Meet Ashley Vanorny, candidate for Cedar Rapids City Council District 5
Name: Ashley Vanorny
Address: 2464 Second St. SW
Seat seeking: District 5
Occupation: IT Analyst, University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics
Educational background: B.S. Psychology, B.A. Political Science, University of Iowa; Criminal Justice, Kirkwood Community College; Pursuing Masters in Healthcare Administration.
Why are you running for council?
Vanorny: I’m running for council because as a servant leader in the community I originally sought to engage my representatives in the discussion of activities I was engaged in by inviting them and emailing/calling. When I realized representatives were not responding to emails or invitations I decided to come to them at City Council meetings. While attending, I noticed that I didn’t feel represented by those currently serving and they were not voting they way that mattered to me. In hopes of learning more I reached out to friends, family, and neighbors to ask if their needs were being met and if they had similar experiences. I told myself that if new representation was not needed or if current representation was currently satisfying needs I wouldn’t need to run. Instead, I received feedback that others were struggling to be heard, represented and that their emails and phone calls often went unanswered. So I decided to rise to the occasion for my community and offer them an option of someone in myself who would be accountable and accessible.
What are the three largest issues facing the city? How will you address them?
Vanorny: The three largest issues I see are affordable housing, flood protection measures for all, and public safety. Affordable housing is one of the issues that originally peaked my interest in City Council as having worked with foster children who were needing to obtain affordable housing I came to learn that there was a shortage. If our clients were evicted or displaced, it would often take weeks to relocate them during which my foster charities would be utilizing our funds to put them up in a hotel or temporary shelter while permanent placement could be sought. Affordable housing is currently lacking all throughout Cedar Rapids and needs to be addressed by increasing it with more complexes and mixed use options. In the last year, City Council wavered on voting in affordable housing, which knowing what I do with my experiences in trying to find some for clients, I would have never done.
Flood protection is also another major priority for the city. Without being able to reliably depend on federal or state funding to complete the protective measures of our current plans, we will likely need to investigate a local option sales tax. Having sandbagged late into the night and seeing the inspirational outpouring of assistance all throughout the community with the latest flooding in 2016, I think the Cedar Rapids community is ready to address this head on. We cannot simply wait for the next devastating flood disaster to finally having protective measures. I’ve lived through the flood of ‘93, ‘08, and ‘16 and know that the need is great and the time is now to dissolve this problem once and for all.
Public safety is one of the main objectives a city must offer its citizens. By reinstating and promoting neighborhood associations, we can help to further engage citizens in the conversation and onus of public safety. We as citizens need to be engaged in the conversation in coordination with public officials and public service agents to make a coordinated effort to address this. Certainly by investing in basic needs like walkability (bike lanes and sidewalks), affordable housing, and job creation, we can also solve tertiary issues that lead to crime. As an elected representative, I would seek to stay engaged in the community and be A Voice for Cedar Rapids to meet people where they’re at and engage in community activities to better be accessible to constituents but also understand what needs citizens have. If we are more accessible to the public- through City Council forums, meetings, and simply a presence in the community, our citizens will be more willing to discuss issues that lead to public safety concerns and will be better able to address them as they arise.
The city is facing some major revenue losses. The Iowa Supreme Court is considering whether to uphold a lower court decision to turn off traffic cameras on I-380, which have generated more than $3 million per year for the city. Now, the state is threatening to do away with the backfill, which in Cedar Rapids is worth about $4 million per year. What is your plan to balance the budget if those losses come to fruition?
Vanorny: This week (10/9/17 start) City Council will have the third reading of a proposal to collect on unpaid revenue currently owed to the city with traffic camera citations being a portion of it. The city is proposing to turn the $17.1 million over to a collection agency who will in turn add a 25% surcharge to fees owed. I agree with Mayor Ron Corbett that it is not in Cedar Rapids best interest to become a collection agency to its own citizens but that we should instead address an amnesty program. Currently about half of the citizens who have taken their fines to court have won and half have lost (city won). With this kind of revenue generation being so undecided in regards to the legality of it, I think it is in the best interest of Cedar Rapids to begin with an amnesty program. After all, I see that the impact of proceeding with such a decision would greatly impact low income persons the worst. If they are unable to pay for the fines now, it would stand to reason that adding an additional 25% administrative surcharge and adding the harassing nature of a collection agency would not only further add insult to injury but would further disenfranchise them from being connected to their city. I think it’s time to stop wasting money trying to collect on money we won’t collect on. We will need to find alternative sources of revenue through job creation.
Some big fish have expressed interest in opening shop in Iowa, including Amazon and Toyota and Apple recently announced plans to build in Waukee. What specifically would you do to put Cedar Rapids in the best position to land a major new company?
