Linn County officials trying to sell water quality bond to voters

Open-ended wording could hurt ballot support

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CEDAR RAPIDS — It’s difficult to argue against clean water.

But Linn County officials pushing for a $40 million, 20-year bond issue focused on water quality face an tall order in gaining enough support from voters Nov. 8.

Some are questioning the lack of specificity in the Linn County Conservation Board’s proposed language, which was approved earlier this month to go on the ballot.

County officials counter that the process has been open and the referendum language can’t get too specific.

With the referendum needing at least 60 percent approval to pass — and costing the average homeowner an extra $27 a year — the challenge seems daunting.

But Dennis Goemaat, deputy director of Linn County Conservation, said he’s confident of the bond’s potential.

“The water quality component really is a necessity and a need for everybody. In fact, this bond is different in that there’s something in it for everybody with water quality, land protection, wildlife habitat, those kinds of things,” Goemaat said. “That’s part of why I think the 60 percent threshold, while it’s a challenge, I think we start from a good place.”

Current ballot language indicates that funds raised by the bond sale would be used to protect water sources, acquire land for natural floodwater storage and improve water quality through parks, trails and natural area projects.

Although the ballot language does not specify this, backers say money raised from the bond sales could leverage more revenue from federal and state grants.

If the referendum passes, Linn County’s would be only the third conservation bond in the state, along with Johnson and Polk counties, officials said.

Dale Todd, a former Cedar Rapids parks commissioner, supports investment in recreation, conservation and water quality. But he’s concerned this bond language is too vague.

“Linn County voters want specifics, and it appears this initiative does not provide them, at least not at this time,” he said, noting county supervisors “still have time to amend their bond issue ... for the November election.”

Earlier this month, Linn County Auditor Joel Miller encouraged the Board of Supervisors to include in the ballot question the percentages of how bond dollars would be spent.

County officials have said more than half the proposed bond — $22 million — is planned for water quality and land-protection efforts. The remaining $18 million would focus on trails and parks — with an emphasis on their water quality and protecting their drinking water sources.

County staff say bond funds will address many efforts such as creating buffer zones for natural filtration and floodwater storage, as well as enhancing and protecting watershed and drinking sources.

However, the language on the ballot, as it now stands, does not spell out such a breakdown.

Miller said adding that information to the ballot can make a huge difference for voters.

“The voters of Linn County — and Cedar Rapids specifically — have proved time and time again that they want specific language as to how funds are going to be spent,” he said. “You have some specificity that’s out in the materials presented to the public, but that’s not what they’re voting on.”

Supervisors have until Aug. 31 to make amendments to the referendum.

Cedar Rapids City Council member Ralph Russell said he agrees that investing in water quality is important, but also said the question is vague and leaves many unanswered questions.

“It’s hard to support something without knowing what I am supporting,” Russell said. “To give a carte blanche amount of money to the county and not know where they will spend the money, in my mind, is inappropriate.”

While some have questioned if ballot language provides the county with a blank check, Linn County Conservation spokesman Ryan Schlader said the language shouldn’t be too specific, and accountability measures are being taken.

Detailing every proposed project would create for lengthy and confusing ballot language, Schlader said. In addition, a bond with so many projects needs to be flexible to allow for the best ability to leverage grant funds at the right time. So, he said, it’s a balancing act between maintaining accountability, without getting too specific.

On Monday, the conservation board will vote on a resolution to establish those percentages — 55 percent for water quality and land protection, 30 percent for parks and 15 percent for trails. The wording can be approved, denied or amended up until that decision, and any resolution by the board has to pass majority approval.

A list of potential projects also has been drafted, which includes nearly 30 water, park and trail projects.

“You can’t list all the projects — that’s one of the difficulties, too — but that’s the reason they put in the accountability provisions so there is that transparency,” Schlader said.

If the bond is approved, the five-member county Conservation Board would identify projects and manage bond funds, with the Board of Supervisors giving final approval.

Goemaat said Conservation Board discussions and supervisors’ meetings are open to the public, barring closed-session circumstances.

As for the $40 million amount, Goemaat said it was a balancing act between need and public willingness. A public survey earlier this year found 63 percent of Linn County respondents would support such a bond.

“In general, when you get into that $2 a month, $26 to $27 a year, people are willing to support that,” he said. “It’s an investment, but you can get a lot accomplished with relatively minor investment, so it was a combination of need and being attendant to what voters and taxpayers were telling us.”

ISSUES UPSTREAM 

But Todd, president of Friends of Cedar Lake, said the conservation bond has been a disappointment, and he has concerns — not the least of which because it offers no plans for the very public Cedar Lake restoration effort he leads.

“It is important to build a coalition before creating the bond language and slate of projects, not after the fact,” Todd said. “I would have been interested in seeing a mix of city and county projects in the slate of projects proposed, in particular, because Cedar Rapids residents pay the majority of Linn County property taxes and are the majority of the voters.”

Goemaat, however, said the projects proposed provide considerable benefits downstream, including in Cedar Rapids and its surrounding communities.

For example, Cedar Rapids drinking water starts out in wells constructed in sand and gravel deposits along the Cedar River.

“If you want to look at their water quality and water quantity, you really address it upstream,” Goemaat said. “If we can help with that nutrient load upstream, it also helps address that drinking-water issue.”

Potential bond projects include wetland development and protection at Chain Lakes, Palo Marsh and Morgan Creek County Park — all of which are located upstream of Cedar Rapids.

Hiawatha council member Aime Wichtendahl said she supports the county’s efforts, but she hopes efforts are made between now and November to fully educate voters.

“Hopefully we get more specifics as Election Day approaches or I think they’re in trouble,” she said. “I think they have a real uphill climb and I understand why they’re doing it. ... I don’t think you can argue against improving water quality.”

BOND LANGUAGE

Here is the language of the bond for which Linn County residents will asked to decide come Nov. 8:

Shall the county of Linn, state of Iowa, issue its general obligation bonds in an amount not to exceed $40 million for the purposes of protecting sources of drinking water and the water quality of rivers and streams, including the Cedar and its tributaries; protecting land to provide natural flood storage to reduce flooding; providing funds to improve parks; providing biking and walking trails; and protecting wildlife habitat and natural areas, to be managed by the Linn County Conservation Board, with full public disclosure of all expenditure.

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