Government

Flood protection, ConnectCR could test Linn County-Cedar Rapids relationships

Mays Island on the Cedar River showing the Veterans Memorial Building, Linn County Courthouse, and Linn County Jail in an aerial photograph in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, May 14, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Mays Island on the Cedar River showing the Veterans Memorial Building, Linn County Courthouse, and Linn County Jail in an aerial photograph in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, May 14, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Two high profile projects could test relationships of officials from Cedar Rapids and Linn County.

The county may be asked to financially support two of Cedar Rapids’ top priorities — flood protection and a recreation project known as ConnectCR — but it is unclear what support will be found.

“We are happy to be involved in city projects with the caveat we are involved early in the process, so the county feels like an equitable partner rather just a checkbook,” Supervisor Ben Rogers said.

While the city and county have successfully worked together on some fronts, such as legislative priorities and a shared $20 million radio system for public safety agencies, conflict has arisen in other areas when underlying tensions related to personalities, politics, communication and turf have bubbled up.

For example, the two government entities spent much of 2018 at loggerheads over how best to continue the legacy of the Safe Equitable and Thriving Communities task force, which assembled in 2015 to identify root causes of youth violence. The sides eventually established a grant program tied to task force recommendations in October.

Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart said one of his goals in 2019 is to improve relations so the two entities can work more effectively together.

“I frankly want to figure out how to strengthen our relationship with the county — not that it has been bad — but I just think there were things (in which) we at least can communicate more closely,” he said. “At some point we are going to make an ask of the county for flood protection money.”

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The timing and amount is not set, but the city has a gap of about $70 million, Hart said. The $750 million, 20-year project would protect the east and west side of the Cedar River through downtown.

The county courthouse, jail, sheriff’s office, administration building and juvenile justice center are all near or on the river.

“A majority of the county facilities will be protected by the flood protection system that are in harm’s way,” Hart said. “So, why would you not help pay for that?”

County officials said they have not been formally approached but have heard a request is coming.

That is part of the challenge, they said. Too often, Linn County Supervisors said, they are approached for money only after a plan is developed.

“It seems to me the city already has developed a flood mitigation plan without county input,” Supervisor Stacey Walker said. “I have suggested the city include county officials in briefings and updates, so we have a fuller picture of what the need is. I hope that happens in the future.”

Still, Walker said the flood protection project warrants their consideration.

Supervisor Brent Oleson was less receptive. In his view, because the project has been developed without county input, it is clear the county’s help is not needed.

Oleson said he asked city officials last year to present a proposal, but one never came. He said a request of that magnitude — “$40 million or $20 million or $10 million” — would have to go to voters as a ballot initiative.

“The model you don’t use is to cut one entity out and then at the end ask for money,” he said. “We have not been asked to participate in the slightest. There’s been no discussion, and we own the island in the middle with the most expensive piece of infrastructure that is hard to replace. Other than that, I’m not sure what our responsibility is. If you are going to just ask for a check, that is not going to happen. That conversation should have been 10 years ago.”

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In the case of ConnectCR, fundraisers have already approached the supervisors for money — initially $5 million and decreasing from there — for the $20 million project that would restore Cedar Lake into a recreation amenity, enhance downtown trails and build a pedestrian span over the Cedar River called the Smokestack Bridge.

“This should not be about personalities, but about doing what is right for the community,” said Dale Todd, a Cedar Rapids City Council member who’s worked closely on ConnectCR. “Continuing to hold these projects hostage is doing a disservice to the community. Either step up to the table or explain to the community why you don’t think you should be part of these projects. Stop dragging these things out. Let’s get them done.”

The city is not leading the fundraising for ConnectCR but has committed at least $5 million, established a committee to help see the project through, and is ultimately expected to own and maintain the lake and bridge, which are still privately owned.

Supervisors have been reluctant to make a multimillion contribution. Any funding would come from proceeds of the voter-approved conservation bond, from which $100,000 has been allocated to ConnectCR in the name of water quality, they said.

Rogers noted the city and county have different missions. The county has more responsibility for social services and human services, while the city has a greater focus on economic development. Plus, the city has more mechanisms to generate money such as hotel-motel taxes, user fees and traffic cameras, while the county only has a general fund, he said.

“We have to be able to work together on very small asks all the way up to asks that will require us to raise taxes or substantial asks like flood protection,” Rogers said.

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

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