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

What Worked

Listen to citizens who come to council meetings, listen to the news, listen to those outside of local government and those wanting to get in on it, and it seems nothing – nothing – works well. Government doesn’t do anything right. … Or can it?

March 15, 2009

Six members of the City Council this week upheld the spirit and likely the rule of the City Charter, which voters overwhelmingly endorsed in June 2005.

The City Charter, which is something of a constitution for the city of Cedar Rapids, specifies that the council in the council/manager government directly appoints three employees: the city manager, city clerk and city attorney.

The City Charter says the city manager is the city’s “chief administrative officer,” who appoints, supervises and directs the rest of the city employees. Two exceptions are the police chief and fire chief: the city manager appoints those two employees, but needs the advice and consent of the City Council, according to the City Charter.

Last week, council members Justin Shields and Monica Vernon were pushing to have the council directly appoint a fourth employee, a flood-recovery coordinator that Vernon at one point said would be something of a flood-recovery CEO.

The Shields-Vernon effort was fueled in large part by a good thing: by their frustration at the pace of flood recovery in the city.

But the effort was fueled, too, by their displeasure with the status of a city manager in the city’s still-new, council/manager government. They feel that City Manager Jim Prosser has too much power or that the council as a whole has abrogated too much power to Prosser.

Shields and Vernon have tried to make this latter point for months. But this time, it came with something new. They tried to make their case by saying that private-sector interests would pay, or as it turns out, help pay for the new flood-recovery position.

Presented through the advocacy of Shields, though, the proposal for the private cash appeared conditioned on the Shields and Vernon wish that the new position bypass Prosser and report directly to the City Council.
Six of nine council members would have no part of it.

In fact, when that became apparent, Shields suggested delaying a council vote so he could check to see if the private interests would still be willing to fund a new flood-recovery chieftain in city government if they couldn’t direct that the chieftain report to the City Council and not to the city manager.

Forget the voter-approved City Charter, it sounded for a minute like unnamed private-sector interests were reorganizing matters of city government on their own.

Council member Tom Podzimek said Shields and Vernon were attempting nothing short of trying to “overthrow” the City Charter, and he said he would have none of it.

Nor would council members Kris Gulick, Brian Fagan, Chuck Wieneke, Pat Shey and Mayor Kay Halloran. Council member Jerry McGrane voted with Vernon and Shields.

Prior to the Wednesday evening debate, Gulick, who is a board member of the Iowa League of Cities, said he spent some days conferring with experts on city government. He said he was told that it would make for bad manager/council government if the council was directly employing two top dogs who both were issuing orders to the rest of the city’s employees.

Council member Pat Shey said the same. He told Shields and Vernon that they needed to try to convince the council to remove Prosser if they had a problem with the city manager, a removal that takes six of nine council votes.

The day after the vote, Tom Hobson, senior manager for governmental affairs at the city’s biggest employer, Rockwell Collins, acknowledged that Rockwell Collins’ top leadership had convened a meeting with the governor, other local business leaders, Vernon and Shields and Prosser.

Hobson, though, said there was never a private-sector demand that a new flood-recovery chief inside City Hall bypass Prosser and report directly to the City Council.

For her part on Thursday, Vernon said a private-sector campaign is now underway to raise money for the position even as it reports to Prosser.

Even so, it will be interesting to see the list of private contributors to the new flood-recovery coordinator job.

Imagine if those contributors were making contributions to a mayoral or council candidate. Each time a vote would come up impacting one of the contributors, it then would be possible to note how the mayor or council member voted on that particular matter and how much money the contributor provided to the mayor or council member.


March 8, 2009

It didn’t take the Flood of 2008 to push the City Council and City Manager Jim Prosser to focus a great deal of their public comments and much of the city’s Statehouse lobbying energy on trying to figure out a way to convince the Iowa Legislature to give cities more flexibility in raising revenue.

Property taxes, the chief revenue source for Iowa cities and counties, provide most of the revenue now, and those taxes hit those who create jobs, the industrial and commercial sectors, particularly hard in Iowa.

The flood and the task of recovery from it only focused City Hall’s interest in “revenue diversification” all the more. Why can’t cities have an income surcharge or a wheel tax or a tax on alcohol and tobacco use? The nine other largest cities in Iowa joined the cause.

And lawmakers and policymakers in Des Moines spoke back. They told Cedar Rapids City Hall to use a revenue option already available to it first before asking for more. And the one chief revenue-raising source that is available is the local-option sales tax.

After all, nearly every city in Iowa has the 1-percent tax in place, and only six of Iowa’s 99 counties have county seats without the sales tax. Those six include Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.

At first, the Cedar Rapids council dithered, thinking state lawmakers might meet last fall and give some special consideration to Cedar Rapids and its flood recovery. On the city’s list of requests was to have the ability to institute a local-option sales tax without a vote by the residents.

There was no special legislative session.

By January, members of the City Council said in public that they had gotten the message from Des Moines: The city’s position would be strengthen in asking for large sums of federal and state funding if the city could show it was doing all it could to raise money locally using the taxing machinery it already had the ability to use. The council decided it would ask voters for a local-option sales tax to be used mostly for help in flood recovery.

By then, though, the state’s existing local-option sales tax law, which sets out a four-month timeline for when such a vote can be held, would not have allowed a vote before late spring.

Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, then wrote a piece of legislation designed especially for Cedar Rapids and Linn County and Iowa City/Coralville and Johnson County. The bill allowed an expedited vote on the sales tax, allowed the tax to begin to be collected immediately and did not require a metro area to vote as a block. Cedar Rapids could try to pass the tax for flood relief without worrying if Marion, Hiawatha and Robins would vote against the move and bring the tax down.

Hogg led the bill through the Iowa Legislature, the governor passed it and the City Council got the measure on the March 3 ballot.

The council assured the public that 90 percent of the funds would go to flood relief, and then in got even more specific and told the public it would be used in tandem with federal money to buy out as many as 1,300 flood-destroyed homes and rehabilitate many, many more.

The council also created an Oversight Committee to assure the public that a citizen group would oversee how the council spends the more than $90 million in sales-tax revenue that will be coming in over the next five years and three months.

On Tuesday, residents voted 59 percent to 41 percent to approve the sales tax.

The measure passed despite a palpable sense of frustration with the pace of flood recovery, a frustration level that Mayor Kay Halloran says she is quite aware of.

The Sunday before the tax vote, a Gazette Communications poll found the mayor’s approval rating at 20 percent and City Manager Jim Prosser’s at 29 percent, and the poll found a slight majority of residents said they had little or no confidence in the council.

In the end, with Sen. Hogg’s push in the legislature and with no little lobbying effort on the part of Halloran, council member Justin Shields and others in Des Moines, the city got a special, one-time deal out of the Statehouse for Cedar Rapids.

The city’s local elected officials — in a year in which six of nine council seats are up for grabs — then helped to make the case for the tax.

The voters this year might toss most up for election out of office. Who knows?

But each of the five people mentioned as a possible candidate for mayor –- Ron Corbett, Gary Hinzman, Scott Olson and council members Brian Fagan and Monica Vernon — supported the local-option sales tax for flood recovery.

And the tax is now in place. It will begin to be collected April 1.

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