Following are some of the responses The Gazette Editorial Board requested from Cedar Rapids City Council candidates and neighborhood association leaders for the following question: What’s the best way forward to accelerate repairs and improvements on Cedar Rapids city streets, and is the proposed extension of the local-option sales tax necessary to do that?
l Ron Corbett, incumbent candidate for mayor:
The average age of our streets is more than 50 years old. Most people, if not everyone, agree our streets need fixed. Identifying the problem is the easy part. Solutions prove to be more difficult.
The city receives about
$11 million a year from the state fuel tax fund. The annual repair and replacement costs are $30 million per year for Cedar Rapids.
State lawmakers have said no to a fuel tax increase. The fuel tax is not indexed to inflation. Cars are getting better gas mileage. The city has limited choices, defer maintenance or use property taxes and debt to address the shortfall. The city has done both — defer and use property taxes and debt over the last 20 years.
Davenport, Dubuque and Waterloo have made the switch from using property taxes and debt to pay for streets and are using the local-option sales tax.
The benefits of using sales tax to fund street repairs: First, it spreads the burden. Those that come into Cedar Rapids and use our streets pay little to repair them.
Second, the sales tax is a pay-as-you-go approach.
Third, it takes the burden off property taxes. Fourth, stop borrowing.
The sales tax is a better way to fund street repairs. The ballot language guarantees sales tax will be used for streets. State fuel tax is constitutionally protected and cannot be diverted to other spending. Checks and balances are in place.
Let’s make the switch and use sales tax instead of property taxes and debt.
l Ajai Dittmar, District 1 City Council candidate:
The best way to move forward with our streets is to focus on repairing roads, and put the improvements on the back burner. The local-option sales tax is not necessary to do that.
With the money this council has bonded for streetscaping, they could’ve repaired some roads. Before you vote, drive through downtown. The roads aren’t just nice; the streets are beautiful, while the rest of the town drives on rubble.
It’s as if this council cares more about decorating the house while the foundation is crumbling. We must address the foundation first.
The LOST’s broad ballot language potentially allows for more spending on these beautification projects, such as fancy lights, flower pots, trees, decorative sidewalks and parklets.
The city should purchase the proper construction equipment and hire only qualified local workers.
Another way to help fund road repairs is to stop all the frivolous street projects. For example, on H Avenue NE, the city removed a car lane off the exit and added a bike lane, which actually makes it more dangerous. In the meantime, just blocks away, the roads are broken.
With the extension, there could be more local matches for federal and state grants for unnecessary street projects. The state’s sales tax loophole, 423B.10, allows the City Council more wiggle room to spend money on “urban renewal projects” regardless of what the voters approved.
l Kris Gulick, District 1 City Council candidate:
City street repairs require a long-term and disciplined strategy. For several decades, a significant amount of maintenance on streets has been deferred. Deferred maintenance of infrastructure catches up with any organization. The average age of our streets is over 50 years old, with more than 40 percent of our streets in poor condition.
The scope in terms of dollars needed to resolve this issue is significant. Cities across Iowa are restricted to just a few sources of revenues with the primary source being property taxes. Property owners in Cedar Rapids use the city streets and pay for that use through their property taxes. Local taxpayers are paying the full fare for all those who visit, work in, use and enjoy the City.
Local-option sales tax can be a viable alternative to property taxes to support street repairs. Users of the city streets who do not pay property taxes in the city would pay through the collection of the sales tax.
Numerous Iowa cities use this approach as an effective means to repair roads and collect revenues from others who might not otherwise pay for city street use through property taxes. The use of local-option sales tax also reduces the need to borrow money for street repairs, thus decreasing interest costs.
A fiscally responsible and dedicated source of revenue is needed to keep from continuing the historical trend of deferring street maintenance to avoid putting more pressure on property taxes, resulting in falling further behind.
l Robin Kash, District 3 City Council candidate:
Certainly, long-neglected streets need to be repairing and maintained. Taxes already paid should have taken care of that. The current local-option sales tax was approved following the flood, a crisis not of our making. Streets present a crisis that might have been avoided had previous city councils done the right thing.
