116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Name: Ryan Russell
Address: 1322 O Ave. NE, Cedar Rapids
Seat seeking: District 1
Occupation: Operations Manager, LimoLink International
Educational background: BA Political Science and History, Mount Mercy University
Why are you running for City Council?
Russell: I'm running because I want to be a leader who builds on our recent successes while introducing new ideas that represent the citizens of District 1 and Cedar Rapids.
What are the three largest issues facing the city? How will you address them?
Russell: Every issue effecting citizens is important, and the three issues concerning me the most are flood protection, economic development and improving infrastructure. Here are my thoughts and plans to address each issue.
1) Flood Protection: When the Cedar River left its banks again last September, we were reminded permanent flood protection is as important as ever. Progress has been made yet still too many lives, homes and businesses are at risk. I see flood protection as the 'insurance policy' our city needs. Investment and development by homeowners and business owners has been significant. The city council must reassure all citizens their homes and businesses will be protected when the river rises again.
The flood protection master plan includes many types of systems that will keep water out when the time comes. Our biggest struggle is how we're going to pay for the construction of these systems. The city is facing at least a $230 million dollar shortage in funding for flood protection, that's only if the state and federal governments provide all of the expected funding. Constantly changing economic conditions on both the state and federal levels along with 3 major hurricanes this year create competition for the flood protection money.
We need to continue working with the state and federal governments to secure more funding, and most importantly, do everything in our power as the city council to ensure money awarded is to Cedar Rapids. A 'lump sum' pay out isn't the solution as it doesn't take into account inflation and increased costs year over year but instead, gradual funding allowing the city to start and complete flood protection in phases.
While the city should never stop working with federal leaders for funding, the reality of getting additional federal dollars is a steep challenge. The city council will need to start looking at local funding options and our city budget to create new revenue. I favor a local-option sales tax because visitors to our city will help bear the cost with their dollars spent on shopping, dining, and entertainment, easing the financial burden for all Cedar Rapidians.
2) Economic Development: Without flood protection you don't have strong economic development and without strong economic development you may not have flood protection. I see these two issues very intertwined and dependent on one another.
Cedar Rapids is home to world class companies, strong local businesses and a robust workforce. We've consistently maintained a low unemployment rate while continuing to diversify our economy. We will always have to be working on attracting the next big employer, promoting entrepreneurship and being a trusted resource for existing businesses.
Investing in our skilled labor force, encouraging area college graduates to stay locally and employing local labor are just a few ways we can grow our economy and maintain a competitive edge.
3) Infrastructure: The backlog of failing and neglected streets is significant. Cedar Rapids is 3 years in to Paving for Progress and we've seen improvement but there's still a long road ahead of us. Through surveying and technology, the city has ranked our streets and prioritized projects based on needed improvements/maintenance. I agree with this approach as it takes any bias out of the process but I also realize many residential side streets need attention.
My plan is to propose a 'Side Street Prioritization Plan' to focus more of the Paving for Progress dollars on residential/side streets, while continuing work on major streets. This is not a new tax, but using our tax money to make a bigger impact.
We all want to drive on safe well maintained streets but the backlog is significant. The conversation needs to start now on what we as a community will do when the current local-option sales tax expires.
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?
Russell: 1) Continue growing our local economy. It's clear this isn't a priority for the state but should be for us. Increased tax revenue from a growing economy means less cuts will have to be made.
2) Go back to the drawing board. If the state reneges on backfill money we'll have no choice but to make budget cuts and restructure non-essential services. Often local governments raise city fees such as permits, parking tickets etc. to bridge the funding gap. I'd explore this option only if we can't cut enough from our budget. This approach also reduces the need to increase property taxes and sales tax.
3) Cedar Rapids is the second largest city in the state and the economic center of Eastern Iowa. It's time Des Moines starts treating us this way. It will be a priority of mine to build a solid working relationship with state leaders to look at additional funding sources.
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?
Russell: 1) Explore the option of TIF Incentives. Locally we don't have many tools to incentivize or support new and existing businesses. TIF's allow the city to stay competitive regionally and nationally. It's important that the TIF process is well managed and targets business growth that will benefit the local workforce.
2) Market and sell Cedar Rapids nationally and globally. I truly believe Cedar Rapids has a competitive edge compared to other cities in the Midwest. A low unemployment rate shows other organizations that we have a strong, educated and skilled workforce, ready for any opportunity.
3) Continue to fill the housing shortage with affordable homes, mixed development and neighborhood redevelopment. Any significant job surplus will mean more people looking to relocate, we need to be ready.
4) Work with state leadership to tackle the problem of an outdated tax code. There's only so much we can do as a city and we can't go at it alone. Companies looking to expand or open in new markets want to know that cities and state governments can work together and develop meaningful solutions. 5) Invite companies to Cedar Rapids and show them what our city is all about. It sounds pretty simple, but leadership taking the time to do this speaks volumes. As a council member I would make this a priority of mine and would enjoy not only telling the story of Cedar Rapids but showing the city in action.
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?
