IOWA DERECHO 2020

Derecho recovery, diversity and police reforms among Cedar Rapids' budget proposals

City not counting on more COVID-19 federal aid, but hopes for relief

Cedar Rapids City Hall is seen photographed on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
Cedar Rapids City Hall is seen photographed on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Events of the unprecedented 2020 — the COVID-19 pandemic, civil unrest and the derecho’s destructive winds — shape spending priorities outlined in the city’s proposed fiscal 2022 budget unveiled Monday.

The Cedar Rapids budget proposal calls for more than $1 million to start replenishing trees downed in the Aug. 10 derecho, dedicates funding to police reform efforts and other initiatives intended to advance equity and manages the economic toll of the pandemic, city officials said.

If approved, the budget would provide $25,000 for a new citizens’ police review board, which the City Council is expected to pass later this month. In January, the council unanimously advanced on first consideration an ordinance to create it.

City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said he was not sure yet just what would be needed for the board, but the proposed nine-member panel charged with law enforcement oversight will need training and other resources to carry out a range of tasks. The city previously had said the unpaid panel would be given unspecified resources, but this is the first indicator of the financial support that would be provided.

Members will be involved in the committee that hires a police chief, scrutinize data to promote equity and accountability in policing and review resident complaints about interactions with city police officers.

The budget also would provide $30,000 for a three-year agreement for a traffic stop analysis to help act on any potential bias in traffic enforcement, City Finance Director Casey Drew said.

“That’s just to take a good look at who we’re pulling over, for what crimes, why they’re being pulled over and stopped, and we think this will be very, very important data for the city to have,” Pomeranz told The Gazette.

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Among diversity initiatives is the city’s addition of a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion manager, who will be charged with promoting equity throughout the city organization. Pomeranz said this individual is expected to be hired before the end of fiscal 2021 and fully budgeted in fiscal 2022.

Additionally, the city would commit $1 million to the ReLeaf initiative, a multimillion-dollar public-private partnership with local nonprofit Trees Forever to replant trees after the derecho — the first of a planned continuing investment by the city spanning years. The budget also includes $24,000 for watering new trees during the first two years after planting.

Cedar Rapids is in the process of being reimbursed millions for derecho recovery costs through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and is using untapped city funding sources to cover the expenses in the meantime, Pomeranz has said.

According to the budget proposal, most debris cleanup costs — which make up the largest share of overall derecho recovery expenses — will reach completion in the current budget year, which ends June 30.

“Costs for repairs and some betterments will continue into fiscal year 2022 and beyond,” according to the proposal. “We will amend for these costs during the fiscal year 2022 budget amendment process.”

While managing funds for derecho recovery, the city continues to invest in flood protection and leverage state and federal revenue sources to help construct flood-resilient infrastructure on the east and west sides of the Cedar River.

A $51 million total for flood control is budgeted for fiscal 2022, a boost of $5.4 million over the current budget year.

The council in 2018 approved a municipal property tax rate increase to support a 10-year, $264 million borrowing plan to cover much of the local share of the $750 million permanent flood control system.

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The property tax rate hike proposed for that in the 2022 budget year, which begins July 1 and ends June 30, 2022, continues with a 22-cent per $1,000 in taxable property value increase.

All told, homeowners would see a city tax rate of $15.88 per $1,000 in taxable property value.

According to the city, its total assessed value of property in fiscal 2022 is $12.4 billion, an increase of 1.61 percent or $195.7 million from fiscal 2021. The total taxable value for fiscal 2022 is $7.05 billion, a boost of $104.8 million or 1.51 percent.

An increase in the valuation of the city over time indicates “we have a slight growth in our tax base but we’re maintaining our tax base,” Pomeranz said.

The rate for water and sewer utility bills would rise 4.9 percent, an increase of $61.20 annually for a customer who uses a typical 10 units each of water and sewer.

The proposed total general fund budget, which is on track for adoption in March, is $142.2 million, an increase of 2 percent or $2.7 million over fiscal 2021.

The city also projects its unassigned general fund reserves will be 33 percent of operating budget, or $47 million.

Pomeranz said the city has a “tremendous need” for additional relief from the federal government as Congress debates passage of a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 aid package that would provide $350 billion in state and local governments aid. Mayor Brad Hart is among the more than 400 mayors across the country who have signed on in support of the proposal.

“We do have a plan for that but we’re not counting on anything,” Pomeranz said. “We’re taking care of what we’re able to, and then if there’s something more that comes, then we’ll utilize that.”

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Council member Scott Overland, who chairs the council’s Finance and Administrative Services Committee, said in a council budget session that the city’s financial management and ability to endure two disasters positions Cedar Rapids to press forward on key initiatives.

“I would anticipate as hopefully the country moves out of the pandemic and things return more to normal as well as a lot of repair goes on and getting us past the initial derecho damage that the future looks very bright for Cedar Rapids and we should be able to continue to focus on our priorities as we move forward in future budget years,” he said.

Comments: (319) 398-8494; marissa.payne@thegazette.com

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