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.


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.”

Filed under: County Government, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Filed under: County Government, , , , , ,

Too much trash on County Home Road?

Supervisor Brent Oleson wants to institute a new ordinance requiring pickups and dump trucks to cover their loads when driving through rural Linn County on the way to the dump.

He said there’s a lot of trash on County Home Road near the landfill, and he wants the Sheriff’s Office to start fining people who don’t put a tarp on that bed full of scrap vinyl siding or old shingles.

Road ditches all over are full of trash — that’s what’s left after the snow melts in Iowa. But Oleson thinks County Home Road, which runs along the northern city limits of Robins and Marion, connecting Interstate 380 and Highway 13, is particularly bad.

“It’s hard for me to believe it has nothing to do with the landfill being there,” Oleson said.

Sheriff’s Lt. Greg McGivern said there is no ordinance for deputies to enforce. The supervisors directed the county attorney’s office to look into it, and perhaps write a new ordinance for the supervisors to pass.

Filed under: County Government, , , , ,

Death, taxes and the Linn County Supervisors

The Board of Supervisors will hold a town hall meeting at the Coggon Opera House on April 23.

Incidentally, the opera house’s theater production that weekend is “Death & Taxes.”

Filed under: County Government, , ,

Public health backs down, for now, on wood-fired boilers

The Board of Health listens to Bill Porter, of rural Alburnett, defend wood-fired boilers at a public hearing Thursday at the Roosevelt Middle School auditorium. (Adam Belz/The Gazette)

The Board of Health listens to Bill Porter, of rural Alburnett, defend wood-fired boilers at a public hearing Thursday at the Roosevelt Middle School auditorium. (Adam Belz/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — The Linn County Board of Health backpedaled Thursday on a proposed ordinance that would ban most outdoor wood-fired boilers.

Under a barrage of criticism from about 80 people who showed up at Roosevelt Middle School to speak on behalf of the recently-controversial boilers, the Board of Health delayed action on the ordinance and promised to consider adding a grandfather clause.

The eventual Board of Health recommendation will go to the Board of Supervisors, probably in April. The Supervisors will make the final decision. Langston is on the Board of Health, and Oleson and Rogers were in attendance. Houser is on vacation and Barron was in Des Moines.

Owners of the boilers — public health officials estimate there are 200 in Linn County — have felt like a persecuted minority as the regulation has taken shape in recent weeks.

Several spoke at a Thursday public hearing, often to cheering and rounds of applause.

They said wood is a renewable resource and the boilers require an investment of thousands of dollars. They disagree with Public Health’s science and they think disputes between neighbors over smoke should be handled individually.

“The thing that scares me the most about this is just the intrusion of government into our lives,” said Steve Ciha, who lives near Central City. “If you’re going to do this, you’ve got to figure out how you’re going to pay these people for their investments.”

Public Health officials have argued wood-fired boilers are heavy polluters, and could jeopardize the county’s compliance with Environmental Protection Agency air quality standards.

Owners of the boilers asked why their units have been singled out, while fireplaces and indoor wood stoves go ignored.

“The segregation of just wood-fired hydronic boilers is very unfair,” said Joey Meineke, who lives southeast of Cedar Rapids. “We have never had heard one complaint. We have asked our neighbors.”

Typically, wood-fired boilers cost at least $8,000, but save roughly $2,000 per year in heating bills. They are legal in Linn County, and several owners said they vetted them thoroughly before buying one.

Ward Clausen, who lives in rural Central City, said he gets wood from 60 acres of timber he owns. Fallen trees there need to be cleaned up regardless of whether he has a wood-fired boiler.

“I cut my own wood on my own property,” he said. “It was either put it through a wood stove, or burn it some place….I could make some efficient use out of it.”

Filed under: County Government, , , , ,

The leadership question

A lot of Gazette ink has spilled over the past couple weeks on the question of whether elected leaders in Linn County and Cedar Rapids have been cutting it.

It’s an easy story line. A mayor caught sleeping in meetings, a 9-member city council that sends a different face to the TV cameras every week, a rigorously non-political city manager and a trio of supervisors consumed with re-election and then the re-emergence of a distracting and unnecessary salary controversy.

Gazette Editor Steve Buttry said we are “leaderless”. The paper’s Sunday editorial, titled “Our Leadership Gap,” got more specific:

…state and federal officials are telling this community’s well-meaning leaders that they don’t see the big picture clearly; they aren’t prioritizing. So much deliberating and planning of so many things are slowing overall progress….with a more focused, effective lobbying team, we, for example, may be more able to influence the next round of federal Community Development Grant Block appropriations. The November appropriation gave Iowa, dealing with its worst-ever natural disaster, a disappointing $125 million in federal Community Development Grant Block money.

