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

Posts Tagged ‘Linn County Supervisors’

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.)

Linn supervisors high-tail it from any thought of city-manager type of assistance

In City Hall on March 13, 2009 at 1:06 pm

You never saw elected officials run faster from the concept of a city manager – or in this case a county manager – than the Linn County Board of Supervisors.

The board this year has been enlarged from three to five members, and the three veterans are eager to hire an executive assistant to replace Mike Goldberg, who became the county’s emergency management coordinator earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Brent Oleson and Ben Rogers, the two new supervisors, want to study the issue to see, in part, if there is a need for the job now that there are five supervisors instead of three.

At a board meeting Thursday, Oleson said all the three veterans, Lu Barron, Jim Houser and Linda Langston, wanted to do was hire a county manager -– not unlike Cedar Rapids’ city manager .

“You don’t want to call him that or pay him that,” Oleson said. But that, he said, is what you want.

Langston and Houser couldn’t have leaped to respond more quickly. There was no way, they said, they would ever consider hiring a county manager.

Langston said county government wasn’t designed for such a creature.

On Friday, Oleson said he wanted no part of a county manager either: “Quite the opposite, extremely the opposite,” he said. But he added that he feared the three veterans were “inadvertently” sliding in the direction of a county manager.

Oleson is suggesting that it might make sense to hire an individual on contract to provide strategic and legislative services and see how that works. Or maybe the supervisors don’t need anybody in that slot, he said.

Let’s take some time, Oleson said, “rather than fall into the mindset that we just hire a new person.”

Rogers also said he’d like some more time to study and discuss the matter.

The three veterans on Thursday said they’d give Oleson and Rogers until next week.

Langston said the issue was speed. She said the supervisors already had had a two-member committee look at the position. And she said there is a sense that county government is “falling behind” with the Goldberg position empty.

Houser put it this way: “I’ve been totally lost without that position being filled.” “The longer we wait, the more behind we get,” he said.

Barron called the empty slot “a key” one upon whom the county’s department heads have depended on as a go-between between themselves and the board.

In a spirited exchange, Oleson suggested that he didn’t know what the parameters of the job were, to which Houser countered that he knew the parameters well.

Oleson appears determined to have a colorful debate: “For some reason they need a wet nurse. And they’re used to that,” he said Friday.

A few words in new law on local-option sales tax hurt unincorporated Linn, help Marion, change little for Cedar Rapids

In City Hall, Linn County government, Marion on February 23, 2009 at 2:50 pm

There is a small, little-noticed line in a special piece of state legislation, legislation that has permitted a fast track to the March 3 vote on a 1-percent local-option sales tax.

Should the sales tax pass throughout the county, that line in the new law will have a notable, negative dollar impact on the Linn County Board of Supervisors and the unincorporated area of Linn County for which it is responsible. And at the same time, the law change will have a nice positive impact for the city of Marion.

Other jurisdictions in the county will notice little difference.

The reason for the notable change in expected sales-tax revenue for the Linn supervisors and the city of Marion is a change in the data used in the formula dictating how the tax is dispensed within a county.

The formula is based on two things: each jurisdiction’s percentage of total property-tax revenue in the county and each jurisdiction’s percentage of total population in the county. One quarter of the weight of the formula is given to the former, three quarters to the latter.

State law has based the property-tax revenue on taxes collected in the years from 1983-1985. Every local-option sales tax in the state – only six county seat cities don’t have the tax — has its distribution formula based on that three-year period in the 1980s.

However, that three-year period of property-tax revenue was changed to 2005-2007 in the recent special legislation, steered through the Statehouse by Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids.

Hogg on Monday said the intent of changing the years in the formula was to accurately reflect how communities have developed in the last 25 years.

In Linn County, what changed between 1983-85 and 2005-07 is that the metro-area cities have grown into parts of what had been unincorporated Linn County, and as a result, the relative property-tax revenue has shifted a bit to the city from the country.

This is why unincorporated Linn County fares less well in the new computation of the distribution formula and why fast-growing Marion has fared better.

The 1-percent local-option sales tax is expected to bring in about $30 million a year in all of Linn County if every jurisdiction in the county passes the tax on March 3.

If that happens, the Linn County Board of Supervisors and unincorporated Linn County will receive an estimated $4,899,000 a year. However, that is an amount $483,000 a year less than it would have been under the formula’s old computation. In total, that’s $2,535,750 less over the course of five years and three months. In that time, the tax will raise $25,719,750 for the unincorporated area of the county.

For Marion, the change will be in the other direction. Over five years and three months, the tax is expected to bring in $19,719,000 for Marion, an amount that is $306,000 a year more or $1,606,500 more over the life of the tax than it would have been using the earlier property-tax years in the distribution formula.

The city of Cedar Rapids now will receive 59.9 percent of the tax revenue – about $18 million — in the new formula and it would have received 59.79 percent if the 1980s property-tax revenue had been used.

With the new formula, unincorporated Linn County will receive 16.33 percent of the tax revenue, but it would have received 17.94 percent using the 1980s property-tax revenue figures, according to the Iowa Department of Revenue.

Marion now will obtain 12.52 percent of the revenue, up from 11.5 percent under the old formula while Hiawatha will get 3.04 percent up from 2.74 percent.

SEE this chart to see how each Linn jurisdiction will fare now and each would have fared under the old arrangement.

Sen. Hogg said the city of Coralville, in particular, pushed for the change of the years used in the formula as a way to take into account the changes in development in the last 25 years. Johnson County jurisdictions vote on a sales tax in May.

