Voters here get the chance this coming Tuesday to decide if the measure on the city election ballot to extend the 1-percent local-option sales tax for 10 years to fix streets is a tax issue, a streets issue or something else.
One needs to look no farther than the city’s mayoral candidates, incumbent Ron Corbett and challenger Greg Hughes, to hear two very distinct distillations of the same ballot issue.
Both, however, agree that the upkeep of the city’s streets has fallen behind over a number of years and, as a result, many of the city’s streets are in poor condition.
They agree, too, that it’s a tax issue. Corbett has come to say it’s an issue of tax philosophy.
For his part, Hughes has said that the city is taxing residents enough.
He has said, correctly, that the Corbett-led City Council has passed budgets each year that have increased what the average homeowner pays in property taxes to the city in a year. In the current budget year, the increase is 4 percent for homeowners.
Hughes also has said that the city has raised a franchise fee it collects on gas and electric bills from 1 percent to 2 percent. As a result, the city already has enough money to fix the streets, Hughes said.
Corbett has countered by noting that, without sales-tax revenue, the city doesn’t have the money to adequately repair and reconstruct its streets and to take on the backlog of street deterioration as it should. If it did, it would, he has said.
Corbett also has said that Nov. 5’s local-option sales tax vote is both about fairness and about being able to devote all of the pool of revenue from a 1-percent sales tax — about $18 million a year for 10 years — to street improvements.
Corbett has said the sales tax — which now is being used for the city’s flood recovery and is set to expire on June 30, 2014 — is fairer because an estimated 30 percent of the revenue from a sales tax paid in Cedar Rapids and Linn County comes from those who live outside the county. That group uses the city’s streets to get to jobs, stores, restaurants, movie theaters and other entertainment venues in Cedar Rapids, and so they should contribute to the upkeep of the streets, the mayor has said.
At the same time, the city will stop taking on an average of $7 million in bonding debt a year to invest in street improvements. Pay-as-you-go with sales-tax revenue will replace more debt, Corbett has said.
And the revenue from the sales tax will be sufficiently sizable to fix the problem, he said.
Among the questions that Cedar Rapids residents have put forth in recent weeks:
Q: How will revenue from a local-option sales tax fit into the city’s street repair and maintenance effort?
A: According to Dave Elgin, the city’s public works director and city engineer, and Sandi Fowler, the city’s assistant city manager, the city has taken on an average of $6.3 million in debt a year over 10 years as part of its bigger-project, capital-improvement budget to improve streets. With a sales tax for streets, the city plans to stop issuing new debt for this work, and instead will devote much of the $18 million a year that the sales tax will generate to the capital-improvement budget for streets.
Some of the sales-tax revenue also will go to the city’s in-house street repair and maintenance work, which includes some asphalting, seal coating, pavement patching and curb-and-gutter work. The city spends between $7 million and $9 million a year for this in-house street maintenance work from the $12 million it now gets a year from the state’s road use tax fund.
The remainder of that money goes to clean streets, maintain traffic signals and plow snow and to other street-related spending.
(In total, the city has spent an average of $14.6 million a year on its bigger-project, capital-improvement program for streets when federal and state grants for larger capital-improvement projects such as Collins Road NE and First Avenue E are counted and added to the $6.3 million in new city debt each year. The city will continue to seek such grants.)
Q: Which streets will get fixed?
A: The city has an elaborate color-coded map to identify its worst streets and its other streets in need of work. Elgin said the city’s goal is to “touch” every one of those in 10 years if there is sales-tax revenue to support the work.
To see what the city calls its latest “partial” list of street projects at the top of its list, go to http://www.cedar-rapids.org/government/departments/public-works/engineering/Documents/Street%20Improvements%20List_October%201,%202013.pdf
Q: How bad are Cedar Rapids’s city streets?
A: At a news conference on Oct. 25 in Cedar Rapids, a representative of the national transportation research group TRIP said 48 percent of Cedar Rapids’s streets are in poor condition and 25 percent are in mediocre condition — which together means that three-fourths of the city’s streets show “significant deterioration.”
The TRIP numbers were based on city data provided to the Federal Highway Administration, the representative said.
Mayor Corbett said the city should be spending $30 million a year to take the streets problem on.
Q: How does the city know it has bad streets?
