The Gazette Editorial Board asked Cedar Rapids City Council candidates and neighborhood association leaders to respond to 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? Following are some responses.
l Susie Wienacht, at-large council candidate:
The past five years have been anything but business as usual. Our infrastructure has suffered as a result. The average age of our streets is 50 years, well beyond the expected service life. Funding alternatives that existed in the past are inadequate or unavailable.
The current condition of the streets is costly for anyone who uses them and, in many ways, the streets are our welcome mat. The impression they make on visitors is decidedly negative.
Extending the sales tax option will spread the cost across the greatest number of people, including a significant number of non-residents. That keeps the individual impact low and allows us to “pay as we go” for 10 years as opposed to issuing bonds as we currently do, that result in a 20-year burden with interest.
l Chuck Swore, at-large council incumbent:
The best way to move forward is the approval of the local-option sales tax. Our streets are in terrible shape, not because of city spending money on other projects, but these two factors: one, the money the city receives from the state has simply not kept pace with inflation. Two, the city has experienced tremendous growth and the use of the streets has increased substantially.
It is not correct to assert that the city can simply reprioritize money it has. Many of the projects that have drawn criticism were undertaken with funds received for specific purposes — from outside funds for other projects. While it is true that many required the city to make matching contributions, the council felt the investment in the recovery of our city warranted the expenditures. What many don’t realize is that the city is forced to borrow nearly half of what we spend on streets. A local-option sales tax would not replace money, it would simply replace the need to spend borrowed money.
l Don Steichen, president, Harbor Neighborhood Association:
Our group discussed it. Most were for street improvements. Most agreed the local-option sales tax more fairly shifts the costs to everyone. But we wanted a shorter period of time (five years) as sort of a test. Most also agreed to strict guidelines or they won’t vote for it (no faith in the city’s management of money).
Why wasn’t the street budget increased over the years when needed? Why some fancy streetscapes when we have bad roads? Some of us also are irritated by what the city did with the past option sales tax.
l Linda Seger, president, Northwest Neighbors Neighborhood Association:
Ballots requesting taxes get a little more personal to the voter. They feel strongly for or against the one-cent sales tax extension. Mainly it is based not on the tax but on personal opinions of the messengers. … Also, people question, after years of putting street repair on the back burner, whether the city will revert to that practice after a few areas are repaired and a new council down the road needs money for something else and votes to put the sales tax funds into something besides street repair.
The age, financial status and life experiences with hardships play a part in people’s opinions.
l Ralph Russell, at-large council candidate:
Forty percent of our streets are in poor condition and carry a price tag of more than $500 million. This backlog of major street repair has increased more than $100 million in the last three years. During that period we have spent only about one-third of that amount in street repair.
The best plan to reverse this trend is to extend the one-cent local-option sales tax and apply all of the revenue, estimated to be $18 million annually, to street repair. This revenue source is best because about 40 percent of the revenue comes from outside Cedar Rapids. Furthermore, if we continue to spend what we are spending now, about $10 million to $12 million, we will essentially hold our own on an annual basis.
… How will we catch up? The city receives about $11 million in federal and state gas tax proceeds. The entire amount goes toward the approximately $13 million annual street department budget. A major portion goes toward repair of cracks and potholes. As we chip away at the $500 million backlog of major repairs, it will reduce the cost of repair of cracks and potholes, freeing up more of the budget for major repairs. Eventually, we will catch up!
l Jerry McGrane, at- large council candidate:
I would like all moneys coming from option tax to be spent overlaying as many streets a year as possible. Use our current budget to do the big repairs to our city sewer lines, etc., then the permanent street. The option tax is the best way to go as 40 percent comes from outside of the city.
l Carletta Knox Seymour, at-large council candidate:
I believe the best way forward is through the extension of the local-option sales tax. If the extension does not pass, the city will have to borrow more or allow for even more neglect. Also, it is not likely that the city will receive any state funding relief or see a state gas tax increase or a change in the state formula to give urban areas more of that tax.
l Anthony Brown, at-large council candidate:
Our streets need some major TLC. The renewal and repurposing of the local-option sales tax is one of our best options as a community. …
Do we need this funding to fix our streets? Yes, it means we do not bond, aka borrow, or increase the burden on the property owners. We have bonded about $140 million over the past 20 years for our streets.
The LOST renewal means repairing or rebuilding up to 30-plus miles of streets each year. We have 1,600 miles of laned road in Cedar Rapids. Without LOST, we can afford to repair only about 11 miles of road a year.