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March 27th, 2011

Iowa to Pay for Cedar Rapids Boondoggle?

By Nathan Tucker

Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett was recently at the state capitol to lobby for the city to use $200 million of taxpayer money to pay for its $375 million “preferred flood management system.” The fine print, however, reveals that this plan, rejected by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, is loaded with pork that has nothing to do with flood prevention or recovery.

The Corp of Engineers has proposed a $99 million flood prevention system that would only protect the east side of the Cedar River as it flows through the city.  While this would protect the downtown and commercial areas of town, city leaders argue that “environmental justice” requires that the “disadvantaged residents” on the west side of the river should also be protected.

Under this pretext, the city put together a plan that, in going far beyond simply building floodwalls and levees, calls for the expansion of the farmers’ market, creating a dog park, developing gardens, building a continuous trail system with a new skate and BMX park, and designing a new Bohemia wetland park.

Sadly, those are just the low-end fringe benefits found in the city’s preferred plan.  Included among the more expensive pet projects are:

  • An amphitheater
  • Improved pedestrian connections
  • 4th street converted into pedestrian or transit corridor
  • A ‘signature street’ along 1st Avenue
  • A library
  • A cultural/arts corridor along 3rd Street
  • A Mary’s Island Plaza with a “Mary’s Island Fountain and Ice Rink”
  • A waterfront promenade
  • “A series of Signature Parks that serve the neighborhoods with high-quality amenities.”
  • An urban fishery
  • A “multi-generational community life center”
  • Lighted cross-country ski trails
  • A new 18,000 square foot recreation facility
  • And a new 29,000 square foot indoor recreation facility

That’s quite an audacious wish list for any city to ask Iowa taxpayers to pay for,  and it is an especially audacious request coming from Iowa’s second-largest city which has already received $244,014,346 in state and federal aid.  Cedar Rapids is perfectly free to decide whether it wants these non-flood related luxuries, but it shouldn’t ask the rest of the state to pay for its indulgences.

Ironically, city residents will soon vote on whether to extend their local option sales tax, a measure that, if approved, will make state funds unnecessary.  In the wake of the 2008 floods, Cedar Rapids voters approved a five-year, 1% sales tax with estimated total revenues of $78 million—90% for “the acquisition and rehabilitation of flood-damaged housing” and 10% for property tax relief.  (The city has used the later to cover general operating expenses under the justification that, without it, property taxes would go up.)

City leaders are asking residents to vote this May to extend that sales tax for an  additional twenty years.  The tax brings in $18 million a year that, over twenty years, will total $360 million, more than enough to pay for the city’s plan which, after federal monies are applied, costs $310 million.

The city, however, only plans to spend 50% of the extended sales tax for its preferred flood prevention project.  The remaining 50% appears to be necessary for the city to cover its annual budget, with 40% earmarked for “existing street improvements” and the final 10% set aside for the nebulous concept of “property tax relief.”

If the city needs 50% of a one-cent sales tax just to stay out of the red, then perhaps it should scrap its Cadillac-plan altogether.  Compounding the problem, Adam Lindelaub of the Cedar Rapids’ Community Development Department has informed The Iowa Republican that the city is already close to its debt capacity and can only borrow $140 million more.

With the city in such financial straits, the last thing it needs is a pre-default bailout from the state to encourage it in its extravagant waste.

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About the Author

Nathan W. Tucker
Nathan W. Tucker is a Davenport attorney and author of We The People: The Only Cure to Judicial Activism. He can be contacted at nathanwt@juno.com.




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