These two guys aren’t on the same page.
Mayor Ron Corbett and challenger Greg Hughes disagreed about nearly everything last night at a forum in the Whipple Auditorium at the new downtown Cedar Rapids Public Library.
Corbett, who turns 53 on Saturday, said Cedar Rapids was a place “adrift” in its first year of flood recovery when he ran for mayor in 2009. He said the city was losing jobs, City Hall wasn’t making decisions fast enough and residents were “confused.” He said he has been “firm and fair” in his decisions as mayor, the city is back on its feet, the private sector is investing heavily in the city and an “exuberance of confidence” is now on display.
Hughes, 56, a longtime Quaker Co. plant employee, said he is saddened by all the vacant houses he said he sees in the city. He said City Hall doesn’t listen to the people, and the people don’t trust City Hall. He said the city needs good jobs, not low-paying ones. To city leaders, residents are “peasants,” waiting to be asked to pay more taxes, he said.
Corbett used most of his closing comments in a way that he said no political advisor would like: He encouraged people to vote for him on the Nov. 5 ballot and also to vote to extend the city’s 1-percent local-option sales tax (LOST) for 10 years to fix streets.
The mayor called the tax matter a “renewal” of a tax that already is collected in Cedar Rapids, not a tax increase. He said Cedar Rapids is a regional economic center today, which means many people come here to work and shop and leave at the end of the day. Through a sales tax, which those non-residents would pay, they can share in the cost to maintain the city streets that they use, too, Corbett said. The problem of bad streets is too big to expect revenue from city residents’ property taxes alone to fix, he said.
Hughes said he opposed the sales-tax ballot question, calling it a tax increase. He said property taxes in the city have gone up, as has the city’s franchise fee on electric and gas bills. “You just can’t keep taxing them to death,” he said of Cedar Rapids residents on fixed incomes.
Hughes caught Corbett’s attention when he accused the mayor and the City Council of misusing revenue from the existing local-option sales tax, which was put in place in 2009 to help with flood recovery and will expire June 30, 2014. He said the revenue was supposed to be used for flood victims, and the city used it for other things. “I think some people ought to be going to jail,” he said.
Corbett said Hughes was wrong. The first $18 million of revenue went directly to flood victims to replace personal possessions and another $18 million went directly for home renovation, the mayor said.
Corbett told Hughes that running for office is like sitting on a jury — you collect information and then form opinions. He told Hughes to “learn the facts.” “You’re misleading the voters,” Corbett said of the challenger.
The city has used LOST revenue as local matching dollars for federal disaster dollars, as spelled out in the 2009 ballot language approved by voters. Some LOST funds helped out with the new library.
Last night’s forum took place in the two-story-tall, 200-seat Whipple Auditorium in the library, with a wall of windows looking out on to Greene Square Park. No question, though, came from the audience asking how the candidates liked the auditorium.
On the question of tax incentives for businesses that invest in new buildings, Hughes said the city “shouldn’t give away the farm.” Corbett said no money is given away. The city is helping those invest cover some costs by deferring property taxes they wouldn’t be paying without the investment. He pointed to the Westdale Mall project, noting that the value of the mall has plummeted over the years. That lost property-tax revenue means others need to make up the losses in their taxes, he said. Once transformed with the help of incentives, the mall property will have increased value and will increase what it pays in taxes, he said.
Corbett used the forum to provide a new insight into his thinking about flood protection. The Army Corps of Engineers’ support for east-side flood protection comes because there is sufficient value of property there to pay to protect. With the coming of the $150 million casino (with parking ramp included), west-side property value may be closer to meeting the Corps’ formula to provide protection, the mayor said.
Corbett is special projects manager at CRST Inc., former speaker of the Iowa House of Representatives and former president of the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, now the Metro Economic Alliance.
Hughes ran for Congress in 2012 as an independent candidate and ran for governor in 2010 without party affiliation. He won 1.2 percent of the vote in 2012, 0.3 percent in 2010. He ran a tae kwon do business in Cedar Rapids for 22 years.
The forum was sponsored by the League of Women Voters Linn County.