Government

Meet Cedar Rapids Mayor candidate Scott Olson

Scott Olson
Scott Olson

Name: Scott E. Olson

Address: 6467 Quail Ridge Dr. SW

Age: 71

Seat seeking: Mayor (Current District 4 Council Member)

Occupation: Commercial Real Estate Broker

Educational background: Bachelor of Architecture, Iowa State University; Registered architect, real estate broker with State of Iowa; Certified Facility manager, International Facility Management Association; Certified Industrial/Office Realtor

Why are you running for council?

Olson: I feel my proven leadership skills, experience as a city council member and knowledge of the community through participation in over 50 commissions/committees/non-profit boards gives me the skills to maintain the momentum of our city from day one as Mayor. I have helped create 6 business and 4 nonprofits plus my military service which adds to my background of experience. Most importantly, I want to give back to Cedar Rapids for being able to proudly call this my home since 1961 and allowing me to be successful as an architect and real estate broker. I love this city.

What are the three largest issues facing the city? How will you address them?

Olson: Affordable Housing, Flash Flooding, Recruiting Workers.

Affordable Housing has become a major concern as housing inventory shortages cause rising prices and rents are increasing to meet demands. My plans to address this issue are:

l Make it a top priority

l Create a Neighborhood Finance Corporation

l Reactivate the city’s Affordable Housing Commission

l Create a ROOTS 2.0 program to encourage new single family housing

l Budget $500,000/year to provide a financial stipend to developers/builders that create affordable rental units

l Create a full-time city employee position dedicated to implementing a citywide affordable housing program

Flash Flooding has become a more frequent issue throughout all quadrants of the city. We need to implement city projects that have been discussed for years to reduce this risk. Funding is now becoming available through phased increases in stormwater fees that will fund projects and assist property owners in utilizing sustainable practices that reduce runoff during heavy rain events. The new topsoil rule also will reduce runoff in new residential and commercial projects.

Workforce recruitment is critical to the future growth of Cedar Rapids. With the unemployment rate at just over 3 percent, companies cannot expand or look to Cedar Rapids for a new location. A high quality lifestyle, trails, bike friendly practices, good schools, a variety of entertainment options and a wide selection of housing options are all components to attract workers of all ages. City government is critical to creating an attractive environment for this effort.

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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?

Olson: Planning is already underway in anticipation of these two potential revenue losses. It is a multipronged approach which includes the following:

l Continue to work for efficiencies in our city operation thus reducing costs

l Continue efforts to grow our tax base by promoting growth of existing businesses and recruiting new industries/business to our city

l Use of remaining 2 percent of available franchise fee as a last resort to close any budget gap

By planning ahead, we can continue our 9 year record of no increase in our city tax levy.

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?

Olson: The good news is that we are well positioned to land a “big fish” major company. The city has interstate access, rail service, great airport, “super-park” of 600 plus acres, “mega-park” of 1,500 acres and a competitive incentive package. Plus, we have affordable housing, an experienced workforce, good schools, quality lifestyle and a safe city. Recently ranked by “SmartAsset” as the #1 Best Place in America to Raise a Child and “WalletHub’s” ranking as the 19th Best Run City in America, we are well positioned to land a major new company.

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?

Olson: As I campaign throughout the city plus listen to the concerns of the real estate community, I am asked daily about the future of Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids. They have long been a valued member of our business/philanthropic community. As a council member and your Mayor, I will work tirelessly with the city manager, our economic development staff, the Economic Alliance, State of Iowa and of course, the council to do everything we can to keep Cedar Rapids as the headquarters of the new United Technology Aerospace Division. It needs to be a broad based team effort.

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I told KGAN earlier this month, in two interviews, that I wouldn’t be surprised if the company headquarters stayed here, but we also had to acknowledge that they could move it to Charlotte, North Carolina. There will be some administrative positions lost from the merger but engineering and manufacturing talent will more than likely remain in Cedar Rapids. I haven’t learned anything new between those interviews and now to change my mind. What I am sure is that over my last 6 years on city council we have made substantial improvements to services and quality of life that would make it a difficult decision for United Technologies to relocate the Rockwell Collins Headquarters. Those changes have included redoing C Avenue and adding a crosswalk and light for Rockwell employees to safely cross C Avenue at is busiest times. Plus, the state of Iowa has improved Highway 100/Collins Road from I-380 to make the roadway work pleasing to visitors coming to the headquarters.

