Cedar Rapids looks for Plan B - or C, D and E - for flood protection

City to develop funding options if federal money doesn't come through

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Having one of the nation’s most prominent senators verbalize what local officials had been hearing behind closed doors for some time — that $73 million in federal flood protection money looks unlikely — has kick-started a new focus on finding backup plans “B, C, D and E,” Cedar Rapids leaders said this week.

Developing options to offset the federal share of the $625 million Cedar River flood protection system, which was designed after the 2008 flood, became the focal point of an annual Cedar Rapids City Council goal setting session this week.

It came days after Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley told people at a Rotary Club meeting he isn’t optimistic the federal money — which has been authorized but remains unfunded — will ever arrive. Each year, the cost-benefit ratio for the local project gets worse.

“We are not throwing in the towel, but we can’t be an ostrich and put our head in the sand and not listen to the messages we are getting,” Mayor Ron Corbett said. “We didn’t like hearing what Sen. Grassley had to say, but it forced us to start looking at other options.”

A committee of city staff leaders and City Council members will develop a list of alternative strategies over the next several months.

The City Council will review the strategies before getting public feedback, perhaps early next year, so the options would be available to implement if the door firmly closes on federal money, Corbett said.

“Having no protection isn’t an option for us, especially with all of the investment we’ve made on both sides of the river,” Corbett said. “Getting protection 40 years from now is not an option for us. We need to pick up the pace — and we‘ve been as patient as we possibly can be — but we have to identify Plan B and Plan C, D and E.

Cedar Rapids is beginning on the first pieces of the flood protection system this year.

Assistant to the city manager Angie Charipar said City Manager Jeff Pomeranz will assemble a team soon to begin looking at options.

Four possible scenarios were floated among the council members at the goal-setting meeting, but they are considered preliminary and could change as others emerge:

l The current funding plan leans on a 20-year, $280 million state program called the Growth Reinvestment Initiative to direct a portion of Cedar Rapids sales tax revenue to the flood system. Cedar Rapids could seek to raise the cap of $15 million per year that can go toward the system or seek an extension on the program — or both.

That requires permission from Iowa Legislature, the Iowa Flood Mitigation Board and Gov. Terry Branstad, which means Cedar Rapids would need such a pitch ready before the legislative session begins in January, Corbett said.

l A public-private partnership with businesses to put money toward the flood wall rather than required flood insurance.

l Redirect to flood protection part of the city’s capital improvement budget, which covers projects such as park upgrades, new fire trucks and building repairs.

l Create a Self-Support Municipal Improvement District, or SSMID, along the river. A SSMID allows tax generated from a specified area to go back to that area, such as with the Cedar Rapids MedQuarter district.

Corbett noted the city has continued to push for the federal money, including hiring a lobbyist, traveling to Washington, D.C., working federal agencies and staggering the funding request.

Council member Ann Poe said it is important the community knows the city still is working to make the flood protection system happen.

“We haven’t forgotten about this,” she said.

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