Staff Editorial

A big victory, but flood fight isn't over

A shovel lies on top of HESCO flood barriers in downtown Cedar Rapids on Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
A shovel lies on top of HESCO flood barriers in downtown Cedar Rapids on Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

Cedar Rapids’ quest to gain federal funding for flood protection has been an endurance test, one among many the city has faced in recovering from the 2008 flood.

After that catastrophic deluge, conventional wisdom locally pointed to a large, swift federal investment in flood walls and levees in the heart of Cedar Rapids, as had been the case in other flooded American communities. But the Army Corps of Engineers concluded it could make only a more modest investment to protect the east bank of the Cedar River, stunning and frustrating local officials.

From there, an uncertain and winding path followed, marked by steps forward and steps backward, raised expectations and dashed hopes. It looked, at times, as if Cedar Rapids leaders would have to protect the city without promised federal dollars.

But last week, the push for funding finally broke through a dense thicket of bureaucratic delay with the announcement of $117 million from the Army Corps for Cedar Rapids. A push by the state’s congressional delegation, including U.S. Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley, and U.S. Reps. Rod Blum and Dave Loebsack, played a major role. Ernst, in particular, has been a vocal critic of the corps’ funding model while pressing for changes to help Cedar Rapids’ cause.

After an eight-year lobbying effort, there’s plenty of credit to go around, especially to city leaders and staff who spent untold hours making Cedar Rapids’ case, repeatedly, to officials at all levels.

It’s a big win, but the flood fight is far from over.

Even with state and now federal assistance, the full cost of the planned $550 million flood control system is not yet covered. It will be up to the city to plug the remaining funding gap. Local leaders face a big decision on how to come up with that funding.

A few options are on the table. The city could issue bonded debt. A large bond issue could help complete the massive project faster and control inflation-driven cost increases that will drive the cost of the project past $750 million over time. Speed is important, given the region’s heightened climate-fueled flood threat. But bonded debt must be paid back through higher property taxes.

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There’s talk of extending the current local-option sales tax for streets to include at least some dollars for flood protection. But that route could deny the city of badly needed dollars for road repairs.

During last year’s city election campaign, we were intrigued by the idea of creating a special taxing district in areas that would be protected by a flood control system. Property owners who will benefit, and see a reduction in flood insurance premiums, could help pay the freight for protection. Perhaps there are other ideas for private sector buy-in.

City leaders and staff will be weighing options over the next few months. Citizens with ideas and concerns should tune in and weigh in.

In any event, it will take many years to complete the project. But with federal funding now approved, and action on local funding imminent, the finish line for the city’s endurance test now is becoming visible on the horizon.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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