116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Name: Tamara Marcus
Office sought: Cedar Rapids City Council, District 3
Age: 29 (born Nov. 1, 1991)
Occupation: Linn County Sustainability Program manager
Campaign website: facebook.com/marcusforcr
Have you held office before? No
Personal bio: Hi, I’m Tam! I grew up in Cedar Rapids, working my way through the CR public school system and graduating from Kennedy (but try not to hold that against me!). I went to the University of Minnesota to pursue my B.S. in English and biochemistry. I then moved to India as a Rotary Scholar to lead my own research in the Himalayas. I am completing my Ph.D., and my research focuses on climate issues. I have had appointments with NASA, the National Center for Atmospheric Research and have been a Fulbright Fellow. I’ve worked in the Australian Outback and the Swedish Arctic working with local communities to help create actionable local policy. I made the choice to return to Cedar Rapids to make a difference in our community and my hometown. I am currently employed by Linn County as the first-ever Sustainability Manager. My partner is a small-business owner in CR, and he, his kids, and I enjoy making fun of our clumsy cat, Jinx, together. I may be young, but I am certainly not inexperienced.
Why are you running for city office?
I’m running for city office because I want to see regular people making decisions for the public good. I believe that our elected officials work for the public and should represent the voice of the people. We need better public engagement strategies, increased transparency in the decision-making process, and more accountability to voters. I will create ways to encourage a more participatory democracy locally to include people in the decision-making process, especially when those decisions disproportionally impact people who are most impacted by their outcomes. This is a unique time in Cedar Rapids’ history- we must still rebuild from the derecho after a fumbled initial response and continue to respond to the effects of the pandemic by building greater resiliency into our physical and social infrastructure. I believe that my experience as a climate researcher and my work in the nonprofit sector and in local government make me an ideal candidate for Cedar Rapids City Council District 3.
How do you rate the city’s current performance? What areas are going well, and what could be improved?
The city’s performance is OK, but it will be key for Cedar Rapids to become an innovative and dynamic leader — a city that excites people and attracts more residents while not at the expense of those who currently live here. I am encouraged to see some efforts in increasing affordable housing but more work needs to be done. And we must not only be thinking about the number of units but also improving the quality of the units we currently have. I am continually impressed by city staff and would like to see their efforts and work highlighted more, giving credit where credit is due.
I think the areas we can improve the most are areas of public engagement and transparency. In the last year, there have been multiple times where groups of residents or neighborhoods have not felt heard by city officials. The one that stands out most to me and many others is the Rompot decision. I’ve spoken to the residents many times and they are frustrated and hurt by the lack of advocacy on their behalf. It can be a delicate balance between industry and residents, and we must retain our local businesses to sustain the city’s revenue. And we must work to ensure that those most impacted by City Council decisions are being listened to. Providing property value protection for the neighbors of Rompot who purchased their homes using city plans that did not include living next to a rail yard is one example of ensuring that at the very least our neighbors have the opportunity to relocate if they chose.
What are the three largest issues facing the community and what will you do to address them?
The three largest issues facing the community are affordable housing, resiliency planning, and pandemic recovery. I am a member of the Linn County Ongoing Housing Needs working group tasked specifically with addressing housing needs. I want to see the city invest in a revolving loan fund that would help low-income families make the energy efficiency upgrades they need and improve access to renewable energy technologies that will save them money and ideally help stabilize these households. Additionally, I want to explore making Wellington Heights into an urban renewal zone. This would incentivize revitalization in one of the oldest parts of the city, ideally focused around infill development. This will not only help increase the property values for everyone but ideally help bring kids back to our schools by creating more affordable housing opportunities
Resiliency planning around flood protection and disaster response is another big issue we need to address in Cedar Rapids. We need to increase the pace of our flood wall construction, but also look at ways to mitigate flooding upstream such as creating more rain gardens and preserving our natural flood buffering prairies both up and downstream such as in the Rompot neighborhood. We can incentivize residents to implement these mitigating strategies through a rebate on property taxes which is a major concern of a lot of residents. We saw many community organizations in our community jump right in during the flood events and post-derecho. Properly investing in our nonprofits and community organizations that are often the first to respond to households in crisis during disaster events and typically address some of the residual effects from disasters is a way to ensure that we are prepared when we need them most. Identifying key points within Cedar Rapids where we can build resiliency hubs with the physical infrastructure to assist during disaster events, such as solar-powered charging stations backed up with generator power, is also something we should explore.
