Name: Monica Vernon
Address: 326 23rd St. Dr. SE
Seat seeking: Mayor
Educational background: MBA and B.A. in journalism from University of Iowa
Why are you running for council?
Vernon: I’m running to be your Mayor of Cedar Rapids because I love this city. This is a critical time for Cedar Rapids as we choose our path forward. I was a part of the strong leadership after the 2008 flood that helped us rebuild a better city. I’ll continue with strong, experienced, and caring leadership to accomplish more for our citizens. We must do a better job repairing and maintaining our streets, solving the critical challenges of securing a flood protection system for both sides of the river, and continuing to create and retain jobs for our people. I have the vision, experience, and skills to make this city an even better place to live, work, and enjoy. As an eight-year city council member, including six years as Mayor Pro Tem (Vice Mayor), I know exactly how to get to work on the very first day in office. As the founder and former CEO of a local small business, I know what it takes to create jobs and invest in our workforce. As a lifelong community volunteer, I know how to bring organizations together to solve problems and create opportunities. As a warm, approachable Mayor who is actively engaged with the community, I will represent the energy and enthusiasm of our city. I want to work with all people of this city, for all our neighborhoods. Together, we can build an even better Cedar Rapids.
What are the three largest issues facing the city? How will you address them?
Vernon: The three largest issues facing Cedar Rapids are (1) repairing our streets, (2) securing flood protection for both sides of the river, and (3) keeping our economy strong by continuing to add good jobs for the people of our city.
Street Repairs: Many Cedar Rapids streets need major repairs. Although recent progress has been made, we need to examine the prioritization and the timeliness of the repairs. Citizens voted for a 1-cent sales tax in 2013 to repair the streets and that penny yields about $20 million annually. One of my first actions as mayor would be to conduct a full analysis of streets repairs to assess progress and current needs. All citizens would be made aware of what has been accomplished with the dollars we’ve raised, what streets are being prioritized, what building methods we are using, where the dollars are being spent, and how long the city anticipates it will take to catch up to maintenance-mode. With this report, and follow-up annual reports, the city will be able to solicit input and use citizen feedback, in real-time, to update the timeline and better determine the total investment it will take to get our major roads and neighborhood streets up-to-date.
Flood Protection for both Sides of the River: After the September flood scare of last year, most citizens understand that another major flood like the one in 2008 is very possible. Cedar Rapids needs a comprehensive flood protection system for both sides of the river. We urgently need to build our system to protect lives, property, jobs, and our future growth and development. We have come a long way since the 2008 flood, but without flood protection, we remain subject to incredible destruction and an uncertain future. Additionally, lack of flood protection stalls economic growth as certain residential, commercial, industrial investments are unlikely to happen until flood protection is completed.
Jobs and A Vibrant Economy: A major part of the Mayor’s job is economic development. Even when the economy looks strong and unemployment is low, we must continue to work to grow jobs and build our local economy. We never know when one of our major employers will be bought or sold or will move or close, and we need to be prepared. We must expand and diversify the economy of Cedar Rapids. That means working with existing companies to ensure that the City is responsive to their growth and development needs. That means reaching out and working hard to secure possible new companies, such as Toyota. And, that means organically growing our own jobs and companies through the use of startup incubators in Cedar Rapids. It also means growing our workforce by being the kind of city where people want to live. By working with Kirkwood and local apprenticeship and other programs we can ensure that we have plenty of people, with the right kind of training, to fill future jobs. It is the constant job of the Mayor to be seeking out the next possibility for economic growth for Cedar Rapids.
Part of economic development is making sure that Cedar Rapids has the infrastructure and amenities that will attract and retain jobs and people. We must have improved streets, good water, adequate sewer capacity, and land available for current use and for future growth as well. We also need great schools, libraries, parks, recreation, retail, and dining to bolster the overall quality of life Cedar Rapids offers. We want to be known as a friendly, exciting city that is alive with lots of entertainment and cultural offerings. And, we must be a responsive city that is on top of the needs of its citizens.
