Tag Archives: Cedar Rapids

Column — Library Uncertainty

Cedar Rapids Library boosters certainly make a strong case for a new central library.

But I wonder whether the $45 million project may catch a fatal case of uncertainty.

The library board of trustees wants to replace the flooded 85,000-squarefoot central library in the heart of downtown with a 105,000-squarefoot library on higher ground on the northeast edge of downtown. They want more space, more computers, a larger collection, more amenities and no threat of water.

They hope to use Federal Emergency Management Agency, state and private funding to cover the bill.

Of all the public facilities pipe dreams floating around, I find the library most compelling. It could benefit thousands of local residents, including folks who are hanging on in nearby flood-affected neighborhoods.

But library backers also say they need more operating bucks. So they want voters to approve raising the current 4-cent library property tax levy to a maximum of 27 cents for 10 years. They’re determined to put it on the ballot in November’s city election.

Essentially, the levy vote will be a referendum on plans for a new, larger library.

But what will voters know going into the booth?

Unfortunately, they may not know where, exactly, a new library would be located. It all depends on whether the library board and City Council, which has the final say, can figure it out soon.

They won’t see an architect’s plan for a new library. That comes later.

They may not know, for certain, how much FEMA will chip in. Some of the funding will still be more hope than promise.

That worries me. I’d like to see this project make it. This, potentially, could say something important about the future of Cedar Rapids.

But when ballot measures die, uncertainty is usually the cause of death. Where facts are fuzzy, more often than not, criticism, and sometimes misinformation, fills the gap. And the ill-tempered electorate heading to the polls this November will be in no mood to take “trust us” as an acceptable answer.

So why not hold off until all those questions are answered? State law requires that a library levy be voted on in a city general election, held every two years. After this year’s, the next is 2011.

But the Legislature could change that law, just as it gave us a break on the sales tax. That would pave the way for a special election next year. It’s no sure thing, but a November vote could be riskier.

Backers are certain they can’t wait. Uncertain voters, however, may insist.


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Put out the Red Light

The Daily-Herald, which covers Chicago’s northwest suburbs, carries news today that Schaumburg, Ill., is dropping its red light traffic enforcement cameras after eight “tumultuous” months.

That news comes along with a Daily-Herald investigative series over the weekend that raised some red flags about red light cameras:

Most of the $100 red-light tickets are issued for turning right without coming to a complete stop. Traffic experts question the value of making this such a high priority, since it results in few serious accidents.

The answer is, “ka-ching.” In some of the communities surveyed by the paper, 90 percent of red light camera violations involved right turns on red. In some cases drivers who were ticketed did stop, just not at the white line.

Clearly, red light cameras can be used with the goal of making intersections safer. But this also shows the technology can become a revenue cash cow with little regard for improved safety.

Red light cameras are expected to be installed in Cedar Rapids this fall. Police and city officials here have insisted the cameras are all about improving traffic safety, not raising revenue.


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Thursday Column — In with a tweet, and lots of questions

So Christian Fong couldn’t wait.

The Republican Cedar Rapids marketing executive kicked off his run for governor with a Twitter tweet. Contrast that with the last GOP nominee, Jim Nussle, who entered the 2006 race with glitzy fanfare usually reserved for presidential hopefuls. We’ve gone from bunting and balloon drops to 140 characters on my BlackBerry.

Nussle burst in with the stature of a congressional power-broker known far and wide. Fong, 32, looks as if he’s still growing into his suit. He’s well-known and well-regarded locally. Elsewhere, he’s a question mark.

And questions swirl. Will Republicans send someone born in the days of disco to the big dance, to go toe-to-toe with the Big Lug? Can Fong’s bid to make history, as the youngest governor and the son of a Chinese immigrant, overcome his troubling lack of an electoral history? Can he convince the agitated right that “progressive conservative” isn’t shorthand for a squishy moderate who contributed bucks to Democrats?

Can a guy whose name rhymes with “wrong” weather the shots he’ll get from seasoned pols eager to take him out?

