Meet Lisa Kuzela, candidate for at-large Cedar Rapids City Council seat
Name: Lisa Kuzela
Address: 341 Carter St. NW
Seat seeking: At Large
Occupation: Educator and mental health professional
Educational background: BS in Social Sciences and Mathematics and secondary education certification, Brigham Young University.
Why are you running for council?
Kuzela: I’m running to represent my constituents. As I state on my website, “Our town is not about the high rise buildings or fancy developments; it’s about the people. If they’re happy, only then is our city a success.”
There are so many residents who feel alienated from their own city. I believe that it’s their money and their city. Therefore, they need to be the voice for the direction our city goes, and I look forward to helping them with that.
What are the three largest issues facing the city? How will you address them?
Kuzela: I will address the three largest issues facing the city by eliminating waste, fixing roads and building trust. There are numerous possibilities to accomplish this.
Regarding our finances, elected officials have the responsibility to be good stewards of our money. They always need to remember that it is the taxpayers’ money; not theirs. Elected officials need to spend more time reading contracts and reviewing expenditures.
We need to reserve the need to bond only when necessary, stop rubber-stamping change orders, and restrict the use of TIF. Citizens have to live within their means; so should the city.
We can prioritize streets that are in bad condition and install storm sewer intakes. Wouldn’t that make people happy?
We can build trust by working with individuals whom have expressed feeling bullied by the city, providing flood protection and protecting civil rights.
In sum, we need to get back to the basics by foregoing the wants of the few and focusing on the needs of the many.
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?
Kuzela: It’s not the responsibility of the state to make up for our city’s errors and lack of budgeting responsibly. Once the DOT told our officials that they were violating state law, they should’ve followed the law and not wasted our taxes fighting the state. I’ve observed several times when our city has ignored our Constitutional right to “due process.” This is one of those times.
The revenue from the cameras is supposedly going to the police and fire retirement fund. We have a levy for that, and when the $0.04 library levy ended, the city didn’t stop charging it; they moved that it into the retirement fund. The question is “why do we need so much money in this fund? Is it a backfill?”
Our city has plenty of revenue to take care of our needs. Again, let’s get back to the basics and decrease our debt as well.
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?
Kuzela: It’s shameful and damaging that we’ve recently lost huge companies to other areas of the state. Although it’s the responsibility of the mayor to bring business here, I believe that as a councilperson, I could help by researching the upcoming need for growth in corporations and work with the mayor to use these opportunities. For years I’ve been saying that due to the increase of online shopping, we need to approach Amazon and bring them here. We are less than five hours from every major city in the Midwest. What a great selling tool!
I also think we should learn why they decided to set up shop elsewhere. Also, this is one time I would support tax increment financing (TIF) as an incentive.
Another incentive to bring companies here is to transform our city as being attractive for families. I think other than the recreational trails; our leaders have ignored the family establishment. One of the ideas I proposed in the past is to use CasinoLand for a miniature golf course and a skate park. It will be seen by the drivers on the interstate providing the message that this city is fun and family friendly.
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?
Kuzela: I think it’s imperative that we keep Rockwell Collins here! I think we underestimate the value of dialogue when governing. I’d like to sit down with those at Rockwell making the decisions to stay or leave and ask them what it would take for them to stay, and then go from there.
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?
Kuzela: This is the top complaint I’ve heard.
I definitely do not support extending LOSST. The City does not use the funds sensibly or honestly; that won’t change. City leaders, along with the media, led voters into thinking that the sale tax was targeted for street repairs. However, the ballot language was broad enough that they legally can use it for anything related to streets. And they are! That’s why I led the campaigns to defeat the extensions; not because we don’t need flood protection or roads fixed.
I have followed the Plan and the budgeting for the projects utilizing our LOSST. Paving for Progress is a bad plan. Most of the worst roads in the city are not in the plan and many of the good roads are. I’ve tried to work with the city manager, council, engineer and city staff to focus on the bad roads. I took the city manager on a tour. I drove across several terrible roads and informed him that they are not on the 10-year plan. Then, I took him on good roads and informed him that they are on the plan. My goal is that by being on the inside I will have more influence to amend this plan and get our roads fixed.
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?
Kuzela: One of the top complaints while visiting with voters is what is happening downtown. It’s confusing, frustrating and unsafe. I’m not in favor of the two-ways. First, I think it hurts downtown businesses. Second, it makes parking more difficult, because if one sees a parking space on the other side of the street, one must go around the block to get to it; most likely losing that spot. Third, our city leaders have reduced our road lanes; the main source of transportation. They state they want to build a vibrant downtown, yet they’ve made it more difficult to drive and park. Their actions just don’t make sense.