I will use my proven leadership to assemble a team at the local, state and federal level to fight for the Cedar Rapids headquarters UT selection.

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?

Olson: Three years ago Cedar Rapidians overwhelmingly approved a 1 cent local-option sales tax increase to fund badly needed repairs on many streets and avenues in all 4 quadrants. I applaud all of you that voted yes for your foresight. The construction work has been inconvenient for businesses and citizens alike, but we’re starting to see the results. 79 projects totaling 24 miles have been completed in the first 3 years at a cost of $40 million dollars. Another $18 million of projects are underway or will be completed in 2017. In the 10 years before this program, we only spent a total of $50 million which was borrowed thus costing us interest for 20 years. When Paving for Progress funding is completed in 2024, 150 miles of our city’s 600 miles will be improved carrying 30 percent of the traffic in Cedar Rapids. Plus, we now have city public work staff doing additional street repair projects savings us money and accomplishing projects sooner. When the 10 year Paving for Progress ends, 60 percent of the projects will have been in residential neighborhoods with 40 percent on arterial streets.

The Paving For Progress project is a perfect example of what happens when a problem like street maintenance gets kicked down the road. Nobody likes to pay more taxes, but the longer a problem is ignored the more expensive the project becomes. As your mayor, I will work with the city council and city manager to ensure that problems are dealt with promptly, especially infrastructure projects that are enormously expensive and become more expensive by the year.

I would definitely favor a 10 year extension of the 1 cent local-option sales tax in 2024 as we have decades of deferred maintenance that will still need to be addressed.

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?

Olson: The city adopted new Complete Street policies in 2012 to make the city more pedestrian and bike friendly and close the gaps in sidewalks to schools, parks and transportation since 40 percent of the city does not have sidewalks. The city has recently updated its comprehensive plan and trails/bike/sidewalk master plans so that disruption to older neighborhoods is minimized and spending can be prioritized. A single policy like Complete Streets cannot work in the varied neighborhoods of our city. Many areas will not have sidewalks added unless they fit key safety categories such as access to schools, parks and transportation. The city council recently modified our assessment policy to eliminate the cost burden of sidewalks for those impacted, especially seniors and those with limited income.

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Our conversion of one-way streets has been planned for decades but is now being implemented as streets are revitalized through Paving for Progress. In many cases, bike lanes are also added to fit the master plan. Due to the railroad crossings downtown and phased funding, the conversion has taken too long leading to confusion. The pace has now been increased so all conversions can occur by 2019 including the creation of a train “quiet zone” downtown.

We need to continue our efforts on all of these areas but apply common sense where it is not feasible to make modifications. This effort also includes the elimination of traffic lights and the conversion to stop signs which has added to citizen confusion. However, once completed, the flow of traffic will definitely improve.

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?

Olson: The flood protection system is underway and the city has its initial funding of approximately $295 million dollars. A plan is being developed by city staff for city council action to fund the gap once we know if any federal funding will be awarded to Cedar Rapids. The gap could be filled by one or several of the following methods:

l Extension by 5-10 years of the state sales tax rebate

l Creation of a flood zone taxing district similar to our SSMID districts

l Vote to modify Paving for Progress 1 cent sales tax in 2024 to allow a portion to go to flood protection

l Create a multiyear CIP bond program to fill any final gaps not covered by the other options

Cedar Rapids will have a completed flood protection system within the next two decades. Receipt of federal funding will allow it to be completed sooner.

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?

Olson: As the District 4 representative on the city council, I voted NO on two occasions based on the wishes of an overwhelming majority of residents in the northwest quadrant. I fully understand the importance of affordable housing to our community as a 44 year board member of Four Oaks which has its AHNI housing programs; the creator/designer of the Margaret Bock Housing on Third Avenue SE; and 9-year chair of the Cedar Rapids Affordable Housing Commission. We need to make sure this negative discourse doesn’t happen again in our city. We need to make affordable housing a priority. As Mayor, I will make this effort a reality which will hopefully avoid the “angst” of the CommonBond project.

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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.