And will Iowans make a blogger governor?

Many candidates blog. Most offer small treats. Fong blogs in treatises.

Still, for a fresh face, there’s plenty of boilerplate. There are calls for investments and zones and a task force on tax policy. Big government is “too often the problem.” Teachers should be paid more if they meet higher standards. Rural schools are great. Marriage is between one man and one woman.

It’s not all bad. Just not all new. But there are glimpses into how Fong might shake things up.

He warns against practicing single-issue, ideological politics and urges the rejection of a “bizarre stream of conservatism that values ideological loyalty above all.” Fong decries labeling opponents as “extremist” in what he calls a “playground insult war.”

He might want to share that with one of his top backers, Iowans for Tax Relief chief Ed Failor Jr., who recently told a GOP crowd the Democrats’ agenda is Nazi-like.

Fong toes the party line on marriage, but he also wrote this before the Legislature adjourned: “The GOP needs to stop playing political games. Their frantic calls for a marriage amendment, ‘or it’s too late,’ are counterfactual to the realities of how the constitutional process works … let me suggest that turning a moral issue into a political chip is both disrespectful to the people involved and trivializes an important debate.”

But will he say that at a Sioux County soup supper? We’ll have to wait and see.

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Hinzman Suspends his Mayoral Ambitions

Gary Hinzman says he’s staying on the sidelines in Cedar Rapids’ mayoral race, at least for the time being.

For months, the director of the Sixth District Department of Correctional Services was expected to run. He posted a campaign Web site and asked city officials for advice on any ethics problems that his election might pose for family members who work for the city.

But Hinzman now says he’s suspending those efforts.

“I’m not interested in getting into a political campaign,” Hinzman said. “The city needs good leadership. Hopefully, there will be candidates who can provide good leadership.”

Hinzman said he might change his mind and jump in later if declared candidates fail to address important issues. The only candidate officially in the race is former Iowa House speaker and CR chamber president Ron Corbett, who Hinzman said is “picking up steam and rolling right along.”

His ambitions, he said, have complicated his day job. That includes raising funds and spearheading community projets for the Corrections Association Foundation.

“It’s hard to do something positive without people thinking there’s a political motive behind it,” Hinzman said.

Hinzman’s s decision comes a week after City Council member Monica Vernon announced that she will not run for mayor.

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Tuesday Column – Bureaucracy v. Boathouses

Bureaucracy appears intent on sinking the boathouses.

A year after the flood, which brought destruction and state scrutiny to Ellis Boat Harbor, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources is charting a course for boathouse extinction. True, it’s letting existing boathouses stay, so long as owners comply with costly regulations and don’t sell or transfer ownership to anyone outside the harbor.

Over time, thanks to those rules and nontransferability, the harbor community will empty out. And that’s what the DNR wants.

“Our sovereign water belongs to all the people of Iowa,” said Jennifer Lancaster, director of law enforcement for the DNR in northeast Iowa. The agency says the structures are illegal. “Why should these folks have more access to the water than everybody else?”

I don’t blame Lancaster for doing her job, and owners should be required to comply with reasonable regulations.

But why take this harbor away from some people of Iowa who have enjoyed it for decades for the sake of other people who might use it? No one is clamoring for the boathouses to be removed. Lancaster said complaints are few.

And after a flood that decimated and disrupted so many historic communities and unique traditions in this city, why does the state want to have a hand in finishing off one more? Is that really what the people of Iowa want?

“Very bluntly, I believe the DNR is making it as difficult as they can,” said City Council member Chuck Wieneke, who represents the harbor. “I believe the boathouses make the harbor. I’d like to see them stay.” I also think the harbor is worth preserving.

After I wrote about the boathouses in July, I got a call from Mary Lundby, the late, former state senator with a soft spot for the little guy. She called to make sure I understood that the boat harbor is a special place.