Extending the LOST will habituate the community to its use. We need to use it only as a last resort. The tax is inadequate. Now, streets are even worse; we’ve more to catch up on. Inflation, repairs, plus new streets would eat up the LOST revenue expected over 10 years.
The tax is regressive. It hits hardest the least financially able. Following the flood of 2008, many voters swallowed hard and voted “yes” despite the LOST’s regressive character. How many are willing to swallow that hard, again?
Devoting the LOST to streets removes it as a source to finance the city’s share of costs for flood protection. We need flood protection.
As of July 1, 2008, use of local-option tax revenues for the purpose of funding an urban renewal project no longer requires an election but now can be done by ordinance of the City Council. Hard to predict what future councils may do.
I will help the City Council find sounder ways to finance street repairs.
l Alan Modracek, District 3 City Council candidate:
Cedar Rapids city streets have been ignored. The latest out of the city is a promise to fix them if we allow them to tax us more. The wording on the ballot is “to pay for the costs of the maintenance, repair, construction, and reconstruction of public streets.” I could not have written a more vague promise than that.
We need to have our streets fixed, and if it really cannot happen without a tax increase, then we deserve a very specific plan for how that money will be spent. So far, I have seen way too much money pouring into the downtown area, making it “pretty,” and not nearly enough taking care of the other 80 percent of the city.
I promise to make all of the roads in Cedar Rapids a priority. I am not foolish enough to think everything can be done all at once, but do know that I will not be voting to approve any fancy brick crosswalks while the pothole in front of your house gets ignored. Our city public works has a wish list for everything they would like to do with our streets. I will work with them to start crossing offline items.
We can do this. Step one? I will ask the Iowa Legislature to reallocate more of the gas tax revenue based on population, so that the people of Cedar Rapids can get back more of the money we send off to Des Moines.
l Pat Shey, District 3 City Council incumbent:
Presently, the vast majority of our city budget is personnel — the people who pick up your garbage, patrol the streets, put out fires and mow our parks. Unlike state and federal governments, we don’t fund programs, services, grants and research.
Our budget is pretty easy: We pay people to provide citizens with certain services. In seven years, no one has found a way to squeeze out tens of millions of dollars a year for streets, which leaves us at the mercy of the dwindling allocation of the state road use tax fund, and bonding and repaying the debt with property taxes.
The local-option sales tax provides us with an alternative that any property taxpayer should favor; Rather than putting 100 percent of the burden on property taxes for streets, we would have the ability to lay off some of that cost on people who use our infrastructure, but do not contribute to its upkeep, by dedicating just a penny of the sales tax.
l Kevin Curl, president, Southwest Neighborhood Association:
The streets in the southwest neighborhoods are on par with the rest of the city — we have our share of tolerable roads being overrun with bad to outright horrible roads. While on paper extending the local-option sales tax seems to be a fair way to alleviate the cost of road repairs, we simply cannot continue turning a blind eye to how past funds I believe were meant for streets have been spent — something Mayor Ron Corbett and city officials fail to account for.
A decades-long pattern of minimal street repairs, coupled with a recent surge of expenditures in downtown development incurring higher levels of debt, now would have the city all but force us to extend LOST if we want to improve roads. But how can we believe, after years of questionable spending, that a LOST extension will really be spent as it’s needed? The ballot language still leaves broad room for interpretation.
We need to curb spending on unnecessary projects such as bike lanes, decorative brickwork and mid-street planters, as well as recognize that downtown streets should not be the primary focus. And finally, we need to unload the hotel and convention center as quickly as possible. Why on earth does our mayor think he has the magic solution to make those profitable?
I can’t in good faith vote to allow his administration access to gamble with more of my tax dollars.