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

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, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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, , , , ,

A supervisor emerges from judges chambers? Might not be far off.

The Linn County Supervisors toured the federal courthouse in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, trying to envision how the county might use the building.

I tried to envision the county supervisors holding court from the stately judges chambers with their private bathrooms and conference rooms (not to be confused with each other), and huge windows looking west over the river.

Linda Langston tells me that’s not likely, even if the county does end up buying the building from the city.

The General Services Administration owns the building at 101 First St. SE, which was built in 1933 originally as a post office.

The city of Cedar Rapids will soon take it over in exchange for donating the land on which the new federal courthouse will be built south of downtown.

The GSA expects repairs at the federal courthouse to be complete in June, a year after floodwater rose to four feet on the building’s first floor.

Linn County, which has housed juvenile courts and several management offices at the Palmer Building, 123 Second Ave. SE, since the summer, needs permanent home for juvenile courts and
has long needed more space for district courts.

Supervisors Linda Langston, Brent Oleson and Ben Rogers walked through the gutted basement and first floor, and looked at the main courtroom on the third floor. They toured judges offices on the northwest corner of the building, complete with private bathrooms and plush conference rooms.

“They’re certainly interesting spaces,” Langston said. “I’m not sure they’re likely to be single offices again.”

Workers have replaced heating, cooling and electrical systems in the basement, and gutted the basement and first floor. They will leave those floors unfinished to offer flexibility to the building’s future tenant. The building has 40,572 usable square feet, and much of that is room that can be converted to courtrooms or office space.

Denise Ryerkerk, the project manager for GSA, said it wasn’t cost-effective to move mechanical systems out of the basement, which filled with water during the flood. The attic was the only other option, and moving the machinery there would have required workers to cut holes in the roof and place massive, vibrating machines above the building’s key, historic courtroom.

“Ultimately, it didn’t make sense when we looked at all these issues,” she said.

The building was built in 1933, originally as a post office, and 2008 was the only year in which it sustained major damage from a flood.

Still, flood insurance is of huge concern to the Board of Supervisors.

Linn County Risk Manager Steve Estenson said the Federal Emergency Management Agency will require the county to cover insurance that will cover as much damage as county buildings sustained in the flood — about $30 million.

The premiums will be high, but Estenson doesn’t know how high.

“The broker is kind of shopping that around,” he said.

Though the federal courthouse wouldn’t have to be insured to the same extent as current county buildings, because it was federally owned during the flood, it would have to be somehow floodproofed.

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

Manager salary freeze: Is it a punitive demand?

Brent Oleson thinks so. He argues the non-supervisor elected officials — Auditor Joel Miller, Treasurer Mike Stevenson, Sheriff Brian Gardner and Recorder Joan McCalmant — aren’t nearly as interested in fiscal conservatism as they say they are.

Really? Then why did ALL of those elected officials turn in budget requests well above last year’s funding for their own departments? Why did most of them let their politically appointed staff receive double-digit raises over the last two years? Why do most of them continue to grow their own areas of government at healthy rates?

Freezing management salaries has been the talk of the county since the aforementioned elected officials called for it Friday. County Attorney Harold Denton has taken no official position on the matter.

About 135 non-elected, non-deputy and non-bargaining unit county employees would be affected by a management salary freeze. They are among the better-paid of all county employees.

Oleson, taking his argument to its logical conclusion, took off the gloves and pounded away at the sheriff’s office budget Monday afternoon, in a routine budget review which under normal circumstances would have gone off with a few shallow questions from the board followed by the adoption of staff recommendations. (By the way, the true nature of this process cuts at the heart of the popular argument that supervisors are CEOs of a $100 million corporation. Staffers Dawn Jindrich and Steve Tucker make most of the budget decisions.)

Oleson voted not to approve the sheriff’s budget, and was defeated 4-1. He didn’t think the sheriff needed to add two positions, or buy 9 new squad cars. Sheriff Brian Gardner was there, and as usual, answered questions in his placid, reasonable way.

Filed under: County Government, , , , , ,

My apologies

The person who writes online comments (including the one I blogged about Thursday) under the name “Ruth Lyon” is not really named Ruth Lyon, and won’t identify herself/himself to me.

I apologize because I quoted the person’s comments as if someone by that name truly exists. Carelessness on my part.

In the discussion over whether the county should buy Westdale Mall, I still find the comments valuable. But it’s a little weird for a reporter to quote someone anonymously who offers no rationale for their anonymity, and it’s absurd to quote him or her as if the pseudonym is not a pseudonym. My bad.

While I neither endorse nor reject his analysis of “Lyon’s” comments, my embarrassed thanks goes to Brent Oleson for searching the voter registration rolls for the name, not finding it, and alerting me to th

Filed under: County Government, , ,

Houser vs. Oleson for solid waste vice chairmanship

Rick Smith reports on the battle for the vice chairmanship of the Solid Waste Agency board. It was Houser vs. Oleson, and Houser emerged victorious.

“With just seven board members in attendance, the vote was first on Oleson. Kress and Podzimek raised their hands, and there was Oleson’s hand for himself.

Shields, Pat Ball, the city’s utilities director, Mark Jones, the city’s solid waste/recycling manager, and Houser voted for Houser.”

It’s worth a look.

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

Supes reject Westdale offer

CEDAR RAPIDS — The Linn County Supervisors on Wednesday rejected a Dec. 1 proposal for them to buy Westdale Mall.

A letter to that effect was approved by a vote of 3-1, with Supervisor Brent Oleson dissenting and Supervisor Linda Langston absent.