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?
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Vernon: My understanding is that the $3 million worth of camera revenue has already been taken out of the budget. However, the possible loss of the $4 million backfill due to budget issues at the state is extremely disappointing. As Mayor, I would address the potential $4 million shortfall issue up front. First, I would do everything we could as a city to encourage the state to keep its word. Second, the $4 million loss could be made up through a variety of means, such as a tough look at internal spending; sales of excess city-owned land; use of city-owned land for more revenue producing activities; better matching of city fees to the actual services delivered; and growth of revenue from brand-new retail, commercial, and housing. As a city, we are constantly looking for ways to balance the budget and make smart financial decisions, but state-induced shortfalls put extra pressure on our local services.
In my opinion, the camera revenue and the possible loss of the $4 million backfill are just two examples of overreach by the state into the city’s business. In fact, there have been a series of decisions by the state that have limited or attempted to limit Cedar Rapids’ ability to grow and develop. For example, we are being told by the state how to police our local traffic in a way that is less than efficient and effective for our city. And, leaving the gaming issue aside, we’ve been told by the state that we can’t allow developers to build a $165 million immediately taxable casino investment in our city that would have covered the better part of three or four blocks on our riverfront, including two blocks of privately funded flood protection, saving the Cedar Rapids taxpayers the cost of building those blocks. This decision a few years ago by the state, not only took a locally-supported effort off the table, but was a large loss to the taxpayers here of revenue, jobs, flood protection assistance and a driver of other economic development in the Kingston neighborhood. At present time, asking the second largest city in the state to build a smaller boutique facility, is another move to tell Cedar Rapids how to develop its city. It is imperative that we speak up for Cedar Rapids when our state impacts our budget. I will work with our state legislature to gain back our right to local decision-making. Cedar Rapids needs to make sure we’re meeting our budget requirements while also serving our citizens well into the future.
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?
Vernon: As Mayor, I would make bringing new businesses to town a top priority. As a city, we have what it takes to land some additional “big fish,” but so many times it’s the relationship that seals the deal. With a focus on building relationships, I would be proactive in our outreach, track communications and prioritize continued follow-up, and make sure that companies always have a direct-line to me with any questions. We need to build a pipeline of prospective companies and make sure that whether businesses are looking for short-term or long-term growth, we are on their shortlist for expansion.
First, I would get to know the decision-makers personally. Through in-person visits and follow-up phone calls, I would make sure we’re connecting interested companies with the best information and the right people in the community, whether that be community leaders or real estate developers. And, if there’s a way to make Cedar Rapids more attractive to a new employer, such as a retraining program at Kirkwood or availability of land, I’d work to make the updates a part of the deal. But, the most important things is to make contact and build relationships because if you’re not at the table, and you don’t have an existing relationship, then you’re not going to even be considered.
We need to insert Cedar Rapids at the heart of the process when companies begin to look at for new locations. I would make sure that every company considering the Midwest — and those who don’t even know it yet — have Cedar Rapids on their radar. For serious situations, I would travel to the company in person. I would make sure that they have standing invitations to come and visit us — especially during our festival times and when our seasons are particularly outstanding. And when they say yes to a visit, I’ll make sure that they get the best taste of Cedar Rapids possible.
Year-round, I would be the most enthusiastic ambassador and biggest promoter of our community. We are one of the very best places in the country to build a home, build a family, build a business, and build a life. We have received tremendous accolades and yet we must be much louder and prouder when sharing the stories about our community. We have so much to sell. I would make sure the Midwest and the Nation knows and values Cedar Rapids the way we do.
We also must continue to work on key things that fuel the ability for our city to continue to grow and develop: Good infrastructure, great schools, strong neighborhoods, a welcoming attitude, a stable economy, responsive local government and incentives when possible and when they make sense. Continuing to work with local businesses and start-ups on their needs also will strengthen our community and our workforce. Then, there are specific things that each company prefers: You discover these and spend time packaging and communicating Cedar Rapids through those lenses.