Pandemic recovery will also be a major issue we must address as a community. The city has received $28 million from the American Rescue Plan to respond to COVID-19. We have a real opportunity to address some of the most pervasive issues within our community with this money. I hope to see the city partnering with entities like the Economic Alliance to assess how we can use these funds to best support our local businesses through loans or grant programs. Additionally, partnering with the county and the school district to respond to the housing and child care crisis will be key.
What do you see as priorities when it comes to the city’s economic development? What areas do you think the city has the potential to grow in? What are most at risk? What would you do about it?
Cedar Rapids is a city filled with entrepreneurs and we need to support the vision of our economic community leaders. Places like Newbo were created by dedicated individuals from right here within our community and we should support the unique talent we have in this city. Our local entrepreneurs contribute to creating an intriguing culture that pulls in people from outside our city while satisfying the wants of our residents too. We also need to be mindful of creating opportunities for young people. Coe, Mt. Mercy, and Kirkwood all do an incredible job of recruiting young minds to our Midwestern oasis. We need to create ways to keep them here working with the Economic Alliance to organize job fairs and local labor unions to create apprenticeship opportunities for training in green jobs such as solar installation.
I would also like to explore the potential of impact investing, which would be investments made into companies, organizations, and funds with the intention to generate positive social and environmental impacts alongside a financial return. If we want to recruit companies, we need to be prepared to satisfy their needs. Many companies now have their own sustainability plans and if we don’t have the renewable infrastructure or governmental policies that support sustainable development to support them, we will be less successful in attracting new businesses. Additionally, no company will want to move to a city that has to significantly rebuild its infrastructure every 4 years, making a strong case for investing in improved resiliency to disaster events. Lastly, I would like to lead an effort to help some of the more impoverished census tracts in our city to gain recognition as opportunity zones. This would bring investment into neighborhoods that were previously passed over.
How should the city facilitate more affordable housing options for buyers and renters?
The demand for affordable housing is higher than ever and the city currently owns hundreds of vacant, buildable lots. As a city, we should start releasing these lots to trusted developers in exchange for them building affordable housing. Developers get tax incentives all the time for larger market-rate housing, this could also be scaled down so that these incentives could be used for affordable infill development. This would capitalize on existing roads, sewers, and infrastructure and help build up the tax base in core neighborhoods. The city can also look at incentivizing land uses that are more conducive to affordable housing like pocket neighborhoods, cottage courts, tiny homes, and mother-in-law suites. And we also need to be considering the quality of housing too. We should create a revolving loan fund that allows low-income homeowners to make the energy efficiency upgrades they need such as new windows or better insulation which will save them money and help move us closer to our climate goals. And all of this can be kick-started with some of the American Rescue Plan funds that the city and county have pledged to address affordable housing going to established nonprofits. Lastly, we need to mandate that landlords disclose information around the utility bills for the properties they rent. This will encourage them to make the upgrades they need to truly make some of these units affordable.
If you were forced to cut the city’s budget, how would you approach these reductions? What areas would you look to for savings and why?
I would first look at investing into mechanisms that would save the city money long-term. In the fiscal year 21-22 budget, the city will spend millions of dollars on electricity. Investing in renewable energy upgrades on city buildings such as PV panels through power purchasing agreements may be a way for the city to reduce this cost and build increased points of resiliency into city operations. Additionally, the city budgeted over $2 million on gasoline for this fiscal year. Exploring how we transition our fleets to electric vehicles would help us lower this cost. Looking for fiscally responsible ways to lower the costs of city operations will benefit everyone in the community. But really what will be the most important is listening to how taxpayers want their money spent and the needs of each city department. As a county staff member, I am familiar with the budget process of local governments and understand the complex thinking that goes into creating a department budget and the fact that elected officials must balance the needs of all departments. Ensuring that the public knows how taxpayer money is spent through increased transparency before, during, and after the budget is finalized should be a continuous process to guarantee the greatest trust from the public in our government.
The city and Linn County Emergency Management each completed after-action reviews of their respective derecho response. Should the groups work together to develop a regional plan? What other improvements need to be made to the emergency response plan and what will you do to advance the conversation?
I was heavily involved in the Linn County review of the derecho response and was encouraged by the conversations around building increased resiliency. I think this is a conversation that needs to continue on a regular basis because we are now living in the “in-between” disaster time. We have had three disaster events in the last 12 years, each time having to rebuild parts or all of our community. Each time we have to rebuild we need to be keeping in mind how we make our communities more resistant to disruption and not just the physical infrastructure, but the social infrastructure and networks too.
