Meet Damian Miguel Epps, candidate for at-large Cedar Rapids City Council seat
Name: Damian Miguel Epps
Address: 6730 Danbury Dr. NE
Seat seeking: At Large
Occupation: Senior Pastor, Mount Union Missionary Baptist Church
Educational background: Bachelor and Master’s degree in Theology, Doctor of Biblical Studies
Why are you running for council?
Epps: It was Gandhi who said that in order to see change there are times that you must step up from behind the scenes to be the change that you want to see. With that being said the reason I am running for council is because I want to serve our city.
The citizens deserve diverse leaders in office, who exemplify honesty, accountability, and a good work ethic. We need servant leaders, who are attracted to public office for the right reasons, and not just for political advancement. We need leaders who will ensure our tax dollars are spent for the betterment of everyone and not just a select few.
If given the privilege to serve on city council, I would advocate for a stronger, fairer economy, safe communities and programs designed to help build solid families.
For the past nine years I’ve watched the city grow and flourish despite setbacks. This growth was made possible through the unified efforts of individuals who crossed cultural and racial lines for the greater good of our citizens. I would love to be a part of a council that serves the interests of all people.
What are the three largest issues facing the city? How will you address them?
Epps: 1. Housing
A. One of the invisible issues that we are faced with is housing. We should explore “Housing First,” models to help the chronically homeless find shelter by ensuring that people have homes to sleep in and prevent them from living under bridges, abandoned houses and cardboard condos as in other cities. It may not be a major problem for our city at the moment, however as we anticipate growth we must also have a proactive plan to address the homeless issue.
B. We should also explore ways in which we can empower first time buyers to get access to low interest rate loans or forgivable loans.
C. We should expand tax credits for affordable housing developments in order to grow our city. We must create incentives that would afford Cedar Rapidians the privilege of living near where they are employed.
2. Economic Development
A. We should consider creating a new insurance pool to help cover small businesses when they are affected by natural disasters like floods and tornadoes. Most flood insurance doesn’t cover things like business interruption or loss of inventory. Our city should be prepared to aid and assist in the capacity.
B. We should explore ways to continue to spur entrepreneurial activity by supporting programs like the Iowa Startup Accelerator. Provide mentoring that will enable new business to grow and develop.
C. Push for Livable Wages that will encourage citizens to make a hard earned living in efforts to support their families needs and wants. Provide opportunities that will spur students in high school to learn a trade that will guarantee them employment. Unions can become involved at this early stage in efforts to train and develop hardworking students to grow into hardworking stewards, one who properly manage the affairs of another.
3. Safe Communities
A. The work of creating and maintaining safe communities is complex. The city must take an active role in providing resources that will support our children, youth, and families. We must recognize that the children are not just our future but they are our right now. We can encourage collaboration between existing nonprofit organizations and we can make investments in programs and initiatives that focus on child and youth development.
B. We must continue to support the men and women of the police department, but we should also encourage greater community policing efforts and implicit bias training. We should consider expanding the budget for our police department in an effort to grow programs like the “Police Community Action Team (PCAT) that allows officers opportunities to canvass the community with the sole purpose of building relationships and helping people.
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?
Epps: One of the most important jobs of a governing body is getting the budget right. There’s no doubt that actions by the state has set up a rather hopeless outlook for the city, in terms of revenue loss that may very well lead to budget shortfalls.
The long and short of it is this, budgets are essentially a statement of priorities. In the event that we have less money to work with, we will need to examine our spending priorities, find productive ways to save money, perhaps delay major capital-intensive projects, and look for innovative ways to grow the tax base to increase revenues.
It is hard to layout a concrete road map at this point without knowing any more specifics, but philosophically I am opposed to making cuts to social services, community development, public safety and infrastructure spending. I believe if necessary, we could find savings elsewhere.
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?
Epps: It is no question that the addition of a major company could positively impact our economic climate. I would leverage partnerships with major companies like Rockwell Collins, General Mills, Transamerica, Quaker, Whirlpool, PepsiCo, and others to recruit for futuristic growth and development of not only Cedar Rapids but that will connect with other cities throughout the corridor.
