Staff Editorial

City has pricey plan to pay for Cedar Rapids flood protection

Hesco barriers filled with sand and covered in plastic sheeting line the Cedar River as the GreatAmeria building and the federal courthouse are seen in southwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018.  (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Hesco barriers filled with sand and covered in plastic sheeting line the Cedar River as the GreatAmeria building and the federal courthouse are seen in southwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

With a rising Cedar River rolling past Cedar Rapids City Hall on Thursday morning, City Council members and other officials gathered to explain their plan for funding permanent flood protection.

“It’s timely,” said council member Tyler Olson, chairman of the council’s Flood Control System Committee, remarking on the river’s latest “September scare.”

After spending years lining up nearly $400 million in state and federal funding for a system of levees and flood walls to protect the city’s core, leaders unveiled how they will cover much of the city’s remaining share of the project’s funding.

The city plans to issue $200 million in bonded debt in the next 10 years. Paying off that debt will mark the first increase in Cedar Rapids’ property tax levy in a decade — increases of about 22 cents each of the next 10 years, depending on several factors. The rate would reach $17.42 per $1,000 in taxable property valuation in 2029, officials told The Gazette Editorial Board this week.

Cedar Rapids’ property tax rate, now among the lowest of Iowa’s urban areas, would become one of the highest, assuming other large cities’ rates are stable during the next decade. While there’s little doubt about the necessity of permanent flood protection infrastructure in Cedar Rapids, such a steep property tax hike will require broad public discussion about the financial effect on property owners.

Tax increases rarely are welcome, but the Cedar River’s latest rise above flood stage also is unwelcome, and illustrates the precarious position of a city still without a permanent flood control system. Progress has been made, pieces are in place and temporary measures, such as the ones that saved the day in September 2016, are available. But the city’s fate still rests with the whims of our wild weather.

The cost must be balanced against the threat of another major flood. Thousands of jobs would be affected, public facilities would be knocked out of action and residents would be displaced. As difficult as recovering from the flood of 2008 proved to be, recovering from a second destructive surge would be infinitely more difficult, and costly.

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The city’s options for covering its share of the project appear to be few, but we urge them to seek creative options, or at least explain why other strategies are unworkable. The city must continue to look for help from other governments, grant opportunities and other sources.

Details of the 10- to 15-year project still need to be fine-tuned. Although the council is set to vote Tuesday on adding its plan to the city’s flood-system master plan, bonds won’t be issued until next year. We expect them to use the coming months to discuss and inform people about the proposed increases. This will be critical to keep the positive momentum and energy the city has seen in recent months.

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

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