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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?
Vernon: First, I would immediately work to minimize the impact of a potential loss of the Rockwell Collins headquarters and the jobs that could go along with the shift. I would make a call to our local CEO and ask for an in-person meeting. I would do everything I could to make sure that if any piece of the decision-making process involves the city — whether it be housing, workforce development, land, or infrastructure — that we will be prepared with answers to fight to keep the headquarters here in Cedar Rapids.
Second, I would use Rockwell Collins as an important reminder that the Mayor and the City need to be involved from day one with the employers in our area. As Mayor, I would personally reach out to and visit with our local employers to ensure that we understand their needs and concerns. As the former Chair of the Chamber of Commerce I have already cultivated many of these relationships and know what we must do as a city to retain businesses and continue to develop and support our workforce.
Finally, as Mayor, I would also get to work on day one to build a pipeline of potential new business opportunities for Cedar Rapids. I would move forward with a strategic plan that would be proactively promoting our city to key expansion decision-makers around the world. As an outgoing, experienced Mayor who is actively engaged with the community, I know I could best represent the energy and enthusiasm of Cedar Rapids.
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?
Vernon: I think that Paving for Progress is working, but the question is whether its working fast enough and whether we have the right priorities for improvement. I’d like to have a report to take to citizens where we have thoroughly analyzed the streets situation: How many dollars have been spent? Where have we spent the funds? What are the challenges with implementation? What projects remain? What are our priorities? What does the city staff think we can do in the remaining years of the 1-cent funds? What is the total amount of time and the total dollar amount it will take to get to a “caught up” stage? These are all questions we need to answer, not just for the citizens but also for the city council, before we can move forward.
Additionally, I think it is important for us to look at all the sources of revenue for streets, who uses our streets, and who pays for them now, and how funding might look in the future. Once we have all that information, I would hold a series of community conversations discussing the possible options. After that, I think our pathway forward will be much clearer. Some of our current council members say we’ll need to continue the program. I think we will want to make that decision with all the facts in front of us.
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?
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Vernon: Walkability and bikeability are important but in a community the physical size of Cedar Rapids we must also have drivability. The most important thing in traffic engineering is to use common sense and consistency so that citizens can easily understand how to maneuver the street. If we are going to make a street two-way, we must do so from the very beginning of the street to the very end of the street. Some challenges started when the city closed Second Avenue. The cost of making Third Ave two-way immediately from one end to the other should have been included in the cost of closing Second Ave. It was not included and so the one-way to two-way conversion has been done in piecemeal fashion causing much confusion and many dangerous situations.
When we make a change in our traffic patterns we need to be consistent. Right now, downtown we have stop signs instead of traffic lights on many corners. And yet, Third Street at Second Ave is not required to stop causing confusion and danger to pedestrians and motorists alike. Sidewalks are important and especially for safety in getting students to school and pedestrians to their places of work and common sense in placement and priorities will go a long way.
I’m in favor of continuing to become a more pedestrian friendly community, we just need to do so in a common sense consistent manner that doesn’t confuse and endanger pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists alike.
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?
Vernon: We became eligible to ask for our federal funds just about four years ago after securing a means for our state and local funds. Cedar Rapids has certainly asked for our promised federal dollars but we have by no means exhausted all federal avenues. For example, I think there are opportunities to work with the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, and Homeland Security to leverage related grants and programs. Additionally, the recent disasters in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and Puerto Rico may help put issues of flood protection on the forefront of the national agenda, and Cedar Rapids may be able to make a new push in Congress for funds. When it comes to the federal government, three or four years is not a long time. It’s not fair to ask the citizens of Cedar Rapids to shoulder the entire burden for flood protection, and we cannot give up on fighting for federal flood protection funds. In the meantime, we will continue to move forward, piece-by-piece, on our comprehensive flood protection system for both sides of the river.
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?
Vernon: I would have voted yes. CommonBond worked within the city guidelines and took citizen input to heart and made Crestwood a strong project.
