Cedar Rapids leaders talk tax vote, rough roadways

City Hall says list of streets needing repair is long, hard to compile

Rick Smith
Published: August 16 2013 | 5:30 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 7:08 pm in
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CEDAR RAPIDS — City Hall is a little skittish about creating a list of the very worst streets in the city with the vote on extending the city’s 1-percent local-option sales tax for 10 years to fix streets just 2 1/2 months away.

“I’m scared to death to talk about it,” City Council member Chuck Swore, chairman of the council’s Infrastructure Committee, said this week.

Swore said by his count there is near universal agreement in the city that the many of the city’s streets are in bad shape and that the city needs money to fix them.

Any list of worst streets, though, might invite those whose street is not on the list to vote “no” on the ballot measure to extend the sales tax, he said.

“I would feel more comfortable in saying that we’re going to look at each quadrant of the city, and we’re going to try to make sure that the worst streets get attention first,” he said.

Council support

All nine City Council members support the extension of the sales tax for 10 years to fix city streets, which Swore called the fairest, most effective way to repair, replace and even build a few new streets.

It is fair, he said, because the sales tax also is paid by those who work and shop and otherwise use the city and its streets but live outside the city or don’t own property in it and so don’t pay property taxes in Cedar Rapids, which is the current funding source for much of the city’s local street work.

Sandi Fowler, Cedar Rapids’ assistant city manager, said this week that any forward-looking list of street projects that comes out of City Hall always gets changed and altered each year as the City Council and the city’s professional staff sort out that year’s priorities and revenue and as additional streets come to light that need help. The city knows what street projects are listed in the city’s budget for the fiscal year 2014, which began July 1, but it is “impossible” to say with any certainty what the next budget years might bring, Fowler said.

Deep in the city’s 2014 budget — on pages 555 and 556 of the 600-plus-page document — the city does provide a list of prospective street improvement projects over five years.

However, Dave Elgin, the city’s public works director, said this week that the list is of only so much value and typically doesn’t include many problem residential streets that get potholes filled and then filled again because the city hasn’t had money to even consider doing much more with them.

“Over the years, that group of streets has continued to deteriorate,” Elgin said. And it is some of those streets, which are not on any list, that will get some of the attention if the city has revenue from a local-option sales tax, he added.

Fowler said much of the street information that the city now has is based on a four-year-old street assessment analysis that is in the process of being updated.

Fowler said the city’s streets program for good reason has been tilted toward work on busy streets because state and federal grants have been available in combination with the city’s own dollars to work on those streets. Revenue from a 10-year extension of the local-option sales tax, she said, will be steered in part to streets in need of repair that don’t attract state and federal dollars.

The sales-tax revenue, she added, likely will go to build a few new city streets, and Swore and Fowler both pointed to two such projects that have been in the city’s plans for some years and are supported by local neighborhoods. One project will connect Sixth Street SW to Ellis Boulevard NW and provide a new access to and from northwest Cedar Rapids; and the other will extend 14th Avenue SE, which begins at the 16th Avenue bridge across from Czech Village and will run to St. Wenceslaus Church at New Bohemia.

Money for repairs

The city’s current capital improvement budget for street work in fiscal year 2014 shows that the city will spend $23.7 million this year on street improvement projects, though only $7.7 million of the revenue this year is coming from new debt. Much of the rest is covered by federal and state dollars, cash on hand and special assessments.

Over and above those numbers, the city’s Public Works Department spends another $20.6 million a year to operate with the money coming largely from property taxes and the state’s road use tax. This money provides some basic street maintenance not included in the city’s capital improvement budget.

In the next four years, the city’s streets capital budget for now envisions the prospect of taking on $19.3 million in new debt in 2015, $25.8 million in 2016, $23.7 million in 2017 and $22 million in 2018 to pay for necessary street work.

Mayor Ron Corbett said that he is pushing the extension of the local-option sales tax, which will raise an estimated $17 million for the city this budget year for flood recovery needs, so the city can complete its necessary street projects, not continue to put some of them off. Sales-tax revenue, he added, also will let the city do the work without having to take on new debt and the annual interest payments that come with it.