Vanorny: That’s a great question. What I feel confidently about is that Cedar Rapids has highly qualified, intelligent, wonderful talent to choose from. Particularly as a tech and manufacturing home to many we know that we have people companies like Apple and Toyota would be seeking. What we can do to be desirable is make sure we have our ducks in a row by having flood protection measures in place to protect aspiring businesses investments, offer affordable housing so new or entry level employees have a place they can call home, and invest in public safety so that their employees and business holdings are protected. Streets and transportation are also issues that should be addressed in order to make our city appealing. By investing in our basic infrastructure, and our culture- so that employees have fun, affordable things to do in their free time, I see Cedar Rapids as being an attractive possibility to meet their business needs.
There’s very real possibility one of the area’s largest employers, Rockwell Collins, could see its HQ leave Cedar Rapids. This would lead to a negative impact on jobs and philanthropy to local nonprofits. What would you do as an elected official to prevent this from happening or to minimize the impact?
Vanorny: I am extremely thankful to Rockwell Collins and all of its philanthropic endeavors throughout the years. I feel confident that the talent that originally attracted United Technologies to buy Rockwell Collins will stay. Part of the PR that makes Rockwell Collins so desirable is the presence they have worked so hard to create in the community. I would not expect this to change. That being said, it stands to reason that some administrative positions may be consolidated with the buyout and that is where we need to step up and work on recruiting some of these other major players looking to invest in Cedar Rapids, like Toyota for example in order to provide other highly paid administrative job opportunities to retain our philanthropic citizens. Having spoken with employees at Rockwell, I am just as anxious but also optimistic that this opportunity will lead to better contracts that may bring in greater revenue. This acquisition by United Technologies goes to complete a portion of the engineering they did not currently have onus of. By purchasing Rockwell Collins, they now are a stronger united force, and can reduce on barriers previously experienced through patent or privacy laws, because as a one company they will be better able to communicate on proposed designs and eliminate waste previously spent on legalities of sharing spec designs.
One of residents top complaints in road conditions. Now we are a few years into a 10 year, 1 cent local option sales tax targeting street repairs. It’s called Paving for Progress, and we’ve started to see streets improved, such as 42nd Street. What is your assessment of Paving for Progress? Is it working or isn’t it? And, do you favor extending the LOST tax to continue the program?
Vanorny: Paving for Progress is a great start, but being only a few years into a 10 year LOST, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. It is up to the city to engage citizens to understand what the projected plan is and work with them to prioritize need. Regarding being the biggest compliant from citizens, if the proposed PfP LOST does not adequately address the need, we will need to revisit another LOST until the need is met, because this is a high priority. The work on 42nd street has greatly improved those roads, so I look forward to addressing other needs and seeing the positive impact this can have as well.
Another frequent complaint from residents is the city’s efforts to become more walkable and bikeable, notably building sidewalks in established neighborhoods and road work downtown which has included converting one way streets to two way streets, removing stop lights in favor of stop signs and adding bike lanes. Do you support these efforts and why? And would you do anything specifically to speed up or halt these initiatives?
Vanorny: I do support these efforts and having spoken to my constituents, this is one of my biggest platforms as well. In District 5, we have a lowest median income throughout the city, which means a lot of people are depending on bikability and walkability in order to access their city. I know that the need is currently great to address this and it is a big priority of mine. Having spoke with the sustainability efforts we have currently underway in Cedar Rapids, I am proud and happy that we have put some of our streets on a road diet in our pursuits of becoming a S.T.A.R. community. By investing in ways to make our city more bike and pedestrian friendly we are able to make this city more accessible to all. I currently and would continue to support and encourage all efforts to increase sustainability within the community.
Cedar Rapids is some $200 million short of the money needed to build a flood protection system. Elected officials and city staff have tried a variety of methods to shake loose federal money for flood protection. They’ve lobbied local congressmen and senators, lobbied in Washington D.C., worked with the Army Corps, and pushed unsuccessfully for a local sales tax increase for flood protection. What would you do differently to get federal aid for flood protection? What if any back up plan do you have to fill the funding gap?
Vanorny: We have all too often felt the impact and devastation of the impact major floods have left on our community. So far, the city has made some major strides in addressing this by putting in levees. Yet the work is not yet over, and there is much to still be done in order to make permanent and semi-permanent fixtures that allow us to better address flooding the next time we will face it. And we know this will happen again as like many Cedar Rapidians, I’ve experienced the floods of ‘93, ‘08, and ‘16. We need to continue to advocate for flood protection from State and Federal funding sources. Yet with natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey and Irma hitting our nation this year, we may no longer be a top priority. Without being able to reliably depend on federal or state funding to complete the protective measures of our current plans, we will likely need to investigate a local option sales tax. I know that our citizens would rather have preventive measures than wait for their home or the community we have rebuilt be devastated once again. We cannot simply wait for the next devastating flood disaster to finally having protective measures. I know that the need is great, that based on the sheer vastness of volunteers and sandbagging supporters from ‘16, that the citizens are on our side and share the sentiment that the time is now to dissolve this problem once and for all.
