Government

Perseverance keeps Cedar Rapids focused as flood control system advances

City will have to contend with emerging funding questions

A cyclist rides Dec. 23 on the Cedar River Trail along a levee protecting Czech Village in Cedar Rapids from flooding. T
A cyclist rides Dec. 23 on the Cedar River Trail along a levee protecting Czech Village in Cedar Rapids from flooding. The half-mile levee which includes the recreational trail was completed this year as a key link in the city’s overall flood protection system. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Perseverance has been a key word in what will be a decadeslong effort to bring 7 miles of flood protection to the banks of the Cedar River.

A 10-year campaign to secure federal aid for flood protection finally bore fruit in 2018.

And new flood wall by the Quaker Oats plant just north of downtown Cedar Rapids, which started in late fall 2018 and won’t be completed until 2021, has involved coordination with rail carrier Union Pacific, working in cramped quarters and minimizing disruption to one of the city’s largest employers.

“It takes perseverance,” said Rob Davis, Cedar Rapids flood control manager. “We’ve been working for three years to get this lined up. It is really quite the accomplishment. We hope this will be a good template for Army Corps (of Engineers) work.”

The Cedar Rapids flood control system — expected to be a $750 million, 20-year investment to protect the east and west sides of downtown Cedar Rapids from river volumes greater than the 2008 flood — took several steps forward this year, but also unveiled new challenges.

There was the completion of a berm south of Czech Village from 16th Avenue SW to the Solid Waste Agency’s Mount Trashmore site, design of a bathroom structure doubling as a portion of flood wall by McGrath Amphitheatre, the beginning of Army Corps-led work along the east bank of the Cedar River, and a $3.6 million contract extension with HR Green, the consultant designing much of the west side system, including around Ingredion, Czech Village, Time Check and Kingston Village.

New question marks have also confronted officials this year surrounding the funding plan and how much to increase property taxes.

One of the core building blocks of the flood system has been the expectation of $267 million over 20 years in state aid awarded by the Iowa Flood Mitigation Board in 2013. Through the “Growth Reinvestment Initiative,” a program created to help Iowa communities manage flood woes, Cedar Rapids is allowed to keep increases in sales tax revenue for flood protection.

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But sales tax revenues are coming in $3 to $4 million short of a $15 million annual distribution cap, which is the basis for the $267 million total. Online sales scooping up local retail spending and changes in what is included in sales tax collections could be factors, but it is hard to say for sure why the revenue is short, Davis said.

By 2033, when the program ends, if the current trend continues, state aid could be $50 to $65 million shy of covering one-third of the total costs.

The city must “charge ahead,” however, because the city also could lose out if it does not have enough work queued up, Davis said. At this point, the shortfalls haven’t slowed construction since work still is ramping up, but it is something the city must address at some point.

“We are starting to take notice of it,” Davis said. “At this point it is not really concerning, but going forward we do want to address that.”

Officials with the Flood Mitigation Board were not available to answer questions during the holiday week.

Another financial question the city must address is how much to increase property tax rates each year to pay for the local share of flood protection.

In 2018, the City Council approved a 10-year, $200 million bonding plan in which the city would increase the property tax levy about 22 cents per $1,000 in taxable assessed value per year for 10 years — in effect increasing the municipal levy from $15.22 to $17.42 over 10 years in order to issue $20 million in bonds each year.

The city successfully lobbied the Iowa Legislature last year to allow bonds be repaid over 30 years instead of 20 years, under the premise the infrastructure project is expected to last generations so future residents should help pay. The longer payback window means a smaller bill on the front end, although potentially more owed in all over the long term.

The city had told residents it would temper the tax rate increase if the Legislature approved 30-year bonds, but Cedar Rapids officials now say they are considering moving forward with the full increase.

Through this approach, the city could access the $200 million in bonds more quickly, which could accelerate the pace of construction, officials said.

“Interest rates on municipal bonding are as low as they’ve been in 10 years,” said Scott Overland, chairman of the city’s finance committee. “It could be very advantageous to lock in a very low rate on 30-year debt and borrow more now. If we try to front-load the project as much as possible at these extremely low rates, we would save a lot in the long run.”

Construction costs increase about 4 percent per year due to inflation. So the quicker the flood system gets completed, the less the city must spend on temporary flood protection measures, he said.

Davis said he anticipates questions surrounding property tax increases for flood protection and shortfalls in the Growth Reinvestment Initiative to be addressed in 2020. For property taxes, that can be evaluated on a year-by-year basis, he said.

Much of the recent focus on flood protection has been on what is underway now and what is on tap for 2020.

While the city has not published calendar year spending totals, flood control spending was expected to more than double from $18.6 million in fiscal 2019 to $37.8 million in fiscal 2020, which runs from July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020.

The 2,150-foot Quaker Oats flood wall has been one of the signature projects this year.

Earlier this month, the city cleared a hurdle in agreeing with the Union Pacific Railroad Co., whose tracks intersect the flood wall at the site, on a $3.1 million deal to allow construction of a railway floodgate in 2021.

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Through the agreement, the city would reimburse Union Pacific $2.7 million for track reconstruction in 2020, $400,000 for the loss of a railroad track as a result of the project, an easement and other costs.

Another signature project this year was the recently completed half-mile levee south of Czech Village. As is, it offers protection to river stage 19.5 feet, which would be considered a major flood. The levee includes a reconstructed recreation trail, which is part of the Cedar River Trail. The city closed the 3-acre Sokol Park to make room for the levee.

The 2008 flood reached river stage 31.12 feet, and the full flood protection system when complete is designed to withstand at least the same volume,

Also this month, a design was submitted for a bathroom, storage and overlook structure that would support concerts of up to 2,000 people at McGrath Amphitheatre along the river without having to bring in portable toilets — long seen as an eyesore. This $3 million facility is expected to be constructed in 2020 and ready for the 2021 concert season.

A detention basin to serve as a reservoir for floodwater is being expanded near Harrison Elementary, and a $3 million gatewell near Bowling Street SW is due for construction in 2020. The gatewell is seen as critical to preventing flooding from underground storm sewers, which have required significant manpower for installing temporary flood protections.

“It is one of the projects I find pretty rewarding,” Davis said. “The number of manhole cone coverings you have to set up is significant. Now, we’ll be able to shut it off at the river.”

The Army Corps of Engineers, which has vowed to complete its share of east side flood protection by 2023, has its first major project lined up for 2020. A $2.4 million floodgate would roll into place across the eastern approach to the 16th Avenue Bridge, helping protect the New Bohemia District.

The Army Corps also is expected to begin work on a levee system between 10th and 12th Avenues SE near the African American Museum of Iowa. Initial impacts include closing off most parking in Lot 44, a surface public parking lot.

Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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