The supervisors didn’t rule out ever buying the mall, but it doesn’t look likely.

The owners of Westdale sent a Jan. 13 letter to the supervisors saying either they must buy the mall for $18.5 million by March 30 or find a new place for several county offices that have been there since the flood.

In their response, the supervisors said they appreciate the mall’s generosity toward Linn County since the flood. They also said they must explore the option of co-location with the city and school district, which will take at least six months.

“Clearly, such a timeline is irreconcilable with a deadline of March 30, 2009,” the supervisors wrote in their letter to the mall’s owners.

The supervisors asked Westdale’s owners to consider extending leases for 17 county offices at Westdale for another 24 months beyond April 30, and asked for a response to this question by Monday.

“Linn County requires a quick response to this question as alternate space would need to be arranged and accomplished by the April 30 deadline should lease extension not be possible,” the supervisors wrote.

Oleson voted against the letter because he doesn’t think purchasing Westdale has ever been seriously considered, and because co-location discussions have not begun in earnest, he said.

“I think this letter that we’re going to send today is the death knell for Westdale as a long-term option,” Oleson said. “I thought it was fitting because the process has been plagued by indecision, miscommunication and what some consider bad faith.”

Filed under: County Government, , , ,

What was behind Westdale’s ultimatum?

After the flood, the mall donated office space to Linn County for nearly six months.

Since November, the county has been paying rent, and weighing its options for the future of county buildings. On Dec. 1, the mall’s owners offered to sell the mall to the county for $18.5 million.

Then on Friday came an ultimatum for the supervisors: Buy the mall or find a new place for county offices.

Clearly frustration played into this, as Brent Oleson argues on his blog.

But there’s more to it.

The fact that the county has taken up temporary residence at the mall is the mall owner’s only bargaining chip.

They’ve been trying to sell for $18.5 million since March 2008, and reportedly have received no offers near that. While the presence of numerous government offices has breathed some life into the mall, its pre-flood retail occupancy had dwindled to around 50 percent.

Even if one were to disregard the figures presented at Friday’s meeting – where purchasing Westdale would be millions of dollars more expensive than the county’s other options (which include a potential joint facility with the city and school district) – the prospect of buying Westdale Mall is daunting to county officials. The county would fill only 10 percent of the space, leaving 90 percent of the 630,000 square feet for the county to manage/sell/develop/etc.

One theory is that the supervisors (except perhaps Oleson and Rogers) have never seriously considered buying the mall.

This has been Auditor Joel Miller’s contention since before the offer was made, and Miller exploded at Friday’s meeting over the fact that the supervisors and their staff have not been communicating with mall owners much since December.

The mall says it has “assembled a package of property information for [supervisors’] review,” but can’t send it until the county returns a confidentiality agreement that would protect the proprietary information in the packet. The county has not returned the agreement, and this bugs both Miller and Oleson.

Miller said he was “incredibly disappointed” and called the supervisors “amazing” for not communicating better with the mall’s owners.

Oleson, on his blog, argues something similar, in softer language:

“I think the statement was made in frustration at the lack of formal communication between the county and the Mall owners. There has literally been no communication between the county and the sellers regarding the Mall owners early December offer to sell.”

Mike Goldberg said he received the confidentiality agreement and passed it on to Gary Jarvis, assistant county attorney.

Jarvis said after the meeting Friday that he thought the county had gathered the information it needed. But more importantly, he didn’t want county staff to come up with a recommendation for the supervisors based on confidential information. It might have forbidden staff from explaining their recommendations in public meetings, a scenario he did not find acceptable.

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

Supervisors deny public-private recovery group

The Linn County Supervisors on Wednesday rejected a $50,000 funding request from the Economic Planning and Redevelopment Corporation (EPRC).

The vote was 4-0, with Linda Langston absent, away in Washington D.C.

The four-month-old public-private entity was created at the urging of some of the community’s key private-sector leaders to help in flood recovery, and its mission is to chase $452 million in federal funds set aside at a Department of Commerce regional office in Denver.

Doug Neumann, the EPRC executive director and president/CEO of the Downtown District, told the Cedar Rapids City Council in December that the money is targeted for communities recovering from natural disasters, and he felt Cedar Rapids had a good chance to pounce on some of the federal dollars quickly.

Neumann spoke to the supervisors last week. CRST President and CEO John Smith accompanied him. Supervisor Brent Oleson questioned Neumann for a few minutes about the group’s budget and its openness to supervisor participation.

Oleson wanted an itemized list of contributors to the group, and wanted assurances that any elected official would be able to attend any meeting. He received neither, he said.

“They can come back at any time to address the concerns that we have,” Oleson said after Wednesday’s meeting.

Neumann wouldn’t make any comments directly reacting to Wednesday’s vote by the supervisors.

“I don’t know what it means until I have some other discussions with some other people,” Neumann said Wednesday. “We’ve set out a very narrowly focused mission. We need support in order to do what we’re intended to do.”

The EPRC has identified at least two projects with potential for Department of Commerce funding:

1. Up to $100 million to remedy congestion and noise caused by freight-train traffic downtown — perhaps by building new railroad tracks and rail bridges.
2. Between $25 and $30 million to upgrade, expand or move the U.S. Cellular Center elsewhere.

In December, the City Council approved $50,000 in funding for the EPRC. More than 75 percent of the organization’s budget will come from the private sector, Neumann said.

“We’ve set a very lean budget to do a very important mission, and we asked for only enough money to meet that budget,” Neumann said Wednesday.

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

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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