Staff Columnist

Cedar Rapids prepares its legislative wish list

The State Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
The State Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

Kids send their wish lists to Santa. The City of Cedar Rapids sends its list to the Iowa Legislature.

Setting a list of city legislative priorities is a festive annual tradition. And when it comes to protecting the city’s core neighborhoods from flooding by the naughty Cedar River, the city has been very good this past year. Leaders, with the help of Iowa’s congressional delegation and skillful lobbying, finally landed federal funding for walls and levees.

Now the city needs some state help paying for its $750-million-plus flood control system. And it may take more than leaving lawmakers cookies and milk.

At the top of the city’s wish list is a request to allow local governments to issue 30-year bonds to pay for flood mitigation projects. That would permit the city to spread out the cost of bonded debt as it works to complete a project slated to take the better part of two decades.

Currently, 20 years is the bonding limit, which makes sense when a city is paying for projects with a limited shelf life. But when you’re building a flood control system for the next century, a longer period of debt repayment makes some fiscal sense.

And it could be a gift for local taxpayers. Having secured federal and state funding, the city is paying its own share largely with annual property tax increases planned over the next decade. The city’s levy of $15.22 per $1,000 of taxable valuation could rise roughly 22 cents annually, depending on several factors.

If the city is allowed to finance its bonding over 30 years, City Manager Jeff Pomeranz told me a 22-cent increase could be reduced to 15 cents. That’s a significant taxpayer savings.

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Emphasizing that aspect of the plan to a Republican Legislature concerned about rising property taxes could be a winning pitch. Compared to the long slog to land federal and state dollars, the bonding ask is a far easier lift. Cedar Rapids once again will have the services of its longtime lobbyists Gary Grant, a longtime aide to former U.S. Rep. Jim Leach, and Larry Murphy, a former state lawmaker.

But a property tax debate could be a double-edged sword. Any move by lawmakers to somehow cap or limit tax increases also could put a dent in the city’s flood protection plans. It’s unclear at this point what legislative leaders have in mind.

There’s also talk of phasing out so-called “backfill” payments to local governments replacing taxes lost to property tax reductions approved in 2013. That could cost Cedar Rapids $4 million annually. The city will be lobbying to keep those dollars flowing.

Also on the wish list are requests that the Legislature resist making changes to Tax Increment Financing, or TIF, which the city uses often to spur development, and for lawmakers to fund the now empty Enhance Iowa grant program, which could be a source of money for tourism attractions such as Connect CR. That’s the umbrella moniker for projects including a Newbo pedestrian bridge and Cedar Lake improvements.

And the city is urging legislators to keep their paws off its speed cameras. After all, they’re the gift that keeps on giving the whole year. Happy Legislature to all.

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

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