116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — The four individuals vying to be Cedar Rapids’ next mayor are generally supportive of the city’s use of public incentives to spur growth though some urged a closer look at the tax giveaways to ensure accountability for developers.
In a Wednesday forum hosted by the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance and Hawkeye Area Labor Council, moderators asked candidates on the Nov. 2 ballot about their stances on tax increment financing — a key tool the city has used as a growth catalyst after the 2008 flood.
TIFs allow communities to capture added revenue stemming from property tax growth in defined districts and reuse it in targeted ways in those areas. The “new money,” for example, can be for road and utility improvements or to attract businesses through economic development agreements.
Critics contend such economic development agreements are unnecessary or government interference in the private sector.
Mayor Brad Hart said he “absolutely” supports the use of TIF.
“It’s really important for developers — local ones and people who are looking at building who’re coming from out of the state — to understand what they’re eligible for based on their projects,” Hart said.
TIF is “our last stand” as an incentive tool to entice businesses to locate in the city, Hart said. Plus, he noted that TIFs, by design, are on a property’s increasing value, and developers still pay taxes on the property value before the development happened.
Two of the other candidates also voiced support but with conditions.
TrueNorth executive Amara Andrews said, “I don’t support no-strings attached incentives.”
Andrews said that when the city incentivizes developers to pursue projects in Cedar Rapids, the city should ensure they use local, union labor as well as qualified bidders and guarantee safe working conditions.
“As we are incentivizing companies to come here, the same is true — hiring local, giving back to the communities,” Andrews said, urging efforts to create a “stickiness” between communities and companies to retain businesses.
On the campaign trail, Andrews has emphasized the need to support smaller businesses that started in Cedar Rapids. In a Sept. 3 forum, hosted by the local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, she said “those businesses will stay, they will grow, they will employ Cedar Rapidians, and that's really what we need more so than attracting outside companies to come here.”
Tiffany O’Donnell, CEO of Women Lead Change, said that while she supports using TIF as an economic development tool, “I don’t know if I would be a reliable yes because I want to be very specific about what I’m asking for.”
O’Donnell said she would like to see the city ask for more community support — perhaps for youth initiatives, the environment or the entrepreneurial ecosystem — when it doles out the tax giveaways.
“We need to hold them accountable when we offer these incentives,” O’Donnell said, who added she would be open to exploring alternatives to TIF.
O’Donnell and Hart have supported strategic business recruitment efforts to create jobs in addition to backing business retention and expansion for companies already here.
Quaker Oats employee Myra Colby Bradwell, formerly known as Gregory Hughes, said of his support for TIF, “I support all this stuff, but, folks, if you’re waiting for government to do stuff for you, you’re going to be like in Washington, D.C., right now. You’ve got a bunch of kids in there that all need to be voted out.”
The conversation underscores a core priority for the city under the leadership of City Manager Jeff Pomeranz. His economic development experience was seen as one of the top skills he brought with him when he came to Cedar Rapids 11 years ago from West Des Moines.
To help the city rebuild after the flood, Pomeranz created a city economic development office to help expand the tax base, develop the workforce and recruit and retain businesses.
From 2016 to 2020, employment in Cedar Rapids had expanded by 3,256 net new jobs, the city's total assessed value had risen by 17 percent from 2015 to 2018, and public-private projects — in which the city used tax incentives — increased from three projects worth a total of $60.9 million in capital investment in 2010 to 19 projects worth $181.8 million in 2019, according to the city.
In Wednesday’s forum, candidates also advocated for local control in choosing qualified bidders instead of the lowest responsible bidder, as now required by state law, and favored higher minimum wages, though they differed in their views on the role of government in mandating that minimum wage.
The mayoral candidates are on the ballot along with the local-option sales tax extension and gaming referendum, school board candidates and four other City Council races — with the District 3 race being contested, with Tamara Marcus challenging incumbent Dale Todd.
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