A: Elgin said the city has conducted three street-condition assessments in the last 15 years, in 1998 through 2000, in 2004 and 2005, and in 2009 and 2010. Each involved a professional staff member traveling each mile of street and making a visual analysis.
The general conclusion from the latest assessment: “Because of their age, conditions are deteriorating more quickly on those older streets,” Elgin said.
The city now has contracted with the Iowa Department of Transportation and Iowa State University’s Institute for Transportation to conduct a fresh assessment of every city street using a high-tech vehicle called an automated road analyzer.
Its sensors, lasers and cameras measure an assortment of features from cracks, to rutting to road wear.
Q: How many miles of streets does the city have?
A: According to Elgin, the city has more than 600 miles of streets when measured down the center lines of streets. Of those, 235 miles carry enough traffic volume to be eligible for federal aid. In total, the city has more than 1,400 miles of actual lanes of streets.
If parking lanes and bike lanes and the width of overly wide lanes are added in, the city has more than 1,600 lane miles.
Q: Did the city receive federal disaster dollars to fix flood-damaged streets?
A: Elgin said the city received about $1.6 million in federal disaster dollars to repair flood-damaged streets. All that work is substantially complete, he said.
Q: How costly is it to fix streets?
A: By way of example, Elgin said that the cost of concrete has risen 30 percent in 10 years and the cost of asphaltic materials is up 200 to 300 percent in that time. In 2007, the city purchased $600,000 of those materials for basic in-house street maintenance, and this year, it is $1.2 million.
“We’ve lost ground,” he said.
The actual cost for a block of street improvement can vary greatly depending on how much related work with sewers, water lines and utilities also is part of the project. For example, Elgin said the reconstruction of E Avenue NW between Third Street NW and Ellis Boulevard NW, which included the replacement of a large storm sewer, cost about $5 million a mile.
A concrete overlay put on Cottage Grove Avenue SE, without major related work, cost $500,000 a mile.
Q: Does the city have the capacity to do more street work in a timely fashion if it has sales-tax revenue to do more work?
A: “We’ve already started talking to contractors to see if they can gear up for the work,” Elgin said. “They’ve said, ‘Yes.’ Local contractors will be doing the work.”
Q: Asphalt or concrete?
A: Both, said Elgin. Asphalt is “a flexible” material, concrete “rigid.” There are situations where one is preferable over the other.
Concrete is longer-lasting, but because of frost susceptibility and underground utilities, asphalt can be better in certain instances.
Q: Why didn’t the city use the debt it took on for the hotel and convention center to fix the streets instead?
A: Mayor Corbett said this is apples and oranges. He said the hotel and convention complex are revenue-producing city assets, and the revenue from the use of those assets will be used to pay off their debt.
Part of the city’s hotel-motel tax also may be used. The city doesn’t plan to use property-tax revenue or local-option sales-tax revenue for the hotel or convention complex.
Q: What are the basics of the local-option sales tax?
A: Cedar Rapids votes on sales-tax questions as part of a metro block of contiguous cities. That block consists of Marion, Hiawatha, Robins and Fairfax in addition to Cedar Rapids.
The tax question passes or fails depending on the total votes in the block. The city council in each of those cities has decided how they will use revenue from the tax.
(Note: The metro cities did not vote as a block in March 2009 because the Iowa Legislature granted a special exemption so Cedar Rapids would not need to depend on the votes of the other cities to pass the tax for flood recovery. In fact, Marion, Hiawatha and Robins turned down the tax measure in March 2009, only to rush to re-vote in May 2009 and put the tax in place once they saw that Cedar Rapids had approved it.)
Every city in Linn County and the unincorporated portion of the county currently has the local-option sales tax in place. All the jurisdictions but the metro area block of cities and the Linn County portion of Walford already have extended the tax into the future.
The Iowa Department of Revenue receives the local-option sales-tax collections and distributes all revenue that is collected to the jurisdictions in the county with the tax in place.
The distribution is based on a formula that takes into account that most of the sales will take place in the retail center — which is Cedar Rapids in Linn County — and that some of those sales will come from those in the county living outside of Cedar Rapids.
So those jurisdictions receive more sales-tax revenue than is collected just in their own jurisdictions based on a formula comprised of the populations in 2010 (75 percent) and property taxes (25 percent) collected in 1983, 1984 and 1985, according to the Iowa Department of Revenue.