Corbett takes his Cedar Rapids sales tax pitch to the streets and the Optimists

The mayor contends a 10-year sales tax extension is the best way to fix the city's aging streets

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March 28, 2014 | 8:09 pm

Already having heard plenty from the pessimists, Mayor Ron Corbett took his case first to the Optimists.

“Great turnout today,” said the Cedar Rapids mayor as he greeted three dozen or so Optimists Club members Thursday at their noontime meeting in the downtown Public Library.

Corbett started with an impromptu straw poll. Actually, two.

Without a single mayoral challenger yet to emerge, there was no need for the mayor to measure his own electoral chances. Instead, he wanted to poll the group on extending the current one-cent, local-option sales tax another 10 years and using the money for street projects. The extension proposal is also on the Nov. 5 city election ballot.

“This group may not be a representative demographic of the entire population,” said Corbett, conceding that the Optimists probably skew older. “But I bet you’re spot on the demographic that votes.”

So the group was polled before Corbett spoke, and after he finished. The results? Keep reading.

BACK IN FRONT

Corbett is campaigning for the extension, and this was his first official stop. In 2011, Corbett campaigned long and hard for a 20-year sales tax that would have been split between streets and flood protection. It narrowly failed, and the mayor largely stayed out of the public effort to pass a 10-year flood protection-only tax in 2012. That ballot measure also failed. The current penny sales tax, approved in 2009, expires in June.

Now, Corbett is back out front of a tax measure, and is, literally, hitting the roads. Corbett has vowed to run 200 miles between now and Election Day on some of the city’s most cracked and potholed residential streets, hoping to underscore the need for more streets funding. Sure, it’s a little gimmicky, but since when is it bad for a public official to get out in the community and its neighborhoods?

“I can tell you after two days,” Corbett said. “It’s worse than I thought.”

Corbett, and most Cedar Rapidians, agree that the poor condition of the city’s aging streets is a big problem.

WHO TO BLAME

But then, he says, comes the blame game. “Whose fault is it that we have the problem? It has to be someone’s fault,” Corbett said. “Then we get finger pointing.”

The mayor points two fingers, one at nature, one at the Iowa Legislature.

“We have the freeze-thaw cycle that plays havoc on roads,” Corbett said.

And the Iowa Legislature hasn’t raised the state’s road-building fuel tax since 1989, even as, Corbett said, the cost of concrete, asphalt, labor, etc., has increased.

““It’s not Ron Corbett’s fault. It’s not your fault as citizens,” Corbett said. “Now, we have to solve it.”

There’s little chance lawmakers are going to boost the fuel tax anytime soon, Corbett said, and even if they did, the current distribution formula shafts cities. So the Statehouse won’t solve the city’s street issues, according to the former speaker of the Iowa House.

Some folks around here have suggested that the city is misspending Road Use Tax dollars. Corbett flatly denies that, pointing out that the city must report its expenditures to the state annually.

According to the city, Cedar Rapids will get about $11.4 million this year from the state’s Road Use Tax Fund, a pot filled primarily with those fuel taxes. Of that, $11.2 million flows into the Public Works Department’s operating budget to run its streets division. The streets division is home to the staff and equipment tasked with patching potholes, repairing curbs and gutters, making pavement panel repairs and some small asphalt overlays, fixing joints and plowing the streets when it snows.

The streets division, basically, does the sort of nuts and bolts street work that’s not put out for bids and paid for as part of the city’s $23.6 million capital improvement budget. That’s the pot of local, state and federal money that pays for bigger streets projects, and, this year, includes $7.7 million worth of bonded debt. That debt is paid back with property taxes.

SALES TAX OR PROPERTY TAX

A key part of Corbett’s pitch is that it’s better to pay for streets by continuing to pay a sales tax for the next 10 years than to keep issuing 20-year bonds covered by property taxes. Those Robins, Hiawatha and Marion commuters who roll in and out on Cedar Rapids roads will pay some of the $18 million collected annually from a sales tax. Only Cedar Rapids property owners will pay for the bonded debt.

“I’m a strong supporter of keeping the sales tax,” Corbett said.

So was the mayor’s pitch persuasive? According to those two straw polls, he was preaching to the choir.

In poll No. 1, 32 Optimists favored the tax extension and just five opposed it. After his talk, the vote was 32-3. Nobody stormed out, so I guess a couple of people skipped the second ballot.

Not a scientific sample, as the mayor noted. But maybe enough to put a little spring in his stride while he’s out dodging potholes.

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