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

Posts Tagged ‘The Cedar Rapids Flood’

Flood-recovery milestone reached: All 70 purple-placarded properties now demolished and off to the dump

In City Hall, Floods on May 22, 2009 at 11:32 am

One flood-recovery landmark has been reached.

All 70 of the worst-damaged properties – the ones with purple placards signifying they were too unsafe to enter – have now all been demolished, City Hall reports.

The last of the properties, most of which were homes, came down at the end of April.

The demolition effort took some months to start after a couple false starts over bidding.

Some of the job was done by winter, when it then had to take a break because water used to control possible asbestos dust from the properties would have frozen. The properties were so unsafe that crews couldn’t enter to assess asbestos materials inside. As a result, all the demolition debris had to be treated as asbestos-containing material.

In recent months, city officials successfully lobbied the Federal Emergency Management Agency to have the agency pay for the demolition of another 200 or 300 or so homes. Those are the ones, also considered too unsafe to enter, with red placards in the city’s best-to-worst system of green, yellow, red and purple placards.

Those demolitions are expected to begin in July once paperwork requirements are satisfied, city officials said this week.

In total, the city estimates it may buy out and demolish 1,300 homes and other properties at a total cost of $175 million.

Much of the buyout money will come from federal Community Development Block Grant funds, and the city is expecting word any time from the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development of the next large release of CDBG disaster money.

In the meantime, the city has set up a buyout assessment system and is in the process of interviewing those wanting a buyout whose homes qualify.


Council rejects push for special new committee in fight for $118.5-million in I-JOBS money; it says established flood-recovery committee is already there to help

In City Hall, Floods on May 21, 2009 at 8:10 am

The business community apparently continues to want to create new entities to try to help the City Council.

This time, City Council member Justin Shields told his council colleagues Wednesday evening that a noontime meeting Wednesday of some local business and other leaders led to the suggestion of a special new committee to help the city decide which projects it should get behind in the competition for $118.5 million in state I-JOBS stimulus funds.

Backers of several local projects are interested in a piece of the $118.5 million in state-distributed funds, including, no doubt, those eager for a new community center/recreation center and also those who want to upgrade the U.S. Cellular Center and add a convention center to it.

At the suggestion of new help, the council, though, decided it didn’t need to create something new to decide how best to compete for the state I-JOBS money.

The council will use the City Hall-based Recovery and Reinvestment Coordinating Team, which has been in place and providing advice to the council since the early days of flood recovery.

Shields and council member Chuck Wieneke both noted that the RRCT has representation from a wide sector of community interests, including the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown District as well as leaders in housing, arts and culture, non-profit agencies, neighborhoods and government.

Council member Monica Vernon and Shields said it was important that the council pick a couple of quality projects and get them submitted to the state I-JOBS competition quickly.

Forget the “wish lists,” Shields said.

As for getting pushed by outside forces, the council currently is in the process of hiring a flood recovery manager, the majority of whose salary will be paid for by the private sector. This was a private-sector idea pushed by Rockwell Collins.

The council also is contributing some money to a private-sector creation, the Economic Planning and Redevelopment Corp., which came to be, to a degree, from some private-sector frustration with City Hall over the pace of flood recovery.

Shields last night said there is a sense in the community that Cedar Rapids never fares very well in competitions for money that the state hands out. So, he said, it was important to make a good case.

At the same time, the state already has earmarked other I-JOBS money to Cedar Rapids and Linn County in the tune of $45.5 million. Proposals to secure these funds must be submitted by Sept. 1.

Of that money, $5 million goes to each of three flood-damaged city buildings, the library, Public Works Building and Paramount Theatre, with another $5 million to provide steam replacement assistance for those who have been on the flood-wrecked downtown steam system. The National Czech & Slovak Museum and Library is receiving $10 million as are backers of a new human services building. Options of Linn County is getting $5 million the city of Palo’s fire station, $500,000.

Organized group of local spin-doctors and flak-catchers didn’t get NBC News here; hope still alive they’ll land Katie or Charlie Gibson

In Floods on May 19, 2009 at 9:28 am

The local cadre of public relations pros isn’t responsible.

In any event, NBC News’ national operation is in Cedar Rapids to work up a news piece on Cedar Rapids’ flood recovery.

SanDee Skelton, a flood victim still in a FEMA trailer who expects to return to her renovated home at 1125 10th St. NW within a month, reports that she is one of a few slated for an interview.

NBC News’ Dallas-based coordinating producer Al Henkel has set up the interview with her, she says.

