEMA could end up wanting to spend less rather than more in Cedar Rapids. The true figure likely will be somewhere short of the city’s estimates and somewhat more than FEMA’s.

It’s called bureaucracy, isn’t it?

It is the same thing that is frustrating so many owners of flood-damaged homes as they wait for state, federal and local governments to try to tally up just what is appropriate to spend on a particular renovation project.

As for the Ellis Park pool, city staff members were preparing not to open it this summer.

However, the City Council now has pushed to open it. The council has given the impression that having someone splash around in the pool might provide the community with a little bit of a psychological lift. The expected opening date is July 13 if the renovation can be started by April 20, city staff members report.

The long-range future of the Ellis pool is still under review, Julie Sina, the city’s parks and recreation director,told the council last week. Prior to the 2008 flood, attendance had been dropping at the Ellis pool, in part, because of the newer, better pools at Cherry Hill Park, Noelridge Park, Bever Park and Jones Park. The changing demographics in the Ellis area also might have been playing a role, Sina said.

In 2005, 22,973 people used the Ellis Pool; in 2006, 19,468; in 2007, 17,475. In 2008, 602 did before the mid-June flood closed the venue for the year.