The Hot Beat


The second-day story, with your help. Call Gazette reporter Adam Belz at (319) 398-8273 or e-mail him:

Supes haggle on AOB vs. Juvy Courts

Linn County will submit two projects to the state I-JOBS board for funding, and lines were drawn Monday on which of the two is most important.

Supervisor Jim Houser said the county’s Administrative Office Building should be the first priority in obtaining state economic stimulus dollars. Supervisor Brent Oleson thinks a new juvenile courts facility should be the top priority.

“We’ve got to put county government back together in a county seat,” Houser said. “We’re taking care of our county functions first.”

Oleson argued that juvenile courts was left without a home in the “musical chairs” at the county courthouse since the flood, and it’s more important because it serves children, a disproportionate number of which are minorities.

“I think that’s a whole lot more compelling a story to tell I-JOBS than that me and a bunch of other elected officials need new offices,” Oleson said.

The supervisors want to spend about $12 million to renovate and expand the Administrative Office Building, 930 First St. SW. The I-JOBS application will ask for $8.8 million. A new juvenile law center and courthouse could cost up to $4.5 million, and the supervisors will submit an I-JOBS application for roughly $3.4 million.

Supervisor Lu Barron wants the board to prioritize the two projects in case state officials ask which is more important. “No doubt, both are extremely important,” she said.

Supervisors Linda Langston and Ben Rogers said they would rather not prioritize the projects, since it might pit the projects against each other.

Houser said he’d “like to see both projects funded,” but points out the office building is an explicit county function, while juvenile courts will house state services.

The supervisors will make a decision on the question at Wednesday’s meeting, 10 a.m., Linn County West.


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Round 2 coming for tax sale

The Linn County Treasurer’s Office will hold a second tax sale Aug. 10, because a third of the properties up for sale in June didn’t sell.

Usually everything goes in the first tax sale, Treasurer Mike Stevenson said. This year, about 500 properties went unsold, out of a total of roughly 1,800.

Adair Asset Management, a company that often buys hundreds of properties in tax sales across Iowa, pulled out this year — in Linn County and in other counties. “Their funding fell through,” Stevenson said.

Also, some buyers weren’t interested in flooded properties.

“There’s a lot of flood properties that didn’t get bought,” he said.

Tax sales in Iowa go back at least to 1851. Though the rules vary from county to county and have changed over the years, the annual events attract considerable attention from local and out-of-state investors.

In Linn County, buyers pay $100 for a bidding number. The number goes into a computer lottery, and whoever holds the number can buy a property every time the number is called.
After the winning bidders pay the back taxes on a property, they get a lien on it and collect interest on their investment until the actual owner pays back the tax and interest.

If the property owner doesn’t pay back the bidder in 21 months, the bidder gets the property.

More often, though, the bidder turns a profit by collecting interest on the lien, which is the legal claim the buyer holds on the property until his or her investment is repaid. Iowa law requires the owner to pay the lienholder 2 percent interest per month, or 24 percent annually.

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Escape from Comp Board Island

The job is thankless, unpaid, and requires members to subject themselves to a brutal political firestorm each year. The real news may be that anyone wants to do it.

Two members of the Linn County Compensation Board, which decides how much elected Linn County officials are paid, are giving up their posts. They are Mary Quass, a business owner who lives in Mount Vernon, and Allen Merta, vice president for economic development at Priority One.

The two — both of them were appointed by the supervisors — have asked not to be reappointed to the board, Brent Oleson said at Wednesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. Their terms ended June 30.

Don Gray, the mayor of Central City who Oleson defeated in the District 4 supervisor race, has agreed to fill one of the empty spots, Oleson said. Amy Reasoner’s name came up as a possibility for the other opening.

Merta was chairman of the board. He and Quass both voted in February to freeze supervisor pay at $87,622, and both voted in 2008 to raise supervisor pay by 6 percent, a move that set off a controversy over supervisor pay that lasted more than a year.

At this year’s meeting, Quass attempted to strike a compromise between the Larry Wear/Dave O’Brien position (major pay cut) and the Ray Stefani/Phil Klinger position (no pay cut). Quass moved to cut supervisor salaries by 10 percent, to roughly $79,000 per year. That motion failed 4-2. Quass and Cedar Rapids attorney Steve Jackson Sr., who was appointed by County Attorney Harold Denton, were the only ones in favor. Quass eventually voted for the pay freeze.

The other two Comp Board members whose terms are up are Klinger, a treasurer appointment, and Wear, an auditor appointment. Klinger will be reappointed. Miller doesn’t know yet if Wear wants to stay on board.

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Supes to ask city about federal courthouse

The Linn County Board of Supervisors said they will send a letter to the city on Friday asking if the federal courthouse on First Avenue East will be available as a “potential location” for the juvenile courts system.