Which is perfect.

Henkel, who was in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, grew up in Cedar Rapids, is a 1977 Jefferson High School, and lived in the Cedar Hills neighborhood, which stayed high and dry in the 2008 flood. He went on to graduate from Iowa State University in 1982, and worked at KGAN-TV in Cedar Rapids from 1982 to 1983. He won an Emmy award for his coverage of the 1993 flood in Des Moines, and he won Emmy, Peabody and Murrow awards for his coverage of Hurricane Katrina.

Skelton says Henkel wants her to talk about the group of retired electricians, plumbers and pipefitters who worked on her house and who were covered in recent local stories.

Henkel, she says, got her name from Liz Mathis, spokeswoman for the Four Oaks family-services agency.
Mathis on Tuesday said that the push in the last 10 days by local public-relations professionals to attract national media to Cedar Rapids to report on the city’s one-year anniversary of flood recovery is not what got NBC News to town.

Mathis says local news coverage by The Gazette and KCRG-TV of local retired electricians and plumbers helping flood victims captured NBC’s attention.

By the way, Mathis, a former long-time TV news anchor, was the one who convinced the local media to cover the story in recent weeks.

Tuesday morning, Henkel said via e-mail he wasn’t sure when the NBC piece might be broadcast.

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.

Council members weren’t kidding about killing a downtown coal plant; they now put their support for federal bucks behind a better U.S. Cellular Center and a new community/rec facility

In City Hall, Floods on May 13, 2009 at 2:39 pm

The chase continues for federal dollars from the U.S. Department of Commerce that the Cedar Rapids community never really knew much about until it started trying to recover from last June’s flood.

A line of local projects is lined up for a shot at this pot of federal funds, and each of the project sponsors has come to City Hall asking the City Council to provide the required council endorsement of their projects.

A few weeks ago, the council decided to prioritize the requests so the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration might use that information to help it make a decision on what to spend money on in Cedar Rapids.

And a few weeks ago, the council put the concept of some kind of new downtown steam plant at the top of its list.

But that was then. Last week, the council pulled the plug on any plans to rebuild Alliant Energy’s flood-damaged Sixth Street Generating Station using public dollars because the plan called for the plant to burn coal. The council can make such a decision because federal funds have to come through the city. They can’t come to privately owned Alliant.

The council is now ready to pass a new resolution with new priorities for how it would like to see Commerce Department funds spent in the city.

There no longer is any mention of a community steam plant.

At the top of the new list is a plan to upgrade the city’s U.S. Cellular Center and add a new convention center to it. Next in line, is a plan to build a new community center/recreation center to replace the flood-damaged Witwer Senior Center and Time Check Recreation Center and the aged Ambroz Recreation Center and outdated Bender indoor pool.

Both projects are among the fifteen projects in the Fifteen in 5 community planning initiative, which was conceived in 2005.

Below the U.S. Cellular Center and community center/rec center on the priority list: a new Economic Commerce Center; steam systems for Coe College and the two hospitals; planning to remedy freight train traffic in the downtown; and funding for a joint communications network now being built to connect city, county and school facilities.

City is doing what it said it would: setting up a customer-service infrastructure to expedite buyouts; now if the money would get here

In City Hall, Floods on May 13, 2009 at 9:42 am

The city is taking the steps it said it would take to set up a system to expedite the buyouts of some 1,300 flood-damaged properties once federal money arrives to pay for much of the buyout expense.

This week, the City Council is expected to approve a contract with JCG Land Services Inc., which has an office in Cedar Rapids, for up to $69,736 to provide one-to-one consultations with the owners of buyout properties.

The city has said it intends to buy out about 1,300 properties.

A first group includes 192 properties in the proposed “greenway” that will be created along the river with the construction of a new levee and floodwall system. Most of those property owners have already agreed to buyouts.

A second group of 554 properties sit in area next to the greenway that is expected to be needed as a construction area for new levees and floodwalls and related construction and alteration of existing streets and sewers.

A third group of another 600 properties are outside both areas but have been damaged beyond reasonable repair.

The contract with JCG Land Services Inc., which a City Hall “project evaluation team” chose over three other bidders, will pay the company $60.43 per property. The company said it will devote 11 people to the project, can start immediately and will be able to interview 270 owners a week.

Of note, JCG Land Services was one of the bidders late last month in an inspection contract awarded to Prosource Technologies, Inc., Minneapolis, Minn. The council voted 5-4 on the earlier contract after great debate about passing over two local companies for the Minneapolis one. Prosource also bid for the new contract, which is now expected to go to JCG Land Services Inc.