For example- we all experienced the derecho, but we did not experience that event equally. Many individuals had their lives disrupted beyond their home- complex social networks of support such as relying on your neighbor in the next apartment to watch your child one day or the neighbor with poor mobility that counts on you to bring their groceries are things that are not so easy to replace. We need to use opportunities like disaster events to reevaluate our systems of operation. Ensuring that things like food system mapping, improved systems of communication between city, county, and the school district, funding support for nonprofits that are activated in disaster events will result in a better response and recovery. Continued and required training in this area for all elected officials even as turnover occurs is extremely important for every city in the county.
The city recently unveiled its climate action plan. Do you support the plan and the idea of net zero carbon emissions by 2050? Are there other things you'd like to see the city do to address climate change?
I support the climate action plan because it will ultimately save the city and taxpayers money and attract and retain good businesses and industries to Cedar Rapids if well implemented. The derecho event cost $11 billion and was classified as the most expensive thunderstorm in U.S. history. We are no longer talking about the future effects of climate change, we are experiencing them now. It is expensive to respond to disasters and so the more we can do to prepare for them and rebuild in a more resilient and fiscally responsible way, the better for our pocketbook.
I have been involved in the neighborhood action planning process with the city and hope that continued engagement at the neighborhood level will lead to more understanding of what needs to be done and ownership of the action needed to be taken. Elected officials will need continued updates about the progress of the implementation of the plan, ideally with recommendations on which parts of the plan will ultimately save the city money. And we will need to work with our local industries to help them transition to more sustainable operations. With major car companies saying that they will stop producing fuel combustion engines by 2030, what will that mean for our industries based around ethanol and the people who work there? Our city council must be willing to explore alternatives to support our tax base and create job training programs that prepare workers for this transition to ensure that no one is left behind.
What should the city’s state legislative priorities be and how would you help advocate for them?
I think we could do a better job in engaging our public in the process of finalizing our legislative priorities and should strive to do so in the future. After all, these decisions will affect all of us and as an elected official representing the people, I would seek to encourage participation from the community for this effort.
Funding support for fiscally responsible resiliency initiatives would be a priority I would support because I think that it would help provide the initial capital needed for some of the actions in the climate action plan. Additionally, decriminalizing low-level offenses and support for expungement clinics would significantly reduce the barriers many face in securing employment or finding suitable housing.
I would also like to work with city planning and zoning staff to explore what changes to state code we could make that would make smaller, infill housing units more affordable to build and own. I believe this would help address the affordable housing crisis and ideally create fiscally sound pathways to homeownership.
In my staff position at Linn County, I have experience in working across party lines with the partisan Board of Supervisors. During the last legislative session, I worked with both Democrats and Republicans as well as city and county staff to help advocate successfully for state funding to help replant the tree canopy lost by the derecho.
Are there quality of life improvements that could be made in the city? What are they and how would you fund them?
We should prioritize projects that we believe will have a good return on investment. It feels like other cities in Iowa are passing us by and drawing families from our city. Quality of life investments are good ones because it keeps families here. We do not need to do exactly what other cities do but should look at where we can create unique experiences that both keep Cedar Rapids families here as well as draw people from nearby cities and towns. This will likely require some communication with other cities in Linn County and in Iowa. When I have been out on the doors listening to the needs and wants of the people, a lot of families speak of wanting more recreational opportunities for families. This is a long-term issue and may best be addressed collaboratively with neighborhoods, not for profits, and cultural/recreational organizations with city support. I think many of us are excited about the prospect of embracing the river and the potential amenities this could drive, including myself. It feels like there are many ideas thrown around for the river, most of which I think are good ones, but we don’t seem to be making any progress. We should explore what state and federal grants for which we may be eligible for this development. Building infrastructure around the river will promote tourism, bring in increased revenue, and encourage our community to take better care of our water resources. Lastly, a big ask has been to open the pools every summer and I agree!
What steps should the city/city council take to address gun violence?
I feel very fortunate to call the folks leading the ReSET CR gun violence intervention (GVI) program good friends. These are people who are on the ground daily interacting with the community and building the trusting relationships necessary to address the systemic and immediate issues that contribute to gun violence. We need to be working with the experts in this space to create and support a Youth Empowerment Center that can engage and give hope to youth who are stuck in the cycle of violence run by people who look like them and have shared life experiences. We also need to take is to recruit and train a more diverse police force to build trust between law enforcement and the communities that statistically are over-policed. I truly do believe that the Citizen Review Board, something I worked closely with community members and city staff to help create, is one tool that can help get us there. We need more investment in mental health training, both for officers personally as well as mental health intervention training for officers to help them assess and engage with people in crises. Discovering and implementing how we deploy mental health professionals as opposed to police will help address some significant issues as well. Working actively with the school district to address how best to support schools in providing safe and engaging environments will also be key. These steps will help us focus on the prevention of crime and not just reacting to it after the fact.