Lundby pointed out that while so many waterfronts in Iowa, such as West Lake Okoboji, are dominated by pricey homes and private resorts, Ellis Boat Harbor is a place where a working Joe or Jane could have a spot on the water. It’s also a unique community in this day and age, with workers and bosses, clock-punchers and big shots, all mixing together as they have for years.

She was right then, and the DNR is wrong now.

But there’s time for the department to work this out and change course.

There has to be a way for the boathouse community to coexist with some sort of expanded public access. Boathouse owners will have to accept changes. And regulators have to value people over process and history over bureaucracy.


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Rushing to the Microphones

You don’t need to be a high-paid flood consultant to understand the significance of Tuesday’s news that  a $516 million share of federal disaster recovery bucks Iowa finally broke loose from the D.C. glacier and is headed for Iowa.

With any luck, it means long-awaited home buyouts and a mountain of other pent-up needs can be addressed soon. We may actually see some real, tangible progress this summer. Sure, there are the nagging questions of what took you so long and exactly when do we get the next shipment, but we’ll leave those for now.

You also didn’t have to be a high-paid political consultant to understand the significance of the announcement in political terms.

All you had to do was watch the rush to the microphones. Once the news broke, Culver was blowing the trumpet on WMT radio and to The Gazette and to anyone who would listen. U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack and U.S. Sen Tom Harkin joined the Big Lug in a flood of cheery press releases.

Somehow, the dynamic Dem trio didn’t mention Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley. I’ll speak for him, in his native Twitter.  “Bout tme u get flod $ to Iowa lzy burocats.”

Speaking of bureaucrats, not one but two cabinet secretaries, U.S. Housing and Urban Development Sec. Shaun Donovan and U.S. Ag Sec. Tom Vilsack, will be in town today to trumpet the news and tour the flood zone (Memo to zone-skipper Janet Napolitano). Evidently the Obama administration thinks this is a significant moment as well in a politically significant state.

Probably the biggest winner is Loebsack, who really needed some good news to trumpet. The longer progress was stalled, the more vulnerable he has been to the accusation that we have a congressman who can’t make things happen. Now, at long last, things are happening.

It’s also good for Culver. While his potential Republican rivals explore and skirmish over he direction of their party, the Big Lug gets to drop into Eastern Iowa, likely in his bomber jacket, smile big, and deliver the goods. The power of incumbency, on display.

Close behind are potential CR mayoral candidates Brian Fagan and Monica Vernon, both members of the City Council. They’ve delayed jumping into the race, perhaps hoping that if money came and progress was made, they’d have something to show skeptical voters. This money may smooth their path.

But, in the end, it’s worth noting that Cedar Rapids will probably get $200 million or so from this pot of bucks to help recover from a $6 billion disaster. So let’s not get too giddy. This money isn’t going to solve our problems. It’s really just one step.

But after a year of waiting for some real recovery bucks, one step feels pretty good.


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Coaxed by Oats

Quaker kit

A couple weeks ago I wrote about the curious Quaker Oats box media kits sent out to national news outlets with hopes of coaxing them to cover Cedar Rapids’ flood anniversary and ongoing recovery.

Cassie Willis, the city’s communications liaison, says, so far, four news organizations have responded.

National Public Radio is sending a reporter and the Associated Press will offer a story on its national wire. NBC news plans to air a piece next Friday and Fox News is sending a crew next week, Willis said.

Still no word from “Good Morning America,” despite numerous electronic overtures from locals on the show’s Web site.

Face it, folks, it’s tough to get attention with so many other important things happening. Hey, maybe we could organize a Jon and Kate-Octomom summit meeting here next week. Now that would get some coverage.

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Tuesday Column — Difficult Anniversary

Sonjia Cornell doesn’t have big plans for next week’s flood anniversary.

“Cry, maybe,” said Sonjia, who lost her home of 27 years at 401 G Ave. NW. “Maybe just go there and look at it.”

I first wrote about Sonjia on Thanksgiving Day. Despite all her floodspawned woes, she kept her spirits up by counting the small blessings she found — her cat, alive, a long-lost ring amid the muck and a bag of donated clothes that fit her husband. Little stuff made the big stuff bearable.

