Name: Kris Gulick
Address: 2103 Linmar Dr. NE
Seat seeking: Mayor
Occupation: Certified Public Accountant
Educational background: BA Accounting Coe College, MA in Recreation Education University of Iowa, BA in Community Recreation University of Northern Iowa, Iowa League of Cities Certified Elected Municipal Official
Why are you running for council?
Gulick: I have served on the council for the past 12 years and that experience coupled with my experience and leadership roles as Past President of the Iowa League of Cities and executive board member of the National League of Cities provides me with a unique background to lead our community as mayor. As Mayor I can take the momentum that I have helped to create over the past several years and not only maintain that momentum but take it further, creating a community that draws businesses and people to live, work and play here. I have the ability to leverage my experience and exposure to best practices from around the country and apply them to fit our community. I don’t want to take any steps backward or to the side but keep us focused on our goals that I helped to establish, staying disciplined and building a greater community. My goal is to make Cedar Rapids a community that others around the country envy and would like to replicate in their own community. I have the experience and knowledge to do this.
What are the three largest issues facing the city? How will you address them?
Gulick: Fundamentally, becoming complacent and satisfied that good is good enough. Cities, like other organizations, have to stay on top of their game to be competitive. Our community has experienced this in the past and it cost us. I can assure you that as mayor we will be keeping the foot on the gas with a steady hand at the wheel. While we have our momentum we need to take advantage of it to attract businesses and people to our community and be marketing this across the country to help us continue to grow our economy.
Public safety is an additional issue that can never fall off as a priority. Local government is expected to provide safety to its citizens. I will make sure that we provide the necessary resources to our police and fire to do the best job possible. Our public safety needs to be sure to leverage existing technologies to help them operate more efficiently and effectively.
Infrastructure remains a challenge for all cities and Cedar Rapids is no different. We are making progress on our streets through our local-option sales tax but the existing funding source will not resolve all of our needs and we will need to look for future funding sources to complete this needed infrastructure. Flood protection is another component of infrastructure that we need to complete. Flood protection is broader than just the river. It includes the infrastructure and systems required to reduce flooding across the city that comes from heavy rainfalls as well. I have developed some creative ways to accomplish the construction as well as possible financing and funding strategies that I would take to citizens to gain their endorsement and support.
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?
Gulick: We have in the past and we will continue to balance our budget keeping an eye on property tax levels and conservative spending strategies. We have already taken measures eliminating any traffic camera revenue from the current year budget. I suggested to city management that we needed to do this and balance our budget without those revenues and they concurred. The state legislature made promises to protect the backfill to cities and I will work with them to keep them to that promise first and foremost. Should we be unsuccessful I would encourage our legislature to provide options for a phase in period for any changes and look at other local control options that could be provided. As a city in Iowa our revenues are tied closely with property taxes. Since coming on council I have worked to reduce that reliance on property taxes and look at other means for balancing our budget. We have implemented lean process improvement to help with efficiencies and utilized best practices in various departments in an attempt to reduce costs without negatively affecting levels of service. I see us continuing to do this to help us balance our budget. Finding new and creative ways to deliver services is something that is becoming part of the culture of the city. Continuing to grow our tax base is the other way in which we can balance our budget year over year. We need to continue to be open for business to help create that tax base and create job opportunities for our citizens.
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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?
Gulick: First steps to be taken once we hear of possible interest by a company would be to actively pursue them and talk directly with the decision-makers. Businesses are going to make their decision based upon a number of criteria and we need to make the business case as to why Cedar Rapids is their best choice. This would be the reactionary process. More importantly but a better proactive strategy would be creating a city that is attractive to businesses and employees. This proactive approach takes planning and the discipline to execute on a plan that creates a city with the environment that business and employees desire. I have been working on this through good public policy decisions all the years I have been on the city council. In the end, if we have the assets a prospective business desires it is much easier to successfully sell them on our community.
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?
Gulick: Understand that Rockwell and United Technologies are going to base their decision on what they believe will provide the best return to their shareholders. My job as mayor is to make the case as to why Cedar Rapids is going to be the best place to locate their headquarters. To do so I would need to meet with the decision-makers at both Rockwell and United Technologies and sell them on Cedar Rapids. Our local Rockwell personnel know why Cedar Rapids would be the best place but that is not necessarily true of United Technologies decision-makers. Understanding United Technologies needs and process for making this decision is important to improve our chances of retaining the headquarters in Cedar Rapids.
One important way to minimize the impact of losing a headquarters company is to have a diverse and thriving economy that can absorb possible job losses. Currently we have a strong and diverse economy but we can always look at this challenge as an opportunity to create new businesses or an enhancement to recruit other businesses to our area. We need to constantly be nurturing our entrepreneurial community because they are the likely headquartered company of the future. Being a small-business owner myself I have a passion for the creation and expansion of our locally home grown companies and as Mayor I would take advantage of being in the position to promote and market these companies in our community.
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?
Gulick: Paving for Progress is a work in process. There still is much to complete and even at the end of the ten year program our streets will still need more work. The important thing to explain is that our paving for progress program is using independent objective data from engineering specialists to execute on the plan. This assures that the city gets the most value out of the dollars being expended. The use of objective data is very different from my opinion that I think one street should be done over another. Using opinion would result in higher costs and less improvements being completed. In addition to the objective data being providing the program is restricted by a couple of other elements. One would be our climate and the length of the construction season which we have little control over. The other constraint is the capacity of our local contractors. As their workload becomes full costs escalate thereby reducing our ability to get more done. Balancing contractor capacity, costs of construction and the weather are significant challenges.