Additionally, the city has applied for and received Clean Air grants for projects such as roundabouts. Their claim was they needed the funds to decrease gas emissions by reducing the need for stopping at intersections. What they’re doing downtown contradicts their stated purpose for getting these grants to be utilized elsewhere in the city. The stop signs create confusion with drivers and pedestrians; neither has a guide as to who goes next.
We could continue toward having a bikeable community that includes downtown, but I think it should be limited to a mode of transportation to get thru downtown; downtown is not a place to bike for recreational purposes.
Regarding sidewalks, I think our city can do a better job at prioritizing where they are installed. I want to see sidewalks around the elementary schools. This is a safety issue and is much more important than their “connectivity” aspirations. For example, the City has ignored pleas from neighbors and parents to install sidewalks near Jackson Elementary School. The kids who walk on Rogers Road and Wiley Blvd not only do not have a sidewalk, but they also don’t have a shoulder to walk on; only ditches. This is unacceptable in a city that is spending so much money on sidewalks where they’re not needed. This is a specific issue that I will push through.
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?
Kuzela: From my perspective, we don’t need any more money for flood protection. We have plenty to protect our town, but our elected officials and city staff have glamorized the need, adding amenities and counting them toward the cost.
Originally, the city estimated the cost to be $199 million to protect both sides; now it’s over $600 million. Additionally, as with other city projects after the flood, the more avenues for funding that come available, the higher the cost of the project.
In 2012, Senate File 2217, a $600 million state bill for flood mitigation, was proposed. The language was so broad that it allowed the fund to go to any development along the river, as long as one part of the major project qualified as flood protection. I lobbied to tighten the language, but our local legislators pushed it through, and now our city leaders are doing just that with these funds. If our city leaders really want flood protection, those funds should be used for that.
While we’re on the subject, I support dredging the river. No wall is going to keep us from being flooded by the storm sewers, which is what flooded me in 2008.
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?
Kuzela: I would’ve voted against this project. Stormwater runoff is a huge problem with many residents in our town. No one knows the water issues in their neighborhood as well as those affected by them. As their representative, I will listen to them. They offer a lot of common sense solutions.
Another reason is that lately these “affordable housing” projects have become an avenue for lower to middle class people to live in upscale apartments while the taxpayers subsidizes such extravagance. The government has reinforced the ability of people to not live within their means and has created a sense of entitlement at the expense of taxpayers. This needs to end. Affordable housing should be limited to building moderate housing with minimal subsidies; not upscale.
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.
Kuzela: We need to be more cautious in how we are utilizing TIF. It was originally established to eliminate slum and blight, but the legislature has expanded it so much that local governments are abusing it to the point of hurting taxpayers as well as other businesses. It removes the capitalistic nature of business and basically allows those in power to determine the winners and losers.
For historical restoration, there are federal and state historical tax credits. Many projects that were handed TIF were eligible for affordable housing or workforce housing tax credits. I think we need to stop supporting the double dipping. It’s to the point that the developers don’t have to invest with their own money; instead taxpayers take the risk. If the developers want the funding up front, they should go to the bank and get a loan.
Additionally, we need to maintain the contracts with the TIF recipients and hold them accountable if they’re not keeping up with their end of the deal. For instance, the number of employees. We need a measurable method to determine this. For example, regarding the Smulekoff’s builder, it states that the jobs do not have to be on-site. How are we to monitor that?
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?
Kuzela: I need to do more research on the SET Plan. However, I do think we need to light up the high crime areas. It’s been proven that well lit areas generally have less crime. I also think we need to work better on mediation regarding the infighting that occurs. And does the task force include those affected? I think it’s critical that it does.
There are people right here who can help with the gun violence. No one knows our city like a local person. We should use them and look local before considering the idea of outsourcing our social issues to people who know nothing about our community.
Are there any other issues you believe are critical for voters to know?
Kuzela: Fireworks has become a hot button. While meeting folks, I’ve been asked what I think about the fireworks.
I’ll be honest. I was completely annoyed by them. The “bombs” especially. One of my cats, whose never been afraid of anything, hid and turned into jello. They nearly gave my dad a heart attack — seriously. And it cost all taxpayers with all the police and fire calls.
However, I enjoyed hearing them throughout the neighborhood on Independence Day. It felt patriotic and reminded me of what it may have felt like back then. I get it!
The compromise that I support is that the city allow them on and around the Fourth of July, for just a few days, while completely banning the bombs. July 1 thru July 5th. After all, the day after you gotta use the leftovers.