Staff Columnist

Cedar Rapids Council has a flood plan, with unknowns

Flood protection around the American American Museum of Iowa is seen in an aerial photograph on Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Flood protection around the American American Museum of Iowa is seen in an aerial photograph on Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

In 2008 and 2016, as the Cedar River swelled beyond its banks, legions of Cedar Rapids residents gathered to fill sandbags, each wanting to do their part to protect the city. It was a sight to see.

Now, city leaders have embraced a plan that could lead to property tax rate increases in each of the next 10 years to help pay for permanent flood protection measures. Will citizens once again feel like they’re doing their part, or more like they’ve been left holding the bag?

“There will be people in the public who will second-guess this decision. But I’m here to tell you there’s no other way to do it,” City Council member Dale Todd said at Tuesday’s meeting, where the council voted 9-0 for the plan. “You can be as creative as you want to be. You can talk about local-option sales taxes and lottery tickets. But the only way we can get it done is what we’re doing today.”

Actually, there wasn’t much time for second-guessing. Final details of the plan were released on Sept. 6, the same day it cleared two council committees. Four days later, on Tuesday, the council voted after roughly 30 minutes of discussion. No one from the public showed up to urge a no vote.

That’s sort of surprising, considering what the council’s vote potentially sets in motion.

Next year, the current levy rate of $15.22 per $1,000 of taxable property value will be increased by 22 cents to cover the cost of $20 million in bonded debt. It’s the first such levy increase in a decade.

And city leaders plan to issue $20 million in bonds each year for 10 years, raising $200 million toward the city’s share of a $550 million flood protection project. That may very well mean a levy rate increase in the neighborhood of 22 cents will be needed every year, eventually boosting the rate to around $17.42 in 2029.

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So after 10 years with no rate increase, Cedar Rapids may raise its property tax levy every year for 10 years. It’s the sort of policy change that affects people.

That rumbling sound you hear is a herd of city officials, rushing toward me with caveats.

Every levy increase will need council approval, so a future council could change course in a way that reduces the need for tax increases. Tuesday’s vote was a road map, not a destination.

Growth in property values could cut down the size of any future rate increases. Low bids, efficiencies and accelerated construction could reduce the cost of the project, slicing the bill for taxpayers. Unknowns abound.

Clearly, city leaders are de-emphasizing the what-will-this-cost-taxpayers aspect of the plan. When our editorial board was briefed on the details Sept. 6, council members and staff could not immediately tell us how much this would cost a typical homeowner. Turns out the 22-cent increase in 2019 will cost the owner of a $150,000 home $18 next year. Beyond that? See caveats.

Instead, emphasis is on the big picture. From there, the council’s case is compelling.

Over the next 10-15 years, inflation will boost the $550 million cost of levees and flood walls on the east and west banks to roughly $750 million. The city has worked long and hard to win $267 million in state funding and $117 million in federal funding, along with assorted other sources. It still faces a $324 million funding gap the $200 million will help cover.

The city has to step up, and its options are limited. Talk of refocusing a local-option sales tax now used for streets toward flood protection would rob potholes to pay for levees. The city will ask the state for permission to issue 30-year bonds, which could also slice property tax increases.

Personally, I liked the idea of creating a “flood protection district” where flood zone property owners would pay a special assessment to help cover the cost of measures protecting their property. But that idea was a political nonstarter, with city officials arguing many of those property owners already have paid for protection measures and other flood-proofing modifications. True, but they’ll also see reductions in flood insurance premiums, as was noted multiple times Tuesday.

“This is a project that’s important for the whole community,” Council member Tyler Olson said.

It’s also time, past time, really, to get this stuff built.

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More frequent heavy rains are raising the city’s flood risks. Temporary barriers worked in 2016, but could be overwhelmed by a swifter or more severe event. Another 2008-level deluge would be worse this time around, with far less federal assistance and far fewer businesses and property owners willing to take a risk on rebuilding.

Basically, flood protection is expensive, but the cost of a second epic surge is unthinkable.

“The point of all this is we need to get permanent protection in place. We need to proceed with the funding to protect all of the city,” said Al Pierson, owner of the frequently flood-threatened Pierson’s Flower Shop on Ellis Boulevard. He was the lone resident to address the plan during public comments before Tuesday’s vote. “And we need to step up and be prepared to pay for it. I’m ready to pay for it. I’ll pay more taxes.”

Maybe Pierson reflects a broad community feeling it’s time to get this done after a decade of uncertainty. So far, I’ve heard from no readers critical of the city’s plan. I agree with many of the arguments city leaders make in favor of it even if I do wish they had given the public more time to weigh in on the final details. There will be meetings and hearings and council elections ahead where people can be heard.

The city could have been more candid about the sacrifice it’s asking taxpayers to make, and grateful. Council member Ann Poe came closest as she called it a “difficult decision” and handed out words of thanks to folks who have spent years trying to figure out how to protect the city.

“But most importantly I thank our residents because every time there’s a call they come out and they support us, but we can’t keep asking them to do it forever,” Poe said, recalling those sandbaggers.

The call now is for 10 years. No sand needed, hopefully. But keep an eye on the river, and the caveats.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com.

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