Every city needs a variety of safe housing for its people — those starting out, those with large families, those who are retired, and those at every level of the income scale. And it works best when these housing options are spread around town so that affordable work force housing is available to workers throughout the city. The Crestwood — CommonBond facility will primarily house lower income workforce giving some housing assistance to younger workers, single parents, and older individuals on low fixed incomes.
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I spent over 10 years on our planning and zoning commission looking at best land uses for all types of land in all areas of town, and I chaired our Development Committee of the City Council for six years as we moved over 10 beautiful masonry affordable housing facilities through the council process. I know firsthand that these buildings are well-built, well-maintained, well-managed, and provide good, clean, safe housing to those at the lower end of the income scale. The facilities we currently have in Cedar Rapids are a testimonial to ability of the affordable housing investments to be widely appreciated assets in our community.
The Crestwood facility as planned will provide attractive workforce housing along a bus-route and near jobs and shopping, with plenty of parking, a green space on-site, and a sidewalk for children in the building to safely get to Jackson Elementary. CommonBond’s building along Edgewood Road will shelter neighborhoods to the west from noise and light. The proposal also allows the city to sell city land that it has been sitting on for years. The children living in the building will help keep local school numbers up and drainage takes place on site. My understanding is that there will be 24-hour management that will ensure that the building will be well-run and maintained.
The CommonBond organization has a good reputation for building and operating affordable housing. This project is a recipe for an attractive, well-maintained building and solid program of opportunity.
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.
Vernon: The right approach to One Park Place is to be fair and consistent with Tax Increment Financing (TIF) offered to other developers, which is generally 10 years. The concept of TIF is to give an incentive to get something of value built on a lot or in a place where — without this incentive — nothing would be likely to happen for some time. And where — without this incentive — what would be built would likely be of far less value.
The half block where One Park Place would be built has been vacant or nearly vacant for almost 10 years now. For decades before 2008, the half block in question had mostly one-story buildings and was an underdeveloped piece of property with relatively low property taxes. Without the TIF incentive, we might wait another 10 years for something to develop, and even then, what is eventually built may only be one/tenth the value of what could be built with a TIF incentive. Offering TIF means that we forgo some years of taxation in the short run to get a lot more for the next 50 to 100 years. In other instances, throughout the city, we are seeing payback already as buildings come off TIF and on to the tax rolls. Many more will be taxable over the next several years. This added revenue will help balance the budget as discussed in the previous budget question.
I prefer the use of 5 or 10 year TIFs, depending on the size of the project. TIF is complicated, but if used wisely, it can be a great tool to incentivize strategic growth and increase our tax revenue base.
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?
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Vernon: The answer to a safer community begins with communication, outreach, and inclusion at the neighborhood level. By bringing together city, school, police, and community leaders, the Safe Equitable and Thriving Communities was an important first step in generating ways the city can reduce violence in our community and empower our neighborhoods and our young people. The SETC group is only just the beginning. The issues they have identified — lack of economic opportunity and social vulnerability — need action. As Mayor, I would refresh the city’s commitment to the plan and incorporate their findings into the city’s main priority list.
Young people in Cedar Rapids need to have the support of their community, including pathways for community involvement and leadership. Young people need to have access to a range of educational resources as well as jobs and career advancement. As Mayor, I would work with the city to leverage existing resources and launch new, targeted, and proven programs. What’s worked in other similarly sized cities, and how can we pilot these programs in Cedar Rapids? For example, we implemented community policing based on success in other communities. Expanding community policing in Cedar Rapids will help put our police officers out in the neighborhoods on a regular, proactive basis, talking to citizens and serving them as advocates for the city.
Finally, as Mayor, I plan to hold two neighborhood meetings a month to make transparency of city actions and neighborhood inclusion a priority. Hosted in local schools and community centers, these meetings would begin with a brief update of city projects before the bulk of the meeting time would be turned over to the community. We need to do a better job listening to our citizens and letting neighborhoods ask questions and suggest changes. We, at the city, need to not only listen but also respond and follow-up with action especially when it comes to issues of youth and safety.
