Cedar Rapids, Iowa residents go to the polls on March 6thto decide on whether or not to extend for 10-years a temporary 1% sales tax topay for a $375 million flood protection plan. From a purely good governanceperspective, there are serious concerns with proposal ranging from poorpriorities regarding current spending, an ill-defined flood protection plan,and that the current tax is not scheduled to expire for another two and a halfyears.
Don’t feel bad if this is all coming as news to you.Supporters of the tax extension planned a “low-key”operation in the hopes that less information in the public sphere would lead tobetter results than last year, when voters said NO to a similar proposal.
The current tax was set in place in 2009 to help rebuildfrom the terrible flood damage suffered in 2008. As approved the measure read;
Ten percent (10%) for property taxrelief; The specific purposes for which the revenues shall otherwise beexpended are: 90% for the acquisition and rehabilitation of flood damagedhousing caused by the flooding of 2008, and matching funds for federal flooddollars to assist with flood recovery or flood protection.
Unfortunately, according to groups like We Can Do Better,there are serious concerns over fund mismanagement and misappropriation of existingrevenues. Since the measure passed, Cedar Rapids has spent $130 million on ahotel and convention center complex, $8 million on an outdoor amphitheater and$50 million on a new library. It comes down to priorities. If flood protectionand rehabbing the damage from the 2008 flood are a true priority then suchactivities should come before expensive indulgences like a $130 millionconvention center.
A 10-year extension of the local option sales tax would costCedar Rapids’ households over $3,000. This is on top of $2,500 per householdalready spent since 2009 on the aforementioned side projects. Moreover, theexisting tax was designed to be temporary.The March 6th vote would extend a five-year tax to fifteen years intotal. The existing levy does not expire until mid-2014. No doubt strongmemories still exist from the 2008 flood. However, supporters of the taxextension think residents in 2024 should still be paying for the damage done 16years prior.
As to the planitself, the city of Cedar Rapids’ preferred plan projects costs of $375 million($200 million for east-side protection, $175 million for west-side protection).The Army Corps of Engineers approved plan covers parts of the east-side at acost of $104 million with a 65/35 federal to local cost share. For those mathmajors out there, that means a cost difference to local taxpayers of $339million between what the Army Corps recommends and what the city is pursuing. Ifthe Corps goes along with the preferred plan for the east-side the cost tolocal taxpayers would only be $310million. Before launching into a 10-year extension more questions need to beasked of city leaders if they have fully explored both the existing Corps plansfor the east-side and what discussions have been had with federal officials todevelop a strategy for the west-side of the river.
NTU is not so callous that we oppose local efforts torebuild after major events. But what is being asked here is not reasonable.Voters are being asked to extend a tax that is not set to expire any time soon foran undefined $375 million plan. All thewhile serious concerns surround current city expenditures on redevelopmentprojects. Cedar Rapids needs to think carefully if such a long term commitmentis truly necessary at this time.