Name: Susan Mims
Address: 1173 Oakes Dr., Iowa City
Seat seeking: District B
Occupation: Financial Advisor, Current At Large City Council Member
Educational background: B.S. in Biomedical Engineering; M.S. in Industrial Engineering; Certified Financial Planner
Why are you running for council?
Mims: I care deeply about our community and its residents. Every community will always have challenges and issues that need to be addressed. While much progress has been made over the nearly 8 years I have been on the Council, there is more work to be done. I want to use my skills and knowledge to continue our progress on issues including affordable housing, economic development, sustainability, strengthening our neighborhoods, and improving our infrastructure.
What are the three largest issues facing the city? How will you address them?
Mims: First is addressing affordable housing and transit issues. These, along with wages, are at the core of the stability of our families. As mentioned below, the Council has adopted a 15-point Affordable Housing Action Plan. Some of the steps in that plan have been completed, and others are on our schedule to work on in the months ahead. During preliminary budget discussions, I recommended and Council agreed, that a full review and analysis of our transit system be completed. Adjustments need to be made to better serve those who rely on the transit system. Special attention needs to be paid to routes to our employment centers. Creative solutions need to be explored, such as van pools or taxi vouchers, where the bus system isn’t viable.
Second is continuing to strengthen our neighborhoods. Changes in state law prevent the City from using familial status in our rental ordinances. This will require changes to the City’s rental codes to keep our neighborhoods, especially those close to campus, vibrant and balanced between rentals and owner occupied. This is also critical to the health of our neighborhood schools. Continuing to improve the walkability and bike friendliness of our neighborhoods is important and will be achieved as we implement our Bike Master Plan, and make other infrastructure improvements.
Third is continuing the City’s work in the area of sustainability. The Council adopted a Bicycle Master Plan and hopes to achieve a gold status as a Bicycle Friendly Community. After pilot programs, plans are in place to move to single stream recycling, and to require recycling at multifamily units. A ban on cardboard in the landfill will reduce waste and reduce methane production. The Council appointed a Climate Action Steering Committee to work with a consultant to develop the City’s first Climate Action and Adaptation Plan.
Clearly, the feasibility of progressing on these issues is dependent upon maintaining the City’s strong financial position.
With developments taking place on the city’s Riverfront Crossings Park and district, additional projects are expected to follow in rapid succession. How do you feel about what has taken place so far and do you want to see anything change or done differently?
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Mims: The passage of the Form Based Code for the Riverfront Crossings in June 2014, served as a catalyst for redevelopment in the area. The new MidWestOne Bank building was the first major new construction. It has been followed by redevelopment along the west side of the river between Benton St. and the railroad trestle to the north. There is redevelopment along S. Dubuque St. including a new parking ramp wrapped with town houses. At the corner of Linn and Court streets new construction will result in additional student housing, and a new hotel, along with retail and office space. The block of Clinton St. immediately south of Burlington St. is home to the UI Voxman Music Building, a new hotel, and soon, new construction on the corner of Clinton and Burlington.
Due to the “up zoning” of this area, i.e. allowing increased density under the form based code, the council passed an ordinance requiring affordable housing to be included in residential redevelopment in this area.
The Riverfront Crossings Park is starting to take shape and has been awarded grant money to assist with its completion. This will be a true destination park with unique amenities.
The bike/pedestrian trail will connect the park to businesses and residences east of Ralston Creek via new bridges.
I am pleased with the development which has taken place so far. Due to the size of the area, and the voluntary nature of any redevelopment, it will take years for it to be completed. Like any large, long term development, it will need to be reviewed over time to see if adjustments need to be made to any of the codes controlling the redevelopment.
Downtown and the Pedestrian Mall updates continue to expand in Iowa City. However, some have criticized the city for putting too much focus into the downtown area, while ignoring other outlying neighborhoods. How much attention should be placed on downtown and is enough attention being paid to neighborhoods?
Mims: Downtown Iowa City is a vital part of the city, sitting adjacent to the University of Iowa campus. Along with the campus, it is the major attractor for visitors to the community. With its numerous shops, restaurants, offices, and cultural events, it hosts thousands of people every day. The Englert Theatre, Film Scene, and the new University of Iowa Voxman Music Building host hundreds of events. Investing in the City core is essential to maintaining its vitality and attraction. Much of the infrastructure in downtown Iowa City is many decades, if not over 100 years old. Repairing and replacing that aging infrastructure is expensive, but necessary. When possible, to save money, those projects have been paired with redesign projects, such as was recently completed on Washington St. The City also spends considerable money in other areas of the community. Investments have been made in the Towncrest area to revitalize the medical complex area through a facade program, street improvements and signage, and development assistance for a new medical building. The Iowa City Marketplace (formerly known as Sycamore Mall) has received two rounds of City assistance over the years to maintain its strength and viability as a retail center on the east side. Millions of dollars were spent in replacing and rebuilding infrastructure along Lower Muscatine Road. Sycamore Street was improved to provide better access to the new Alexander Elementary School. Often the investments outside of the downtown area don’t get as much publicity and aren’t seen by people outside of those neighborhoods. Thus, many aren’t aware of those projects. I believe the City does a good job of scheduling and prioritizing projects across the city.