He noted that the city of Waterloo uses 100 percent of the revenue from its local-option sales tax to fix streets and the city of Dubuque uses 30 percent of its local-option sales tax for street work.

“For a lot of older cities, like Cedar Rapids, Waterloo and Dubuque, if you’re not on top of it year after year, it can get away from you,” Corbett said the upkeep of city streets.

Corbett said residents always ask him to fix the streets. That’s why the City Council has come up with a plan — extending the sales tax, he said.

“Extending the sales tax doesn’t raise taxes, it maintains the level we’re at, and it’s a better option than raising property taxes and selling debt for 20 years,” he said.

STREETS IN NEED

The city’s Public Works Department has released a representative list of sections of seven streets — some major arterials, some neighborhood streets, some in need of major reconstruction, some which can be fixed less expensively — that represent that kinds of projects revenue from a sales tax can help the city complete.

This list is not intended to be a ranking of city streets most in need of repair.

• Sixth Street SW north of 33rd Avenue SW and south of Wilson Avenue SW.

• Oakland Road NE from H Avenue NE to 32nd Street NE.

• Northwood Drive NE from Glass Road to 42nd Street.

• Bever Avenue SE from Third Avenue SE to 19th Street SE.

• O Avenue NW from 13th Street NW to Edgewood Road NW.

• Mount Vernon Road SE from Eighth Avenue SE to Memorial Drive SE.

• Hillside Drive NW from O Avenue NW to Westwood Drive NW.

Improving C.R. roads good for business 

Shannon Santee, manager of CR Cars, 2702 Sixth St. SW, says she’s happy to see the street her business fronts and Oakland Road NE, the street she drives home on, both made the city’s representative list of seven needy street projects.

Both are in terrible shape, she assured this week.

“It’s awful for the business I do because the street is so dirty and yucky,” Santee said of the section of Sixth Street SW north of 33rd Avenue SW and south of Wilson Avenue SW on the city’s list of streets that the city says tells the story of bad city streets in need of help. The bumpy street also is without curb or sidewalk, though it has a lot of pedestrians who use it, she said.

“I notice how bad it is every day,” Santee continued. “What can I do? I just go with it.”

One upside, she guessed, is that bumps and bruises that come with Sixth Street SW make it easy to identify a used car in her lineup that might need some work.

“You definitely hear the rattles and creaks going up and down this road. Which is a benefit to me. I don’t like to sell a problem car,” she said.

Sandi Fowler, Cedar Rapids’ assistant city manager, said good streets are good for the city’s businesses, big and small, and for the city’s economic development.

It is not uncommon, she said, to have a local company bring someone into the city to interview or to have representatives from an outside company come to look at the city only to ask about the poor quality of many of the city’s streets.

The success that the city has had rebuilding after the 2008 flood, Fowler said, has brought “higher and higher expectations” for the city, and “improving our streets is one element we have to address.”

Don Santee, like his sister Shannon, runs a used-car lot on what the city concedes is a tough stretch of Sixth Street SW.

“It’s one of the worst streets I’ve ever seen,” Don Santee said this week from his office at 2301 Sixth St. SW.

He estimated that a used car in Cedar Rapids might sell for $1,000 less than it might sell for in a city with good streets.

“You sell a car on how it rides,” he said. He said test drives out Sixth Street SW from his business, Hometown Auto Group West, can leave a false impression with a customer.

“You could take a new car down this street and you’d think it was a piece of junk,” Santee said.

Even so, Shannon Santee said she will need persuading before she votes in favor of extending the local-option sales tax, which has been used for flood recovery and is set to end its 63-month run on June 30, 2014. She said she will want to make sure the money will be spent as the city says it will spend it and as the Nov. 5 ballot language puts it — “for maintenance, repair, construction and reconstruction of public streets.”

City Council member Chuck Swore, chairman of the council’s Infrastructure Committee and one of five of the nine council members seeking re-election on Nov. 5, said voters ought to toss him out of office if they don’t feel they can trust him to spend sales tax money as required by the ballot language.

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