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

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, , , , , ,

Assessor salary talks foreshadow supervisor discussion

The Linn County Compensation Board meets Tuesday, a mere five days from now, and they will determine the county supervisors’ likely salary.

Linda Langston assured me yesterday that the board will meet Monday to come up with its recommendation for the comp board, which will be an opportune way for the supervisors to express their consent for a pay cut, if they in fact consent to that.

Judging by discussion at the Conference Board meeting Wednesday, this is far from certain.

The Conference Board oversees the county Assessor’s Office and is made of representatives from the three taxing entities in Linn County — the cities, the schools and the county. They took up the assessor’s budgets, and disagreement sprung up over the salaries of assessor’s office employees.

Representatives from the schools pushed for Assessor’s Office salaries to be frozen, and the cities and the county pushed for a 3.5 percent increase.

“It’s not that I don’t believe everybody’s worth it, I just think it sends a negative message to the public,” said Mary Ames, a board member for the Marion Independent School District. “We’re in an economic depression, and people are losing jobs.”

But she and fellow school representatives couldn’t persuade the county’s mayors or the Board of Supervisors.

Those two groups refused to second any motion for a budget amendment to freeze Assessor’s Office salaries.

Linn County Supervisor Linda Langston argued that in order to attract qualified talent, the salaries need to be competitive. Kester pointed out that just because the Conference Board approves a 3.5 percent raise, doesn’t mean everyone in the office gets it.

But Ames persisted through the meeting, and moved for amendments on two separate Assessor’s Office budgets, just to
freeze staff salaries.

“From the president on down, they’re freezing wages,” she said.

Tom Wieseler, a board member in the Mount Vernon School District, agreed.

“We’re not living in la-la land,” he said. “We need to be realistic.”

Langston told Ames she understood her point, but they would simply have to agree to disagree.

Filed under: 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, , , , , , , , ,

Ms. Langston goes to Washington

Along with Cedar Rapids City Council Members Justin Shields, Monica Vernon and Jerry McGrane, Langston traveled to D.C. Tuesday to lobby for more federal flood recovery funding.

The entourage was scheduled to meet with staff members at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Health and Human Services.

The HHS funding has caused particular consternation in Iowa, because Iowa was given only $11 million — less than 2 percent — of the $600 million in Social Services Block Grant dollars allocated to help disaster victims across the country. Iowa officials say this is unfair.

“The Bush administration’s HHS officials applied a population-based formula to devastated areas which will deny human services to Iowans who have rarely asked for help in the past, but who now need it desperately,” Cedar Rapids’ City Council and Linn County’s Board of Supervisors said in a joint statement.

Langston and the council members were scheduled to return today.

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

Where does each supervisor stand on salaries?

Revised 5:15 p.m. to add comment from Langston below:

The Compensation Board will meet Feb. 3 at 4 p.m. at Westdale Mall, and the supervisors have said they will meet shortly before then to come up with a recommendation.

Again, whether the Comp Board accepts the supervisors’ recommendation is an open question, but it’s fair to assume the supervisors will have some influence on the outcome.

Some of those who defend the supervisors foresee a bidding war auctioneered by a merciless public. Such a war would have been won by defeated supervisor candidate Dave Machacek, who proposed $50,000 per year per supervisor. But he’s returned quietly to Alburnett since the election, and the board will come up with a recommendation without him.

The new goalposts have been set by District 3 Supervisor Ben Rogers and District 5 Supervisor Jim Houser. Rogers is sticking to his guns on $70,000 per year. Houser favors keeping the salary at its current level — about $87,000.

The other three have yet to decide.

“I haven’t made up my mind,” District 1 Supervisor Lu Barron says. “For certain, there should not be a raise.”

District 4 Supervisor Brent Oleson hasn’t decided either, but is leaning toward making an individual presentation to the Comp Board. He said he’s been looking at supervisor salaries in other counties and minutes from past Comp Board meetings, and talking to Comp Board members.

“There is no circumstance under which I would recommend any kind of a pay increase,” District 2 Supervisor Langston said. “If we were to cut, I’m guessing that it would be between a five and ten percent cut.”