I would be in favor of extending a portion of the local-option sales tax for the reconstruction and repair of streets in the future and would hope that our citizens would support this as well. I would be cautious to use the full one cent for streets given other possible needs for that funding in the future.
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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?
Gulick: Yes, I do support these efforts which have been in the works for over a decade and are now becoming a reality. Our trails system is what I consider a linear park and is probably one of the most used community assets that we have. Having connectivity through trails, sidewalks and bike areas is something that draws people to a community. We need to complete our master sidewalk plan similar to our paving for progress plan so that sidewalks are put into place where they will provide the most benefit given the costs. Our street conversions are a significant change and are still a work in process. Until the streets are fully converted it is going to be a challenge. I would like to see us take steps to complete the conversions faster and I would work directly with the railroad to assist in expediting the process.
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?
Gulick: As Mayor I would not give up on federal funding. I personally have lobbied at the federal government but with all of the other demands on federal funds, I believe as I always have, we need to figure out how to complete this on our own along with our state partners. I believe I have some viable alternatives that with citizen support we could complete the flood control system in a shorter time and at significantly reduced costs. I also believe that we need to look at flood protection in a broader sense to include the more common stormwater flooding that occurs in our community. In my first 100 days as Mayor I would be taking these concepts to the people of Cedar Rapids to gauge their support. One fundamental component of any plan would be that it be paid for over a long period of time to create better intergenerational equity. The flood system will last for generations so today’s taxpayers should not have to shoulder the entire burden. This is the same reason why large public infrastructure projects are paid for over a twenty year period. I am proposing alternatives that have proved successful elsewhere in the country and I believe they can work here with our citizens’ support.
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?
Gulick: The question “siding with the electorate” implies that a group of neighbors represent the entire city which is not necessarily the case. As elected officials it is our job to represent all citizens and hear both sides of an issue and then decide what is in the best interests of the city. As Mayor I would have tried to spend more time with the citizens who were opposed to this project to better understand their concerns and provide the data and facts regarding this type of project. It has been my experience that in general affordable housing is grossly misunderstood by residents. Part of our job as elected officials is to explain things to citizens. This is one of the reasons that I have held quarterly meetings for residents for my twelve years in office. If residents have all of the same information that we as decision-makers have then it is easier for them to understand how we made the decision. That doesn’t mean that they would agree with the decision but at least they could see how we evaluated the issue. In my specific case I was unable to vote on the CommonBond proposal due to a conflict of interest however my record shows my past support of affordable housing projects in our community. We need affordable housing in our community and we need to do a better job of explaining it.
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.
Gulick: I have supported the use of TIF since first joining the council twelve years ago. Our use of TIF is far less than many of our counterparts across the state. I have tried to be diligent in its use and work toward funding the right projects. Many projects do not make it into the funnel for TIF but those projects still get done but don’t get the visibility that TIF projects do. Unlike state government, Iowa cities have very few economic development tools to use. Due to our heavy reliance on property taxes for revenue, it forces us to use TIF or some other form of property tax forgiveness to use for projects. I have always tried to balance the need for the project to grow our tax base against the need for the developer to obtain a reasonable return. When a project cannot be completed at a reasonable rate of return then the project either dies or we as the city need to provide some assistance to make up that gap. Our strategy for the city is longer term because while we may be giving up some revenue today for a period of time the city will reap the benefits from the property taxes in the long term. We are just now starting to see the benefits of increases in property taxes from projects that I worked on over 10 years ago. Our city will be here long term so we need to look at short term ramifications but also what the long term benefits are as well.
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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?
Gulick: My original career was in parks and recreation and one of the things I spent significant time on was assisting cities with the creation of their parks and recreation departments. One of the selling points was the benefits of such programs upon the youth of the community. I believe that some of the causes of our youth violence today is a direct result of the reduction of youth recreation programming that came about through the mid 80s and 90s that have never been reinstated. We are now living with those decisions. Our police department does excellent work but law enforcement is very different from crime prevention. Crime prevention takes form in a variety of ways and I believe youth recreation programming is a significant part of the solution. As Mayor I would advocate for resources to be provided to at risk youth programs. City government doesn’t have to own this solution alone but we need to collaborate with community partners including the school district and other social service agencies that could provide these services to our youth. As a city I would work toward a youth employment program during our summer months, hiring our seasonal staff from youth that need additional assistance in understanding the value and opportunities that having a job provide. As Mayor I would also like to create a CR Mentors program where all city employees spend a couple of hours a week mentoring a youth. Our city will be in need of future employees so what better way to educate our youth on city employment opportunities while at the same time providing a valuable mentoring experience for the youth. These are just a couple of ideas to help us get our youth on an improved path.
We still have plenty of work to do on implementing the elements of the SET program and we need to be more actively engaging other organizations in this to achieve the kind of results we would like. We didn’t get in the spot overnight and it will take years to remedy but it will take the collective efforts and not just those of city government.
Are there any other issues you believe are critical for voters to know?
Gulick: I think it is important for citizens to understand some of the challenges being created for cities by state government, in particular the increasing erosion of local control. This issue goes far beyond party lines. State government continues to restrict or limit decisions being made by local elected officials. Local elected officials are closest to the people they represent and should have the best understanding of the needs of their community. This local control is being threatened and our citizens need to speak out to their state legislators about this.