Gazette CEO Chuck Peters has long been a proponent of the Economic Planning and Redevelopment Corporation as a solution. This awkwardly named group is a public-private partnership led by CRST President John Smith and Downtown District President Doug Neumann. The city approved $50,000 in funding for the group. The county declined to commit.

Peters argues the EPRC is the answer to the leadership question, and his argument goes something like this: Somebody needs to get in the saddle, start marshaling the troops, put together some clear goals and timelines, assign specific jobs to specific people, and begin to articulate the community’s vision for recovery. The biggest immediate need, he and the editorial say, is for a more focused federal lobbying effort, as in, getting more than $125 million when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development releases the next Community Development Block Grants. Identifying available federal money, and then lobbying for it, is a big part of the EPRC’s mission.

The mysteries of HUD are deep and wide, according to Mike Tramontina, the head of the Iowa Department of Economic Development, and Iowa needs a lot of money from HUD. What HUD money the state has received is flowing through Tramontina’s agency, and he visited the Gazette Tuesday, sitting down with Rick Smith and me for a while. The unmet need in Iowa, as of today, is about $1.8 billion, he said. That’s around $900 million each for housing and businesses. The last CDBG appropriation of $125 million was a surprising disappointment, he said.

But he was very clear about one thing. The Iowa Congressional Delegation (Harkin, Grassley, Braley, Loebsack) does not need to be lobbied. Those guys are working very hard for Iowa to get more federal money. He said the best way local governments can help is by giving the delegation facts to bolster the state’s case for money.

Whether or not the delegation is working as hard as it can getting flood recovery dollars for Cedar Rapids, Tramontina’s point makes sense. HUD officials can’t possibly want to deal with more lobbyists than they need to. One would think the most focused way to lobby for federal funds is to work through the delegation, and by Tramontina’s account, that’s what’s happening.

That’s not to say there’s no room for improvement, or for the EPRC. The group’s mission is broader than lobbying for CDBG money, and there’s a lot of other stuff to do. Lots of other federal money to chase. And at least from the county side, it’s hard to argue against better planning and coordination. Communication between city and county has not been good. (Just ask Jim Houser about co-location.) The only tough decisions the supervisors have made since June were to decline Westdale’s exclusive sale offer (sort of a non-decision, really), rescind their part-time status, and then reinstate it. Restoring the jail was not expedited, a December meeting with lobbyists was a depressing, unfocused ramble, and now we hear that building plans won’t emerge for six months, at least. Timelines, action items and results would be nice.

But just as local leaders should make clear plans and be held accountable for them, those of us who criticize them should be specific about what’s going wrong, and what can be done better.

Filed under: Cedar Rapids City Council, County Government, Flood, , , , ,

Taking a break

I’m off Thursday through Sunday, and won’t be posting much, if anything, in that time.

I do want to point out a few things:

Todd Dorman’s column on the Compensation Board meeting is worth reading.

The story about Kraig Paulsen’s recall bill is also good reading, though people tell me the bill doesn’t stand much of a chance.

The supervisors OK’d staff getting a lease for the old Steve & Barry’s. Dorman’s heart-rending column about the falling out between the supervisors and Westdale’s owners is also worth reading.

Filed under: County Government, , , ,

Big day for the big five

I’m liveblogging it all here.

At 9 a.m., the supervisors settled on ballot language for the local-option sales tax vote, but couldn’t settle on the sunset for the tax. They want it to be five years, and by law they set it for all the jurisdictions in the county, but they don’t want to take responsibility for the sunset for all the other jurisdictions without them taking ownership of it.

At 11:30 a.m., the supervisors will meet with the Farm Bureau in Hiawatha. They’ll discuss salaries and the local-option sales tax, among other things. Should be some good questions.

At 4 p.m., the county’s Compensation Board will meet, and recommend the salaries for the supervisors and other elected officials for the fiscal year that begins July 1. It will be the latest installment in the supervisor salary controversy that began last January and simply has not gone away.

Filed under: County Government, , , ,

Supervisors getting the word out

The Linn County Supervisors are beefing up their participation in the public discussion with a lengthy frequently asked questions document on the county’s website.

It was posted Friday, and deals largely with questions about Westdale Mall.

The supervisors pose questions like “Why did Linn County decline the offer to purchase Westdale Mall?” and “Why did Linn County ask for a response from Cushman & Wakefield (the mall owners’ proxy) by Jan. 26 regarding the leased space?” and “What has Linn County been doing the last seven months?”

To the supervisors’ credit, these are the questions people have been asking.

FYI, the owners of the mall are Cedar Rapids Properties Inc., an affiliate of Park National Bank of Chicago.

The latest news on Westdale’s health as a business is that Bishop’s is closing its restaurant there.

Filed under: County Government, , ,

RSS Linn County Auditor on Twitter

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RSS Brent Oleson on Twitter

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RSS Ben Rogers on Twitter

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RSS Chuck Grassley on Twitter

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RSS Adam Belz on Twitter

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