116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Name: Justin Wasson
Address: 1570 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
Seat seeking: District 3
Occupation: Self-employed, Pressure Washing Company
Educational background: Finance degree, Iowa State University
Why are you running for council?
Wasson: The community, particularly the core neighborhoods, need a voice on the council. Currently there are no residents of a core neighborhood on the council. I want to provide that voice so that our core neighborhoods can be a great place to live again. Homeownership, crime rates, and infrastructure are all areas that I would focus on. In addition, I want to make it easier for people to invest in this city. The current zoning code makes investment difficult for a many homeowners and small businesses. I want to create synergy between the building department and the community so that people feel encouraged and supported when proposing a project. I plan to be the voice of reason and will prioritize things based on needs.
What are the three largest issues facing the city? How will you address them?
Wasson: Streets — The streets were underfunded for a long time and led to a serious long-term decline in quality. I propose that all street repairs be prioritized before new street construction or beautification projects occur. Infrastructure is a critical need in this city and needs to take priority before other unnecessary projects.
Zoning — The current zoning code makes investment difficult for a many homeowners and small businesses. Many small business owners have told me about how difficult it has been for them to start a new business and so they move somewhere else like Marion or Hiawatha. The zoning code needs to be more streamlined and the department needs to be welcoming and encouraging of investment in Cedar Rapids.
Flood Protection — Protecting our inner city still is a critical need today, nine years after the flood. The people I've talked to who live near the river say they just want protection in place. They don't care about extras, they aren't interested in beautification, they just want protection so they don't always have to worry about the next flooding event. Anyone who wants to invest near the river is taking a much greater risk without protection and so the flood wall also will help spur growth in the core.
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?
Wasson: The first thing we need to look at as a city is what things are needs versus things that are wants. Our essential services of roads, police, fire, and water/sewer will be the highest priority for any budget that I work on.
Another priority should be making plans to sell the downtown DoubleTree Hotel so that it's no longer city-owned. The city lost its Aaa bond rating (the best bond rating a city can have) and the hotel was a major factor in that outcome. Restoring our Aaa bond rating would lower the interest that we pay on money that we borrow as a city.
Finally, being more aggressive with selling other city-owned land such as vacant lots and having them developed will lower the cost of city maintenance and increase tax revenues.
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?
Wasson: Cedar Rapids has many things it can boast to entice a company to move here. Being awarded an All-American city in 2014 is a great example. The people of this town have a long history of being blue collar laborers and it became a part of our culture as a city. Showing outside companies our work ethic, the education levels of our workforce, the recreational activities, the affordability, and many other aspects will help prove that Cedar Rapids is not only capable, but we are the best place to locate this type of business.
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?
Wasson: Did not answer this question.
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?
Wasson: Increasing revenue to roads was critical for improving the infrastructure. At this point it would be hard to go back to having no sales tax to fund the roads because borrowing money to fix the roads doesn't solve our problems in the long run. There still is a lot of progress that needs to be made with road improvements. The city needs to prioritize repairs over new road construction or road beautification projects.
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?
Wasson: I support progress and improvements, but changes in the roads need to help create consistency and get commuters where they need to go with the least amount of hassle.
A lot of the changes are coming sporadically which creates a lot of confusion among people who are used to the streets. 3rd Ave changed from one-way to two-way and back several times. Conversions like this ought to come quicker and be more consistent.
Creating plans that include more systematic and intuitive changes would help reduce the confusion and allow people to adjust quicker to the changes.
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?
Wasson: I believe that there is more than one solution to the problem we are facing. It would be prudent to look at different, more cost-effective, types of protection. Paducah, Kentucky has flood protection that consisted of a big, relatively inexpensive, concrete wall. They allowed murals on this wall which turned into something spectacular. It is now a great tourist destination. This is a model that I think we should look at in Cedar Rapids.
The current plan, according to the city's website, will cost approximately $700 Million for seven miles of flood wall. 2/3 of this is construction and 1/3 of this is design, permitting, and other pre-construction services. The plans include things like a river walk and memorials. Let's fund the wall first and get it built before working on these aesthetic additions.
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?
Wasson: Cedar Rapids has a huge deficit of this type of housing. The Commonwealth Apartment, an apartment complex near my house, has 84 lower-income units and a full-time on site property manager. This building was filled up shortly after reopening which demonstrates the demand for this type of housing in Cedar Rapids.
In addition, there are a lot of houses in the core of Cedar Rapids that are chopped up because there is a shortage of low-income housing. Apartment projects such as the Crestwood Ridge Apartments help to fulfill that demand and allow low income people to live in housing that is better designed for their life situation and needs. I would have voted in favor of this project because the benefits of fulfilling housing demand outweigh the negatives.
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.
Wasson: Tax Increment Financing, or property tax breaks, is one of the tools that a city can use to attract development. Many times, however, this tool is used on projects that didn't need such a large tax break. One Park Place is an example of a project that is requiring huge upfront tax payer subsidies so that a private developer can profit.
Our use of tax increment financing needs to be better defined so that it is used to make the city better. For example, cleaning up brownfields and grayfields, as well as historic restoration projects, are examples where its use might be prudent.
Giving TIFs means that we aren't receiving tax money to fund things such as roads, police, and schools. We need to make sure that economic development in Cedar Rapids also helps the community as a whole.
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?
Wasson: The big cultural problem which needs to be addressed is that the community and the police force have a rift between them. We need to work on making the community trust the police and be willing to cooperate when someone witnesses a crime.
For the last several years we have worked in Wellington Heights to reduce this rift by hosting dozens of events with community and the police. At one of these events that I helped organize there was a video of an officer dancing to the Nae Nae with some kids from the neighborhood. This video was taken at a time where police and community tensions were high across the nation and the video went viral.
Bridging gaps and realizing that the police are people and the community members are people will help to humanize everyone. Police interacting with the community at times when there isn't crime or tragedy will help show the perspective that they are people too.
Are there any other issues you believe are critical for voters to know?
Wasson: I'm a volunteer with Boys and Girls Club, 6th Judicial District, the neighborhood association, Sonshine Learning Academy, Washington High School, and other organizations. I eat at lunch the Mission of Hope homeless shelter about once a month and just talk to the people. I help organize events in the neighborhood to get neighbors connected with each other and with law enforcement/social services. I partnered with some organizations to save a house and build a new community garden in the neighborhood. There are so many things I have been involved with that it would not be practical to list them all. With these connections in the community I hope to take my influence to the next level and make an even greater positive impact.
At age 24 I became the president of the Wellington Heights neighborhood Association. At age 25 I became self-employed and married my wife Andrea. Our house will be paid off before the end of this year and we are due with our first kid on November 8th. My life right now is very good and I want to help spread that to others in the community.