In a related matter, the City Council is expected to award a contract to Iowa Title Co. (the company has several Iowa offices including a Cedar Rapids one) to provide title and abstract services for the properties the city intends to buy out. The 12-month contract with Iowa Title Co., which a City Hall review team chose over one other bidder, is not to exceed $962,000. The company has the capacity to complete work on 150 to 200 properties a week, a city staff memo to the City Council states.

The city intends to use federal Community Development Block Grant funds to pay for these services. The city’s expectation continues to be that a large infusion of additional CDBG money will be coming to the state of Iowa and the city of Cedar Rapids this summer.

Port ‘O’ Jonnys to populate flood-hit neighborhoods at least through the end of 2009

In City Hall, Floods on May 12, 2009 at 5:03 pm

Call the Port ‘O’ Jonny a testament to the fact that there is much yet to do in the city’s flood-hit neighborhoods.

The city has agreed to extend what it calls its “emergency” contract with the portable toilet company to provide portable toilets in the cities flood-damaged neighborhoods through the end of the year.

The anticipated cost, which will be paid by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is $320,000.

In a memo to the City Council, city staff notes that that FEMA initially provided portable toilets only to abruptly withdraw them in September 2008, three months after last June’s flood.

Port ‘O’ Jonny, which already had a contract with the city, agreed to step in and replace what FEMA had provided. Currently, the city has 132 units in the flood-affected areas, a number it expects will decline as rebuilding areas continue.

Port ‘O’ Jonny charges $70.17 per month per unit plus a $25 charge each time a unit is serviced.

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.

New state legislation for disaster areas will let City Council pass big bond issues for public buildings without a mandatory citizen vote

In City Hall, Floods on May 8, 2009 at 12:02 am

Late last year, the City Council presented its state lobbyist — former state lawmaker Larry Murphy of Oelwein — with a wish list of requests to take to Des Moines when the state legislative session began in January.

At one meeting last fall, Murphy went over the list with the council and singled out one item that he doubted the legislature would ever agree to. He didn’t think there was a chance lawmakers would let cities sell bonds for expensive public building projects without taking the matter to voters.

Well, it turns out Murphy was wrong.

Deep in a recently passed piece of state legislation – Senate File 457 – is wording that will allow jurisdictions in which there have been natural disasters in the last year to approve the sale of bonds for repairs, improvements and replacements of flood-damaged buildings and facilities that today would require a 60-percent approval vote from voters.

Under the legislative change, city councils like Cedar Rapids’ could approve the sale of, say, $20 million to build a new City Hall – which surely will be a controversial matter if it ever should come to that — without prior voter approval.

The new legislation, instead, replaces a required referendum with what is known as a reverse referendum. In a reverse referendumm, citizens must take the initiative and mount a petition campaign to force the measure to a citizen vote. But to do so under the new law, the citizens would need to amass at least a number of signatures equal to 20 percent of the total number of city voters in the last presidential election.

Last November, 66,662 Cedar Rapidians voted in the presidential election. That means a petition drive would need to find 13,332 signatures to force a council decision on a bond matter to a vote.

This piece of a complicated bill, which passed both houses of the legislature unanimously, makes some sense. A city like Cedar Rapids, which faces hundreds of millions of dollars in renovations and, perhaps, the replacement of public buildings isn’t interested in going to voters every time it needs to get such work completed. Some of the bonding will be necessary, for instance, to front the cost of construction until money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state of Iowa arrives once parts of construction projects are complete. Without the law change, a city would be required to have a bond vote on projects that ultimately will be paid off by federal and state dollars.

At last word, Gov. Chet Culver had yet to sign the legislation into law.

Among other legislative victories from the City Council’s priority list:

— Cities that have been declared disaster areas can sale bonds for projects and pay them off over 30 years instead of the current required 20-year period.

— Cities will be able to institute a franchise fee of up to 5 percent on electric and gas bills. The city of Des Moines, for one, had been collecting such a 5-percent franchise fee, a practice for which they now are fighting a court case over. For the first time, the Cedar Rapids council has put a franchise fee in place – a 1 percent fee – in its budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The new law will permit the council in future years to raise such a fee to 5 percent.

— Cities that have been declared disaster areas also now will be able to move quickly to take possession of abandoned, flood-damaged homes instead of having to the follow existing state law that has allowed many abandoned, empty homes in Cedar Rapids to stand as vacant eyesores for years.