Russell: The impact Rockwell Collins has in Cedar Rapids is significant. Yes, we could see job loss and reduced philanthropy in our community. One of my big concerns is the impact any major changes could have on industries that support Rockwell. For example; Machine shops, tech companies, hotels and restaurants that do business with Rockwell or surround their offices, could also be impacted. A reduced Rockwell workforce potentially means less local spending in Cedar Rapids.
1) Communicate with Rockwell Collins and United Technologies. By keeping an open dialogue with both organizations, it will show we value the relationship and we're serious about keeping Rockwell in its hometown.
2) Are we competitive versus other states/cities nationally? It's no secret that states and cities battle one another to lure new businesses in. Often going into debt to do so. I'm not advocating going into debt, but we need to be prepared to offer incentives that we can afford if gets to that point. The state needs to be a player in this process as well.
3) Collaborate with Iowa's federal leadership to lobby both companies on the advantages of keeping the HQ in Cedar Rapids. Affordable housing, great education, local colleges and universities, low commute times and a skilled labor force is just the start.
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?
Russell: I support Paving for Progress and can see positive results.
The backlog of failing and neglected streets is significant. Cedar Rapids is 3 years in to Paving for Progress and we've seen improvement but there's still a long road ahead of us. Through surveying and technology, the city has ranked our streets and prioritized projects based on needed improvements/maintenance. I agree with this approach as it takes any bias out of the process but I also realize many residential side streets need attention.
A common complaint I hear from citizens is the condition of residential side streets. My plan is to propose a 'Side Street Prioritization Plan' that will focus more of the Paving for Progress dollars on residential/side streets, while also continuing work on major streets. This is not a new tax, but using our tax money to make a bigger impact.
We all want to drive on safe well maintained streets but the backlog is significant. The conversation needs to start now on what we as a community will do when the current local-option sales tax expires. I support extending the local-option sales tax to continue street repair only with citizen approval.
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?
Russell: I do support these efforts. As our community changes we have more citizens looking to biking and walking as an alternative to driving. This could be a commute to work, a quick errand or for leisure. Becoming more walkable and bikeable allows Cedar Rapids to become more accessible, promote a healthy lifestyle and create new opportunities for citizens.
Recent traffic studies have shown that one way streets limit accessibility, can complicate traffic flow and slow down development. I agree with the one way street conversions but feel the city needs to do a better job educating and communicating these changes to residents. Not everyone works or lives downtown and it can be confusing for many residents that don't frequent the area often.
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?
Russell: While we should never stop working with federal leaders for funding, it seems the writing is on the wall, it's likely not going to happen. Cedar Rapids keeps getting pushed to the bottom of the list, especially after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria which impacted more populated areas. I'd continue working with Iowa's federal leaders and D.C. as any money is better than none.
I believe we need to start looking at local funding options and our city budget to create new revenue. A local-option sales tax is an approach I favor due to the fact that it doesn't solely fall on the citizens of Cedar Rapids but instead hundreds of thousands of people from outside the metro area that come in for dinner, shopping, entertainment opportunities etc. every year.
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?
Russell: The shortage of affordable housing is a major issue in Cedar Rapids, even more so after the Flood of 2008. As a community, we need to make sure citizens have safe, affordable and well built communities they can call home. Affordable housing often gets a bad stereotype slapped upon it but in reality, the majority of affordable housing are well kept and managed properties with great people.
My neighborhood recently saw the construction of new affordable housing. In the beginning we all had concerns and were too quick to assume our neighborhood was done for. I'm glad to report that the new apartments are aesthetically appealing, have a ton of amenities for residents and fits into the neighborhood. I took the time to meet with the city and developer to better understand what this new affordable housing meant for us as neighbors. I then met and educated my neighbors on the benefits and built support for the project.
With that being said, my first priority as a council member will be to represent citizens and their concerns. If city government struggles to build a consensus of public support for a project like Crestwood Ridge, I would find it hard to vote in favor of it. We know the need for affordable housing is great, and if I believe a project has merit and will benefit the community I will always work to educate and build support for it among citizens.
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. Russell: Locally we don't have many tools to incentivize or support new and existing businesses. TIF's allow the city to stay competitive regionally and nationally. I support the responsible use of TIF's. Current city leadership has created a system that ensure's TIF money is properly allocated and managed. As a council member I will continue this process to ensure taxpayer dollars are put to good use on projects that create jobs and benefit the community.
In regards to One Park Place — $20.5 million is a lot of money but recent market studies give the project positive reviews which help support its viability. The combination of residential units and hotel rooms means a growing population downtown that will contribute to the local economy. But, a November deadline is approaching where the developer has to have funding secured. If funding isn't secured, my recommendation would be to reassess the project to learn if the market can still support it.
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?
Russell: There's been very little action or attention given to SET and I think it's a mistake if the city doesn't use it as a guideline to start addressing violence and the lack of opportunities the youth of this city don't have. Our recent crime, especially shootings didn't start over night and they're not going away overnight. We need to adopt a community approach to make sure citizens on all levels feel safe, respected and invested in their neighborhoods. I'd work for stronger collaboration between youth organizations, neighborhood associations, CRPD and city leadership to make the implementation of SET a priority.
Are there any other issues you believe are critical for voters to know?
Russell: Candidate did not respond to this question.