Government

Cedar Rapids puts freeze on new hires as it awaits fate of traffic cameras

City manager wants revenue plan if traffic camera lawsuit fails

A speed camera near J Avenue on Interstate 380 SB in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, August 27, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
A speed camera near J Avenue on Interstate 380 SB in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, August 27, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Five weeks ago, the City Council emerged from a closed-door meeting with grit and certainty about suing the Iowa Department of Transportation in a dispute over the city’s Interstate 380 speed cameras. It turns out that confidence is tempered by caution.

City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said Monday he has notified the City Council that he is freezing the size of the city’s work force and putting on hold about $1 million in new spending the council approved in March for the budget year that began July 1.

The freeze includes $380,000 for the Police Department to create a special team of four officers with a mission of descending on neighborhood hot spots in the aftermath of gunfire or when other critical problems break out.

The hold also will block spending $127,000 to create a special maintenance program for city parks in and around the downtown; the addition of a nuisance inspector to support the SAFE-CR nuisance abatement program; the hiring of an additional economic development specialist; and funding for an intern in the Department of Community Development.

Pomeranz said the city continues to believe that the current setup of the traffic enforcement cameras at four spots at the S-curve on I-380 makes the highway safer.

However, he said litigation against the DOT would have a revenue impact on the city should it lose. As a result, he said his decision not to fill new jobs will give him and the City Council time to determine what amount of budgeted money they might want to hold back pending the outcome of the case.

The city continues to use the camera system to issue speeding tickets, although the DOT had ordered changes.

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Pomeranz said he does not think the city would have to reimburse those who pay tickets during the time of the litigation if the city loses in court.

But even without such an order, the city currently estimates it will bring in about $3 million in net revenue from the cameras this budget year. If the court shuts some of the network down, the city will lose some of the revenue that it anticipated having to fund the new positions.

He said he hoped to have a “revenue replacement plan” in place for the council to review in 30 days so it can determine “what levels of moneys we need to escrow or reserve to protect the city” in the event the city loses to the DOT. The plan won’t add new taxes or fees, he said.

Mayor Ron Corbett said Monday it’s no secret that the city has used revenue from the enforcement cameras to supplement its budget. He said it is “only prudent and wise” to put in place a backup plan.

In May, the DOT told the city to turn off cameras in two spots at the S-curve and to move cameras at two other spots into more-severe sections of the S-curve.

The city estimated it would lose $2.2 million annually under the changes.

Corbett, who initially favored accepting a DOT compromise, said Police Chief Wayne Jerman persuaded the council that the current camera setup reduces crashes, has eliminated fatal crashes and lessens the danger to police, firefighters and ambulance crews who must rescue crash victims on that part of the highway.

Pomeranz and Corbett said they continue to agree with Jerman that the city needs to create a special police team for neighborhood hot spots.

Pomeranz said some open city positions might go unfilled and other non-personnel spending might be frozen to allow for the new police officers to be hired.

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Carol Sindelar, president of the Mound View Neighborhood Association, said Monday she was “saddened” that the new police funding was being set aside for now, though she said she understood and was glad it wasn’t simply being diverted to another project.

Sindelar said she particularly liked the idea of hiring a special team to do an “intensive follow-up” in a neighborhood where a shooting, for instance, takes place.

Pomeranz said the team remains an “important priority” at a time when the city has seen incidents of gunfire in the last two years.

“I know it’s a need in our community to beef-up the Police Department,” he said.

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