In the 2015 city election, development was the topic of discussion, with voters in that year ousting most incumbents and bringing in then-newcomers with a more conservative approach to large-scale development and tax increment finance incentives. How do you feel about the last two years of council development? Are you happy with the new direction, does it feel the same, or are there things you’d want to see change?
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Mims: While there was some strong talk against TIFs during the 2015 campaign, the council recently voted unanimously to approve a TIF for the corner of Burlington and Clinton St. There does seem to be a preference by those elected in 2015 to limit the height of buildings in the downtown area. The rezoning of a corner lot in the North Market area barely passed on a 4-3 vote. Those voting against it cited the fact that it “might” be 5 stories high. Parking requirements may limit it to 4 stories. In another case, a request for $72,000 which would have allowed a developer to apply for state work force housing tax credits for 72 units, was voted down. The building would have been 14 stories. The council has approved other such requests for more money and lower buildings. I am concerned about proposed changes in the TIF policy. If passed, it will restrict TIF to buildings whose height matches a map in the comprehensive plan. This is a map that was not well vetted. The result will be properties that are zoned CB-10, with no height limitation, but based on the map, may not qualify for TIF if they are over 3 stories, or 6 stories. This may well result in underutilized lots, or stymied development.
Iowa City — and cities across Iowa — could face revenue losses as the state revenues remain tight. The state is threatening to do away with the backfill funds it provides to communities in an effort to balance its budget. How would you balance the city’s budget if the city were to lose funds? What funding priorities do you have?
Mims: The City has been in a strong financial position, with a Aaa bond rating, for decades. Over the last 6 years the City has more accurately matched fees with expenses for water, wastewater and recycle/landfill services. These services do not rely on property taxes. During those 6 years, the City has also reduced the tax levy each year, particularly benefiting low income property owners. Since the 2013 property tax reform, the City has moved more aggressively to build its reserves and an emergency fund in anticipation that the backfill might be ended. The City will use reserves as one mechanism to offset the loss of the backfill dollars, if that occurs. A second, and critically important mechanism, is to increase property tax revenues by increasing the tax base. This is where a strong Economic Development strategy is important. If the City does have to cut services, my priorities would be to preserve public safety, infrastructure, and support and services to low income residents.
Affordable housing has been an ongoing issue in Iowa City. How serious do you feel this issue is? What efforts do you believe are successful and are there additional ideas that could be tried?
Mims: Affordable housing is an important issue in this community. A combination of high demand, lagging supply, and many people working for low wages, contribute to the extent of the problem.
The council has adopted a 15-point Affordable Housing Action Plan in an effort to address this issue. This includes continuing the GRIP and UniverCity programs; providing a budget line of $650,000 for affordable housing; considering regulatory changes that could lower housing costs; pursuing a form-based code in certain neighborhoods; strategically seeking tax credit projects; and other strategies.
Already completed strategies include Inclusionary Zoning for Riverfront Crossings, a zoning code amendment for FUSE Housing First, a new rent abatement program, and new regulations to address tenant displacement.
While we are making changes to address this serious issue, it will be an ongoing challenge.
What other big issues would you like to see the council address in the next few years?
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Mims: The City has a very aggressive Strategic Plan which will be updated this fall. I expect many of the 7 main action items will remain, while the sub topics will be updated, removing those that have been completed, continuing ones that are ongoing in nature, and adding new ones.
Outside of these topics, the City, County, other municipalities and other local entities are discussing the creation of a Behavioral Access Center. Our law enforcement officers and first responders are receiving Crisis Intervention Training. This training teaches techniques for recognizing and responding to individuals in crisis. The crisis might be due to alcohol, drugs, mental health issues, severe emotional distress, or other causes. Right now the only place for officers to take such individuals, if they don’t feel it is safe to let them go, is to the jail or the emergency room. Often, neither of those options are best for the individual, and are very expensive.
Currently, I am working with representatives of other organizations to make this concept a reality. While we have made significant progress, there still is work to be done, and I look forward to continuing my involvement.