City Council aspires to bigger league; was split with smaller-ball Linn County inevitable?

In Brian Fagan, City Hall, Floods, Jim Prosser, Justin Shields, Linn County government on February 22, 2009 at 11:03 am

On a 3-2 vote, the Linn County Board of Supervisors has decided not to study to see if it makes sense to join forces with the Cedar Rapids City Council in a new public administration building, which is being called a Community Services Center.

Even Supervisor Linda Langston, who was one of two on the short end of the vote, said she’d only continue to participate with the city in a public planning process about a building on two conditions: if the city shortened the length of the process and if the city treated the county nicer, as a “full partner.”

Ben Rogers, one of two new supervisors and the youngest of the five, was alone in advocating that the planning process could do nothing but help no matter what it came to conclude. Rogers noted, too, that joining forces with the city didn’t necessarily mean building new buildings. It could mean renovating existing ones, he said.

As much as anything, the supervisor drama on Friday served as a reminder that the city of Cedar Rapids and Linn County are two entirely different animals. They always have been.

Cedar Rapids and its City Hall are big entities with a complicated set of responsibilities: water, waste water, airport, cultural attractions and entertainment and sports venues for starters.

There’s also a downtown, which community leaders ranging far beyond City Hall say is vital to the future vitality of Cedar Rapids and to the city’s ability to keep and attract employers and employees.

Most importantly, Cedar Rapids is what community leaders in and out of City Hall never tire of reminding people of: It is the industrial and commercial economic “engine” for the city, county and region.

City Hall plays a central role in all of that as it oversees and regulates development in the city.

Linn County doesn’t.

The differences could no more clearly have been drawn between Wednesday evening’s City Council meeting and Friday’s late-morning meeting of the county supervisors.

On Wednesday evening, the City Council enthusiastically endorsed moving ahead on a public participation process to see if it makes sense to build a new Community Services Center of some kind that city, county and school district might somehow share.

Council members Brian Fagan and Justin Shields talked passionately about the city’s need to challenge the notion that it was good enough to just restore a damaged city to the way it had been before the flood.

“Sometimes out of ashes you want to rise from those ashes and build something better than what was there before,” Shields said.

 “I think this is a unique opportunity … that the city, county and school districts have to really come together and think of all the things that we do and they do and see if we can’t come up some plan that will put those facilities together and make them better than they ever were, and look to the future that we’re building for the next 50 to 100 years,” Shields said.

Fagan put the matter in a larger framework. He said the city was doing nothing short of challenging what he said was the conventional approach that the Federal Emergency Management Agency tries to insist on. Fagan said FEMA wants jurisdictions to rebuild flood-damaged buildings as they were, while he said he wants to rebuild better than before.

His hope, he said, was that the Obama administration might share his view of how a city should come back after a flood.

“This is an opportunity for us again to be an example for the country in terms of how we rebuild,” Fagan said.

And council member Tom Podzimek wasn’t even at the meeting. He was sick. Podzimek is most insistent of the need for council members to look to the long term and to measure things like a building’s energy efficiency, its environmental impact and its life-cycle costs before making decisions about building or renovating.

Friday morning, over at the Linn County Board of Supervisors, Supervisor Brent Oleson, the new representative on the board from Marion, seemed to state the case for the supervisor majority best.

He said the supervisors didn’t want any kind of new building in which they shared a board room or council chambers with anyone else. The county needs its own, he said.

Oleson revealed  that  Podzimek had called him Thursday evening to talk about the need for more information before moving ahead.

Oelson, though, rejected the Podzimek notion, and the Fagan one for that matter.

“I’m not going to be paralyzed,” Oelson said about the need to get more facts. He said he had plenty of facts.

The county’s Administrative Office Building can live on another 70 or more years, he said. Let’s fix it, he said, and move back in.

Oleson said it was time to separate needs from wants.

Would I want a “greener” building that would be the pride of all of Iowa? Maybe, he said.

“But it’s not feasible now,” he concluded.

Supervisors Lu Barron and Jim Houser were quick to note the existing building can be made more “green.”

Barron was the swing vote on this, and she stuck with the majority in withdrawing from any co-location discussions with the city in a new Community Services Center.

After all, she noted, the public participation process calls for the hiring of two consultants to help lead the process over six or more months. Does the county want to share in those costs? she wondered.

Even Supervisor Langston questioned the need for consultants from out of state, hinting that’s what City Hall had in mind.

The city has had two consultants, national consultant Camp Dresser & McKee and local consultant Howard R. Green, leading months of behind-the-scenes discussions on the co-location idea to date.

In the longer view, this parting of the ways between the supervisors and City Hall isn’t really surprising.

It was only just a few years ago, in the early 2000s, that now-likely mayoral candidate Ron Corbett, then president of the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, worked to get city and county to merge some of their operations. He threw in the towel on it.

Instead, the city changed its government to a one with a professional city manager and a part-time council, while the county enlarged its government to five supervisors without a professional manager.

On Friday, Les Beck, the county’s chief planner, encouraged the supervisors to stay in the planning process on co-location of facilities. Beck said planning led to “informed decisonmaking,” a concept which Cedar Rapids City Manager Jim Prosser talks a lot about. Planners talk that way.

The planning process, though, would have required spending some funds on it and, maybe, a lot of money down the road on new facilities, and the county opted out.

This is a city election year. Six of nine council members face re-election, including the mayor.

What happened between the county and city last week, no doubt, will help shape the election debate with at least three questions:

Do voters want the city to be better than before? How much planning does that require? And just where does a new public building fit on the priority list?