When salaries go on the supervisors’ agenda, I will blog about it. Both that meeting and the Comp Board meeting will be open to the public.

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

Get on the train, folks

Yesterday was a slow day on County Supervision (i.e., no new content), because I had to fill in on the night cops beat and babysit the police scanner all night. But at least two things worth mentioning happened, and they both fit in nicely with the point I will now try to make.

First, District 4 Supervisor Brent Oleson blogged about Wednesday morning’s supervisors meeting. He thinks the taxpayer will get slammed if all the county’s legislative wishes are granted, and you can read his take on the meeting here. I will try to get the minutes posted today.

Second, KCRG-TV9’s Claire Kellett did a Wednesday story explaining Twitter to the good people of Eastern Iowa. Twitter is a website where anyone can publish what he or she is doing, moment by moment, for anyone to see. It’s a cross between a blog and a Facebook status update. It really is a useful way to stay on top of what’s going on. Kellett interviewed District 3 Supervisor Ben Rogers, who said “I’m going to use it to broadcast meetings I am going to, and discussions that were had that deal with county business, because I really like to get the feedback.”

Here at County Supervision, we’ve been following Twitter for a few months, and we’ve got Twitter feeds posted on the right hand column of this blog not only for Rogers, but also for Oleson and Linn County Auditor Joel Miller, who’s been on Twitter for longer than anyone in county government (Is he still in Germany, or what?).

Here’s the point of all this: If you care about Linn County government, and you have something to say, you should get involved in the online discussion.

I’ve been quietly lobbying several people to start blogs, and my success has been comparable to that of a human head forcefully confronting a brick wall. But I will persist. Blogs and Twitter are simple, free ways to articulate viewpoints and communicate with large numbers of people. If you are an elected official, they are tools to help you communicate with constituents and be transparent — about discussions and decisions. WordPress and Blogger are good, simple places to start a blog. Twitter is even easier.

There’s no reason Oleson should be the only supervisor blogging, that Rogers, Oleson and Miller should be the only elected officials tweeting, or that I should be the only private citizen writing about county government. Get on the train. And contact me any time to discuss this. I’m at adam.belz@gazcomm.com or (319) 398-8273.

More news coming later today.

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

County building survey poo-poos downtown

The Board of Supervisors heard a presentation this morning from Lynn Manternach, a representative of Mindfire Communications, the company that conducted a $16,000 survey to find out what the public wants the county to do with its damaged buildings and where the public wants county offices to be.

Brent Oleson, over at his blog, summarizes the findings nicely: Key findings of the survey indicate that county residents overwhelmingly want a one-stop approach to county services, want those services to be provided in one location if possible, and want convenience in access to those services (location, parking, etc.). Most notably, county residents dismissed the idea that county government buildings or services had to be located in downtown Cedar Rapids.

I liveblogged this morning’s meeting here.

The timeline for a decision on Westdale and other county buildings is still fuzzy. Lu Barron said it would be three phased. The first phase is this survey, talks with the city and schools, and a study of what county employees want out of their offices. The second phase will be further talks with the city and schools, a “look at alternatives” (whatever that means) and further public input. The third phase will be a decision, “somwhere in the spring,” Barron said.

Sandi Fowler of the city was at the meeting, and said she expects a big, joint public input process (complete with foamcore boards and open houses) beginning somewhere in late February or early March. So it’s hard to imagine a decision on Westdale coming out before April. At least we know it’s not likely a buyer will swoop in and take Westdale while the supervisors weigh their options. The owners have been trying to sell it for $18.5 million since March, and haven’t had an offer anywhere near that figure.

By the way, I am trying to encourage others involved in county government — besides Oleson — to begin blogging. Langston seemed interested. Curt Zingula, Ed Mulholland and Dustin Hinrichs all turned me down. Hinrichs because his superiors didn’t like the idea, and Mulholland and Zingula because they think blogging is a distasteful enterprise, and more trouble than it’s worth. (Yep, I just outed you guys.)

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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