Juvenile courts were permanently driven out of the basement of the Linn County Courthouse by last year’s flood, and the supervisors are looking around for a place to put them.

The federal courthouse, which was also damaged in the flood, will come under the city’s control as part of a land swap to give land for a new federal courthouse to the federal government.

The federal courthouse does not appear to be the county’s first choice for juvenile courts, but the supervisors are sending the letter regardless, despite having bowed out of a joint long-term planning process with the city.

“I don’t want the federal courthouse,” Supervisor Brent Oleson said. “It’s 80,000 square feet and it’s on the river. It’s too big.”

Supervisors toured the courthouse earlier in the spring, and were disappointed to find that the federal government left the mechanicals of the building in the basement when it did repairs.

Supervisor Jim Houser, though, pointed out that the building is attractive to the court system because it’s close to the county courthouse, already has courtrooms in it and offers room for expansion, which the courts need.

The supervisors will send the letter in an effort, at very least, to “dispose of options” that might be brought up in the public sphere over the next few months.

Their first choice right now is to build a new juvenile courts building on the site of the Freeway Lounge on Eighth Avenue SW. The county owns the space, and will get an engineering firm to do a feasibility study to see if a juvenile courts building will fit there. Results should be back by next week.

Filed under: County Government

13 commute using county vehicles

Thirteen non-sheriff’s office county officials use county vehicles to commute to and from work – five from conservation, five from the engineer’s office, two from the emergency management agency and one from public health.

Iowa law allows this, as long as the government employee reports that he or she uses a public vehicle for their commute, and that $3 per day is added to their taxable income. If the worker stops at a county work site on the way to work, she doesn’t have to report the commute.

At the request of The Gazette, Auditor Joel Miller obtained a list of county employees who commute to work using a county vehicle.

“There’s no policy,” Miller said. “If you don’t give them some guidelines, then everyone’s open to abuse this thing.”

Read more about this in tomorrow’s Gazette.

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Looking for a steal in delinquent properties

I spent yesterday morning at the annual Linn County tax sale, and wrote about it for today’s paper.

It was a little monotonous to listen to Treasurer Mike Stevenson, in a bored voice, call out the properties and the bidding numbers for about two hours. But it’s a serious business, and some 75 people showed up for it. They bidded on properties for the interest they can get from the late taxpayer, which is 24 percent annually in Iowa.

Filed under: County Government

More on bonding, county buildings

Feeling the need to post something, so here’s a draft of a story that will go in tomorrow’s paper, about the county Administrative Office Building and the potential for bonding without voter approval:

CEDAR RAPIDS — The Linn County Supervisors delayed a vote Wednesday to form a committee that would look into purchasing Steve & Barry’s, the current home of county offices.

When the question does come up for a vote, perhaps next week, likely its only supporter will be Supervisor Brent Oleson, who argues that if bonding to help pay for an $11.7 million renovation and addition to the Administrative Office Building fails with voters, the supervisors will need a second option.

Three of five supervisors say they will consider borrowing money for the project without voter approval. Recent state legislation allows bonding for major building repairs in disaster-affected counties, and the building falls within an urban renewal district, which also opens the possibility for bonding without voter approval.

Bypassing voters to issue bonds might be necessary, Supervisors Linda Langston, Jim Houser and Lu Barron say, because Linn County, Cedar Rapids and the Cedar Rapids School District need funding for several projects, and sending all those projects to the ballot would be inefficient.

“We could be looking at ten bond issues,” Langston said.

She said that trying to get voter approval for a bond issue in the November election will be difficult, as citizens go to the polls to elect a new city council.

“I can just about guarantee what will happen with that vote,” she said. “I really don’t want to be on that November ballot.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has promised $2.2 million to repair the flood-damaged lower level of the Administrative Office Building at 930 First St. SE. But supervisors believe it’s important to add onto the building, reconfigure it and mitigate it against future flooding.

Not only do county plans call for a new top floor, but the Information Technology and Recorder’s Offices must be moved up from the basement that flooded in June. The building’s mechanical components must also be moved from the basement to the roof.

The supervisors are in a tough spot. They believe these improvements are crucial, but they worry voters won’t agree.

“I am in favor of putting this up for a vote,” Supervisor Ben Rogers said. “(But) if it doesn’t pass the 60 percent threshold, we will have to go back to a building that’s too small for us, that does not suit all our needs.”

Oleson won’t commit to voting against bonding past the voters, but he opposed the legislation that would allow it and he opposed the plans for the building that the board approved Monday.

“I would be inclined to have voter approval for any project that goes substantively beyond what it was,” he said. “If it’s such a great idea, the voters will probably approve it.”

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Supervisors break with federal lobbyists

The Linn County supervisors have voted to fire the federal lobbying firm that’s been working on the county’s behalf since August.

