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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

Reality and the Chicago connection

Eastern Iowa fears of the Chicago migration are nothing new, and they’re beginning to become cyclical. This is the lead of a big Sunday story in The Gazette on Aug. 18, 2003:

Christina McGowan remembers well those days when she lived on Chicago’s south side. She was called First Lady. She was respected and feared. She had money….

McGowan, 26, and her three children live in a two-bedroom Cedar Rapids apartment across the street from a cornfield, eking out a much more meager, but quieter, living.

“I am on my way to that happy ending, so to speak,” said McGowan, who moved to the area last year. “I think I was supposed to be dead or in jail right now.”

McGowan is among a growing number of new Eastern Iowans moving to the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City Technology Corridor who are fleeing the poverty and crime of inner cities.

Many are coming from Chicago, which is displacing families while tearing down its projects and replacing them with mixed-income town houses. The majority are African-American families – typically single mothers with children.

But I just got off the telephone with a woman named Susan Popkin, and she doesn’t buy the notion that black people have left Chicago in large numbers as housing projects have been torn down.

Popkin is a senior fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington D.C., and she’s been tracking Chicago public housing for almost a decade. People who left Chicago’s old public housing have largely moved to other parts of Chicago, or the south suburbs, she said.

“They have not moved to Iowa,” she said. “They’re in Chicago.”

The gentrification of Chicago is the driving force behind any migration, she said.

Popkin admits no weaknesses in the Section 8 subsidized housing program that several people around here blame for importing Chicago problems into Eastern Iowa cities, except this:

High concentrations of Section 8 vouchers in one neighborhood can ruin a neighborhood, Popkin said. This is the contention of Dale Todd, a Wellington Heights resident who grew up in Chicago and moved to Cedar Rapids in 1974.

“When we develop concentrations of Section 8 housing…it can have a negative impact on the people we’re trying to help,” he said. “The inability of regular landlords to rent in that neighborhood forces them to turn to Section 8. It’s a cycle.”

Popkin said it’s up to the local housing authority to be prudent in how it directs the vouchers. This requires outreach to new landlords, so more will accept them, so the vouchers will be spread out evenly across a community.

“When you have a modest number of voucher holders in a neighborhood it’s often good for property values because it’s a guaranteed income stream for landlords,” she said.

Filed under: Cedar Rapids Library, Public Safety, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Crime way down across the nation (and in C.R.)

The Washington Post is reporting huge declines in violent crime this year across the country: “The District, New York and Los Angeles are on track for fewer killings this year than in any other year in at least four decades.”

While homicide is so rare in Cedar Rapids that it’s difficult to draw statistical conclusions about it, Cedar Rapids’ declining rates of reported crime reflect this national trend (whether you believe it or not).

Filed under: Cedar Rapids City Council, Public Safety, , , , , , , ,

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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, , , , , ,

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, , ,

Nice video of Recorder’s Office moving

Here’s the video, by Gazette photographer Jim Slosiarek:

Here’s the news story: Linn County departments have begun moving their offices from around Westdale Mall to Linn County West, at the old Steve & Barry’s store on the east side of the mall.

The first department to move is the Recorder’s Office, which is moving its computers and desks with the help of volunteers from Kirkwood Community College. The Recorder’s Office has been on the second level of Westdale since the flood, next door to J.C. Penney.

“We’ll be moving the big books on Saturday,” Linn County Recorder Joan McCalmant said.

The Treasurer’s Office, Auditor’s Office, Planning and Development, Mental Health/Developmental Disabilities, Veteran Affairs Office and other departments will all move over by month’s end.

Sheriff Brian Gardner expects to bring inmates back to the Linn County Jail this month, but said some of the contractors working at the jail are lagging a little bit.

The Board of Supervisors, which is located in the downtown Palmer Building, will move to Linn County West by the end of June, as will Finance and Budget, Human Resources, Risk Management, juvenile probation offices, Clerk of Courts and court functions for Juvenile, Small Claims and Traffic Courts.

County offices and court functions will remain at this temporary Linn County West location until permanent facilities are complete.

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

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