Olson: Always a topic of discussion, tax increment financing (TIF) for developers is only one of two development tools available to cities by Iowa law. The other is Urban Revitalization Districts created to address blighted areas. Tax increment financing, started in California in 1952 and now an option in every state except Arizona, is widely used to fund retail, mixed-use and other development and infrastructure projects, typically by capturing property-tax increases or other incremental taxes.

For our city to be competitive, I was an advocate for publishing our city incentives to send a clear signal to developers/businesses that we were competitive with other cities. In The Gazette feature “Open for Business” on November 20, 2016, Brian Morelli highlighted the increased use of tax breaks by the city of Cedar Rapids from 2012 to late in 2016. Even with the increases in project awards from 7 in 2012 to 21 in 2015 and value of incentives increasing from $7.5 to $35 million respectfully, we only rank #7 in the state for the use of TIF’s with just 4.5 percent of our $6 billion in assessed valuation tied to a TIF agreement.

How the city is using incentives was reviewed by Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson who made the following statements in the article:

“The state created TIF as a tool to help address areas that had deteriorated, were underperforming, or were losing property value.”

Swenson has some criticisms — that cities shouldn’t use tax incentives for retail or housing development — but considering TIF is such a small portion of the city’s tax base, he said Cedar Rapids appears to be using the power prudently.

“Cedar Rapids is not abusive, he said. “They are not one of the bad ones. They are using it wisely.”

As Mayor, I will work to use our incentive programs when needed to assist revitalization efforts or new projects. However, I will be vigilante to make sure our development agreements are fair to all, have measurable metrics, and do not create a negative impact on the real estate market. The One Park Place incentive will be based on a proven need, strong metrics and the benefit to our city.

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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?

Olson: As safety in our city and especially in our neighborhoods is discussed by the SET initiative and in the current city council races, it is important to note that we are making progress as evidenced by new national rankings that give CR high ratings in many categories including safety. But, we still have crime issues on a regular basis that spreads concern in our neighborhoods and reinforces that we need to do more! Our police department does a great job and shares our citizen concerns when crime events occur. Some recent initiatives include:

The newly opened Satellite Police Facility at 1223 First Avenue SE was designed to establish community relations and solicit information to address issues. The substation will house the District Police Lieutenant, PCAT Sergeant and Eastern Iowa Heroin Officer.

The second major initiative is the establishment of the Police Community Action Team (PCAT) in January 2016. PCAT is a 5-person patrol team created to address neighborhood problems and community issues by gathering intelligence information and building relationships within the community. PCAT officers evaluate crime trends and help mitigate neighborhood issues. While members of the team are patrol officers, they do not generally respond to regular calls for service, allowing them more time to delve into issues that arise and foster community relationships.

PCAT has a three-pronged approach. There are the relationship building and enforcement aspects, but there is also a deterrence factor modeled after the Kansas City No Violence Alliance. That model involves identifying individuals who might be at-risk of becoming involved with crime and reaching out to the individual and their families. PCAT officers have a list of resources, such as employment opportunities and job training, that encourage positive alternatives to criminal behavior.

We have a dedicated police department and a low crime rate compared to many cities our size. My goal as Mayor will be to lead the council to provide the resources and support the entire police department to further community engagement and cooperation among law enforcement, social service agencies, community groups and others concerned about violence. We need to make our city even safer especially as it relates to teens and violence.

Are there any other issues you believe are critical for voters to know?

Olson: I feel we have many other issues to address that will have positive impact on the future of our city. As Mayor, I will work with the council and staff to address:

More cooperation/communication with our school leaders, county officials and local/state/federal legislators

Improve citizen involvement in city government especially our youth and young professionals

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Strengthen our city boards/commissions by appointing in cooperation with the council, qualified/experienced members of all ages

Expand the city efforts to communicate, cooperate and strengthen our neighborhood associations

Make city government more transparent and increase citizen participation in council meetings by having one night meeting every month

Resist the effort to bring partisan politics like we see at the state/federal government to our non-partisan council elections so we don’t create “gridlock” in Cedar Rapids.

As an architect and businessman, I have learned to listen, find creative solutions, build consensus, identify funding sources and assemble a team to act. As Mayor, I will use my proven leadership in cooperation with the council to have the city government act in this same manner.

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.