Pending approval from Palo, which has joined Linn County in retaining the firm, the supervisors terminated their contract with Chicago-based Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, a K Street lobbying firm that was brought on to help local government secure flood recovery money by navigating the bewildering world of federal funding.

Two lobbyists were assigned to help the county, and the point person was Mary Langowski, a former aide in Sen. Tom Harkin’s office and a graduate of Drake University who went to law school at the University of Iowa.

Langowski recently left Sonnenschein to join another lobbying firm, Supervisor Brent Oleson said, and she was not replaced, leaving the county with one lobbyist.

“One of the lobbyists has left. The main one,” Oleson said.

The county has paid $81,839 — about $9,000 per month since August — to the lobbying firm.

Supervisor Jim Houser said he thought at first it was good for the county to have a lobbyist, to “keep on top of things in Washington D.C.” in the wake of the flood.

But now, “I don’t know if we need it,” Houser said.

The Cedar Rapids City Council hired Sonnenschein in July, and contracted to pay the firm $10,000 per month for no longer than a year.

The city’s contract with Sonnenschein extends into July, and the city is preparing for a request for proposal process to hire a lobbyist beyond that.

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Supes to parents: Don’t let your teens party in the bungalow, or on the back 40

The Linn County Supervisors want to pass an ordinance that would penalize adults for either hosting or turning a blind eye to a party on their property where underage kids drink.

The county attorney’s office will write a draft for the supervisors to vote on. Supervisors say that will take a couple months.

“It’d be really nice to get this done before graduation and prom season,” Supervisor Linda Langston said.

Washington County, which is one of only a handful of local governments in Iowa with such an ordinance, has successfully prosecuted at least one case, said Jennifer Husmann, of the Area Substance Abuse Council.

She has pushed for such an ordinance in Linn County, arguing that it would keep young people safer and help them avoid addiction.

“We really wanted a preventative law,” Husmann said. “Hopefully it’s a helpful tool for law enforcement.”

The supervisors don’t know yet whether they can pass an ordinance that applies to each city in the county. The county attorney’s office will figure that out for them.

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County recorders in the limelight as opening day approaches for gay marriage

County recorder offices are hustling to get ready for Monday, when they will start issuing marriage licenses to gay couples.

Recorder’s Offices — the keepers of birth, death, marriage and real estate records — have come under scrutiny as supporters and opponents prepare for same-sex marriage to become reality at county seats across the state.

“We have really no idea how many to expect,” said Phyllis Booth, a Linn County deputy recorder.

Her office is getting the new paperwork ready, including an application that instead of listing bride and groom, lists bride, groom or spouse. It also refers to each couple as “party A” and “party B,” instead of “bride” and “groom.”

Iowa’s Supreme Court ruled April 3 that same-sex marriage is legal, striking down the state legislature’s 1998 Defense of Marriage Act and making Iowa the third state to allow gay couples to marry —after Massachusetts and Connecticut. The ruling goes into effect Monday.

Sue Meyer, the recorder in Clayton County in northeast Iowa, doesn’t expect a big turnout.

“We’ve had just one question. One person contacted us as to what will be the date and the procedure,” she said. “I’m not expecting a huge rush.”

Linn County will begin accepting applications Friday, though it won’t process them until Monday.

Gay couples from out-of-state can be married in Iowa as long as they either wait for three days after they get a marriage license, or get a special waiver from a county clerk of courts.

“We are getting inquiries. Now whether they’re from out of state or not is a little hard to say,” Booth said. “We don’t ask that question.”

The Cedar Rapids Police Department has notified the Linn County Recorder’s Office that Westdale Mall doesn’t want protesters in the building or on the parking lot, Booth said. The owners of Westdale, however, do not own the old Steve & Barry’s store, in which the recorder’s office is now located, on the ground floor.

Sen. Merlin Bartz, R-Grafton, and the Iowa Family Policy Center, a pro-life group that opposes same-sex marriage and gambling, are circulating a petition asking county recorders to refuse to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.

But Marilyn Dopheide, president of the Iowa County Recorder’s Association and the Carroll County Recorder, said she doesn’t expect the petition will have much impact. Recorders can be removed from office for disobeying state law.

“I’m going to do what the Supreme Court says,” Dopheide said. “We have taken an oath to uphold the law. We don’t make policy.”

This is the view of Kim Painter, Johnson County’s recorder. She’s a lesbian who has been with her partner for 12 years.

She expects a “substantial number” of applications on Monday in Iowa City, some of them by mail.

“I’m sure we’ll have plenty of people that want to come back here who attended the University of Iowa, who either have family here or are just attached to the area,” she said.

In 2004, Painter turned down marriage applications from 52 gay couples, she said, even though she disagreed with the law that required her to do so.

“I’m glad that I did what I needed to do under the law,” she said, “because on Monday I believe all 99 recorders are going to do what they need to do under the law.”

(Linn County Recorder Joan McCalmant

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