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?
Epps: Truth is Rockwell will do whatever makes the most sense for their bottom line. Clearly, everyone here is hoping they will stay. At this point, city leaders should be eager to sit down with their executives and see if there is any room for a discussion about the matter.
In the event that Rockwell Collins leave, I would encourage the city to work the Economic Alliance and other stakeholders to determine next steps for minimizing the impact. I admit that I am not an expert in this field, although not many people can accurately predict the exact impact of this loss, but we have experts who could offer valuable insight as to what role the city could play to minimize impact and find any opportunities that might arise.
I would also partner with other city officials and colleagues for ideas and incentives to spur a holistic approach to economic development that will make our city attractive for new businesses to relocate to Cedar Rapids and present current business owners the opportunity to grow and remain. The loss of Rockwell Collins to Cedar Rapids would not only impact jobs, philanthropy and nonprofits but families as well who relocated to our city.
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?
Epps: I believe that the Paving for Progress initiative is working for our city and must continue to be supported. Our roads can always be improved, and even when most of them are in good condition, there will be some in the community who are not satisfied.
I am in favor of extending the LOST to continue the program, but am open to finding other funding mechanisms as well. With initiatives such as this we can continue to invest in the beautification and preservation of our city that attracts business and families to grow and thrive.
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?
Epps: I am in favor of doing everything we can to make our city more walkable and bike friendly. Nearly every model of modern development for cities our size and larger have demonstrated the value of investments of this kind. Not only do these efforts increase commerce and grow the local economy, but they go a long way in helping businesses recruit young talent who put an outdoor spaces, recreation, walkability and bicycle lanes and trails. Another reason why I would advocate for this type of development is to serve the population of residents who have disabilities. Sidewalks walkable and bike friendly paths would give accessibility to every one in the city. We must work to find more resources in our budget to increase this work.
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?
Epps: The fact that our city has been unable to secure the funds to build a much needed comprehensive flood protection system is most unfortunate. Not only has the federal government failed to deliver, but our city has not done an adequate job making the case for its necessity to the general public. I believe it is possible to seek public funding for this project, but we must convince the voters. The city could benefit from a public awareness campaign where residents are able to understand how much we lose every time a flood hits and we tasked with rebuilding. Major flood events affect everyone. It is our obligation to get this work done within the next decade.
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?
Epps: It is most unfortunate that the Common Bond Communities project was so divisive. We need those types of programs that have been proven across the country to be safe, effective ways to provide vulnerable citizens with affordable housing. The debate really felt like people were saying that they didn’t want a certain kind of person in their neighborhood. This could’ve been a teachable moment for a city council with a conscience. They could’ve reminded people that our country has been here before, and used coded language to signal their disdain for people who were not like them. If in fact a person’s skin color or socioeconomic status can bring down property value, then we’ve got bigger fish to fry.
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.
Epps: I believe that tax increment financing (TIF) is an incredibly useful tool for most cities. I think our focus should be on how we determine which projects receive generous incentives. If we want to encourage more equitable and sustainable development, then we should incentivize it. If we want to encourage agri-communities, or guard against the gentrification of neighborhoods, then we should find a way to prioritize and/or incentivize it. I am not opposed to greenlighting a high profile development, I am just opposed to sweetening the deal for millionaire developers who don’t need it, when we could be enhancing other projects in town that better fit our values.
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?
Epps: It is without question that our city has a long ways to go in addressing crime and youth violence. We know that violent crime has been on the decline. The fact that the city took the lead on developing a task force was a good step. Now, we must continue to push forward. Creating safer, more equitable communities is hard work and takes real investment and commitment. As a councilperson, I would open to exploring outside help from community organizations. Together we can efforts make a serious investment in bringing the objectives of the Task Force to fruition.
Are there any other issues you believe are critical for voters to know?
Epps: I am not a career politician but I am a servant leader with a heart. I am running because ordinary people need a voice. I have no plans of seeking higher office. I am running because I feel called to serve my city.