Are there any other issues you believe are critical for voters to know?
Vernon: Full-time Mayor: I will be a full-time mayor on the current part-time salary. Cedar Rapids is a big city with great opportunities, complex challenges, and a very bright future. The city deserves a full-time mayor. To do anything less would shortchange Cedar Rapids of the time it takes to craft and carry out a strong collective vision. The Mayor’s job is to work with the council and, with input from the citizens, the commissions, and the city staff members, to develop the vision, strategy, and policy road map forward for the city. And, within all that, to drive growth and development and help propel advancements and improvements for every corner of the city and region. All of this involves a great deal of time. We have the momentum and we can continue to make headway, but it requires a full-time leader. I am committed to give this job my all.
Experience Matters: I’m ready on Day One to be an effective Mayor for Cedar Rapids. I’ll be able to continue to make progress for our city because I know the issues, I know the questions to ask, and I know where the nodes of opportunity are located. My learning curve started over 20 years ago when I joined the City Planning and Zoning Commission. Through requests for rezoning that came before our commission every three weeks, I learned this city’s requirements for streets, sidewalks, setbacks, parks, sewers, lighting, and many other related issues. I also learned what cities can do with land use and infrastructure to make our neighborhoods and commercial districts safer more livable places. The Planning Commission hears complex and, often, controversial requests. I learned to listen to all citizens, learn all could about the request, and then vote what’s best for all. This may sound trivial but learning to vote in a public format takes practice. I have 20-years experience working to achieve outcomes where everyone involved wins. My council work was jump-started by my knowledge gained while on that commission.
As Mayor Pro Tem (Vice Mayor) I chaired many meetings in the Mayor’s absence so I have significant experience presiding over our city council meetings. I have represented the City of Cedar Rapids in Des Moines and in DC on crucial issues and have come home with positive decisions for the city. I have welcomed thousands of people and organizations to Cedar Rapids on behalf of the city. As Mayor Pro Tem, I served as the Personnel Committee chair who recruited and worked with the city council to hire City Manager Jeff Pomeranz. I communicated regularly with all council members as we worked to drive decisions that would make this a better community for all.
I felt strongly that the new library along with the Museum of Art ought to be the bookends of a renovated Greene Square. Many could not see the vision at the time, but now that we’ve located two cultural icons around a renovated park, we’ve had record-high usage of the library and the park.
When I was first on council, we were told the downtown City Market was tried before and didn’t work. I was among those who pushed for a renewed effort to try receive the concept. This time, with a summerlong schedule, plenty of communication about the events, and outreach to new food vendors. Now, we even have a night market, which also has been a huge success.
Some people didn’t see why the City would allow the NewBo City Market to take the decrepit old soup factory off the tax rolls. But I knew, in this case, that by taking the old soup factory off the tax rolls and allowing the NewBo City Market to develop a fun place for the community to gather, all the land around the market would be much more attractive and would bring in additional growth and redevelopment. I knew that the NewBo City Market would be a beacon for development in New Bo, and a symbol that the city believed in the area after the flood. And, it worked, and the New Bo area continues to provide opportunities for family fun, convenient housing, entertainment, community engagement, and local businesses.
Leader Over a Manager: Above all, the Mayor of Cedar Rapids needs to be a leader. In this form of government, we have a city manager who runs the city on a day-to-day basis. However, if we rely too much on day-to-day management, we don’t have any efforts figuring out how to continually become a better city. The Mayor needs to lead for tomorrow. This is done through constant conversations with citizens, city staff members, city council members, other mayors and through study of what is working in cities around the nation and around the world. The role requires a personable leader who will get out from behind the desk and be out in the community listening, observing and learning every day. Being Mayor requires so much more than managing agendas and facilitating process. There’s a steep learning curve, and I am prepared to jump in and get to work on the first day on the job.