Last year and earlier this year, the City Council faced a difficult decision when CommonBond Communities wanted to build an affordable/homeless housing complex called Crestwood Ridge Apartments in a northwest neighborhood that vehemently opposed the project. While several neighbors pointed to concerns about traffic and stormwater runoff, others said that type of project would bring down property values and could introduce questionable people into the neighborhood. City Council members were torn about whether to side with the electorate or endorse a project many acknowledged was needed in the community. How would you have voted and why?
Vanorny: I would have never wavered in my support of the Common Bond project. The need for affordable housing in Cedar Rapids is great. We cannot allow destructive conversations like “NIMBY” to happen. All Cedar Rapidians deserve to have an affordable home to call their own. What I see with opposition to the Common Bond is that we should have more opportunities for community input prior to a vote. This helps to engage a community in buy-in for support, but also offers up an opportunity to engage and explain why the need is great. I would find it my responsibility as a City Councilperson to educate, communicate, and be transparent about why this need exists. If we are engaging the community, and allowing them an chance to weigh in on the appearance and parameters of build I don’t think we would have as great of a question moving forward in other affordable housing complexes.
Cedar Rapids has leaned heavily in recent years on Tax Increment Financing to incentivize development with programs for downtown development, job creation, restoring brownfields and grayfields, historic restoration, sustainable improvement, community benefit, and urban housing. Virtually every high profile development has included some form of public subsidy. As one example, the city is proposing a $20.5 million public subsidy for a 28 story, $103 million downtown high rise with a grocery store and hotel called One Park Place. Is this the right approach? Is it too generous? Please explain.
Vanorny: TIF funds should be distributed as needed in order to address blight and need within a community. Utilizing them in this respect needs to be the greatest priority. I think that we have been too generous in recent years to distribute TIF funds to projects that do not address blight, and we should move away from this. However, urban housing is also a need we have in Cedar Rapids, and especially investing in one that addresses needs of a food desert by adding a grocery store would be in our best interests to invest in.
Following a series of shootings involving teens, a joint task force of city, school, police and community leaders joined forced to develop a plan called Safe Equitable and Thriving Communities. City staff and council have said they will work to implement the plan although some have questioned the level of commitment and progress and whether the city should bring in outside help. What do you think of the city’s progress on the SET program and what approaches would you advocate to address youth and gun violence?
Vanorny: I think that the SET task force was a good start. That being said, it is only the beginning of what we need to set out to accomplish. We need to fully support and implement the findings and suggestions the SET task force concluded. In addressing youth and gun violence, we need to return the conversation to the streets by assisting and promoting neighborhood associations- groups who know their neighborhoods most intimately. By working in coordination with police to engage citizens in community policing, we can strengthen our communities. I would continue to support these efforts and push to address concerns of affordable housing and transportation to address basic needs that can lead to crime.
Are there any other issues you believe are critical for voters to know?
Vanorny: Transportation in this city has to be addressed. The new routes and lack of evening hours have been devastating to many citizens dependent on this mode of transportation. We need to further discuss expanding evening hours and making sure every citizen has their mobility concerns addressed.
Sustainability also is another issue that should be at the forefront of the conversation. We need to continue working toward our goal of being a sustainable community by fulling supporting the S.T.A.R. community efforts. We have an opportunity similarly to invest in a new solid waste treatment program in the next 5 years and I support efforts to do so that would led us to more efficiently process our solid waste in a sustainable matter that could even return some usable refined methane gas back into our fuel sources for energy consumption.
Accessibility and Accountability have to be a top priority for any elected persons. We cannot accept our representatives leaving calls and emails unanswered. Regarding accountability, we cannot have a city council that fails to hear and respond to citizens outcries. In attending city council meetings, I have far too often witnessed impassioned citizens speak about issues that were very important to them but we continued to move swiftly past first and second readings and bypassed third readings. With all due respect when the Gazette is publishing numerous op ed articles in opposition to proposed ordinances or votes, and citizens are coming by the dozens to do the same in person, we owe it to our citizens to hear them out and consider their vote in the process. We have too often not done this. We also need to be transparent, and visible in the community- after all this is how we can best learn of what the community’s needs and wants are. I know that I am already doing this as a private person and would continue to do so as an elected representative. I have a 48-hour turn around period for communication in my life and usually am much quicker than that. In my personal and professional life communication is key and I know I can offer that in kind to my community. Piggybacking on this concept, we need to look at having more accessible City Council meetings, whether they be held in more accessible locations, or in the evenings to increase attendance. These meetings decide important ramifications for our community and we need to make them easier to attend. If elected, I intend to do just that.