Name: Lemi Tilahun
Address: 1126 Koudsi Blvd. NW
Seat seeking: Mayor
Occupation: Retail Sales Support
Educational background: B.A. Political Science, Economics and Spanish, Coe College
Why are you running for council?
Tilahun: I believe that it is time for a change in City Hall and for fresh ideas. Growing up in Cedar Rapids, I have witnessed stagnation as our city continues to be run by the same people. Though these career politicians talk of creativity, inclusivity, diversity, there is very little action to address these issues. Meanwhile, young people are moving out of the city, local businesses do not feel they could thrive and citizens are not being heard within the halls of power. The city government has found a status quo and has forgotten that the people they serve are not benefiting from their decisions. I am running because I want to create an environment where my neighbors could succeed and my peers could foresee a secure future. My platform focuses on engaging youth in leadership and job opportunities, helping small businesses succeed and ensuring Cedar Rapid’s City Hall is the most accessible in the state.
What are the three largest issues facing the city? How will you address them?
Tilahun: 1. Lack of representation in city hall of young people: As Mayor I will reestablish the Mayor’s Youth Council and create a brand-new program that targets entrepreneurs, and small business owners to allow them the opportunity to contribute economically. Meet with Youth and Entrepreneurs bi weekly so that they are getting a seat at the table. Having a say and stake in the issues is one way that we could engage youth and keep our best and brightest here by creating opportunities for them.
2. Economic Development: Increase investment in small businesses. Build and promote workforce training programs that get us ready to compete with a rapidly moving global economy. One of the advantages of having a readily available and trained workforce is we are ready to foster the small business and have them be homegrown with local talent.
3. Infrastructure (Technological and Roads, Bridges, Buildings etc.):∑Technological advancements at City Hall are long overdue. We have to update our systems, and be sure that we are equipped with the best talent and resources to be able to serve our citizens better. Access to City Hall hasn’t been the easiest nor most convenient and its mostly due to our lack of technological infrastructure. As mayor will be partnering with Colleges in town to build and grow programs that send our best tech people to serve in city hall. After on the job training we can put them to work at City Hall via programs that are incentive driven and also criteria’s such as if on the job training is completed and hired, must commit to serving in public sector for at least two years. As for roads and our streets, I am disappointed that we keep on redoing the same roads, and fix the same problems. First day as Mayor I will be sitting down with city government, state government and hatch out the inefficiencies and start looking for practical solutions. If we are going to invest we must make sure the job is completed the right way, the first time.
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?
Tilahun: It is important to point out that these sources of revenue represent less than one percent of the city’s annual revenue. Additionally, the city of Cedar Rapids has been running budget surpluses. The city has diverse income sources and is able to maintain important services and infrastructure which help its citizens and businesses thrive. I believe that Cedar Rapids should continue to charge reasonable fees for such services and should not have to resort to the use of traffic cameras whose legality is suspect. I hope to create new sources of revenue for Cedar Rapids by expanding public transportation and attracting investment in affordable homes and regional transportation. I also believe that there is a greater role for businesses to provide indirect revenue by training our youth and helping to educate the next generation of entrepreneurs.
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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?
Tilahun: Having a readily trained and technologically advanced and skilled workforce is one of the draws for such big fish. A young workforce that is hungry for work.
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?
Tilahun: Fight to keep the company here within means, if it is out of reach develop plans and invest in our local businesses and keep the money circulating here. Also, build relationship with the purchasing company and communicate the importance of the work that Rockwell does in this community and how it is a model company and its to their benefit to keep it here.
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?
Tilahun: Paving for Progress has been a slow process, but it is doing good, but we could be doing better. Find solutions to make it more efficient and perhaps look beyond temporary repair. Some of the streets that I use daily on my commute have improved, but still lots of work to be done. Not for extending because the taxpayers are already carrying too big of a burden and we need to start looking at quality and cost effective methods to solve the problems. Even if that means having to redirect traffic and shut down streets while under repair.
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?
Tilahun: In favor of making the city more accessible by foot. However, the recent conversion of One ways has got me frustrated. Bike lanes are great, but my only concern is the safety of riders and drivers. Especially at peak times.
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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?
Tilahun: Stop relying on federal government to deliver on the false hope or on something that will take years and added effort to fulfill. Instead focus the energy in building a public and private partnership to fund our own flood protection. Look for alternative ways to cut cost by reusing of soil, local materials and local firms to boost the economy and add ownership. When we invest and value our city, then our federal government will too.
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?
Tilahun: Concerns about property values are legitimate as houses are the single most important investment one could make. It is important to help all Cedar Rapidians have a home in order to provide stability in retirement and ensure that everyone could focus on making an income instead of worrying about whether they will have a roof over their heads. Furthermore, stable housing allows residents to become consumers who could expend cash in local businesses rather than spending it on rent. Houses do not have to be built at the expense of other stable homes, when affordable housing is constructed it should benefit the neighborhood. Therefore, any affordable housing project should be designed to raise the property values of the surrounding homes. My plan to increase access to public transportation, for example, is a property value booster which encourages more people to vie for homes in Cedar Rapids. I would only vote for a bill that benefits those who desperately need affordable housing without threatening stable homeowners.
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.
Tilahun: When making an investment it is vital that there be a lucrative return. If the public is investing tens of millions of dollars into One Park Place, we should all expect a share in a reasonably profitable return on that investment. A reasonable return which benefits Cedar Rapidians directly would mean more than $20.5 million in terms of salaries, job trainings and public utilities. Furthermore, companies that benefit from their placement in Cedar Rapids should be expected to invest their profits into infrastructure projects which benefit everyone. If the city of Cedar Rapids is allowing companies to benefit on our tax dollars those companies must be held to account to ensure that the money flows back into the community. Public subsidies have the potential to be smart, creative ways to finance important projects, boost city revenue and create jobs but must be used as an investment not a donation.
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?
Tilahun: I believe in our youth and want to invest as much as possible on them. One way to advocate is through education. Another would be through programs that keep kids active and off the streets. SET is a good first step, but we must assign specific duties so that we are effective. Unfortunately our youth’s will come into contact with guns, drugs, etc., but this is not just a youth issue, we are all in this together. If we begin to see or sense a pattern that is backward, it’s up to us as responsible adults to correct that.
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I am for investing in community centers and recreation centers in each of our core neighborhoods. This will generate revenue that’ll pay for itself and be a connector for the neighborhood and the kids.
Are there any other issues you believe are critical for voters to know?
Tilahun: Public Transportation.
Mobility is key to success and for a city of its size Cedar Rapids is far behind. A public transit that runs reasonable hours is important. Not everyone works a 9-5 nor do they have access to vehicles. Having a public transit that accommodates is a key tool to lots of people’s economic gain.