But after a year, the big stuff is taking its toll.

Looking back is difficult. I’m sure she’s not alone.

I’ve got no problem at all with remembering and commemorating. Next week’s scheduled events in Cedar Rapids all seem appropriate and thoughtful. Anniversaries are an important time for a community to take stock.

But I also understand that after only a year, our wounds and pain are still raw. So for some, the videos, bands and speeches will offer little comfort.

You don’t need a special day to remember when every day is a reminder.

“You try not to think about it. But it’s there,” Sonjia said.

Sonjia and her husband are living in a mobile home in Shellsburg.

For a while, things were looking up. They finally got state Jumpstart funding to help make home equity loan and insurance payments on their flooded house. Sonjia said Jumpstart called the morning after my last column about her ran in the paper. I hope it helped.

They also found out that massive damage to their home made them eligible for a buyout. Sonjia said she envisioned using the buyout check to pay off the remaining debt on their home and move on with their lives.

But then they found out the $28,800 in emergency aid they received initially from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the $8,000 in Jumpstart help will be subtracted from the city’s buyout offer. That will leave them far short of what they need to pay off their $45,000 home loan.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Sonjia said.

“I was so happy to be bought out. Now I’m back to ‘Oh, my God.’ This isn’t right. I don’t want to go bankrupt.” So what they thought was a stroke of good luck turned out to be a doubleedged sword. Why the government would offer help, only to transform that help into a burden, is difficult to understand.

Sonjia still is working hard and hoping for the best. She’s planted trees and perennials around her new home, a sign she plans to stay put.

And after a year of being whipsawed between hope and disappointment, she’d rather look ahead.

“I can’t celebrate until I close the book,” Sonjia said. “And somebody is still writing the book.”

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Thursday Column — Swastikas

The swastika just won’t die.

There they were again Sunday morning, this time painted on 80 cars and some houses in Cedar Rapids. They were hastily drawn, judging by photos I saw, but unmistakable. “Springtime for Hitler,” without the music and laughs.

I know what some of you are thinking. It was probably just stupid kids or some other punks trying to get attention, and now I’m giving it to them. Most of these Nazi calling cards were easy to wash off. No big deal. Very dumb. Let’s move on.

I have no idea what the painter/painters thought about as they toiled away in the darkness, but the message of racial hatred being sent through this vandalism shouldn’t be blown off so lightly.

That message alone is plenty maddening. But it’s the timing that really grabbed me.

On a Memorial Day weekend that offered one of the dwindling chances to honor real Americans who fought the Nazis and remember the sacrifices made by a generation who stood up to fascist evil, someone is out scrawling swastikas.

Anonymous cowards sneak around in the night before our fallen heroes received recognition in the sunshine.

Did the vandals think for one second about it?

“I really don’t believe they know,” said Leroy Lenoch, 85, of Coralville.

“They don’t know what the symbol is.” Lenoch certainly knows.

His Army unit was thrown into action in 1944 when the Nazis threatened to break allied lines during the Battle of the Bulge. Soldiers illequipped and battered by endless snow and bitter cold. Lenoch’s hands and feet were frozen. He spent six weeks in a hospital in England, unable to walk.

So he remembers but also concedes the war is fading history for many.

I suppose that’s not surprising in our whatam-I-doing-now world, where 20 minutes ago is old news. And Memorial Day has become just a three-day weekend to most of us, with barbecues and mattress sales.

So when kids see a swastika, maybe they don’t fully understand the cruelties perpetrated under Nazi banners or the massive, miraculous effort it took to stop that tyranny.

But let’s not go too easy on our swastika-painters.

No free passes. We can’t afford to give any.

Because 64 years after the Nazis fell, one thing that still endures in infamy with the swastika is a search for scapegoats to blame and punish for our problems. Racism and fanaticism did not go out with the Nazis. Misguided anger and rage remain in the world, along with the politicians who are eager to stoke it and exploit it.

Hate is still out there in the dark. We simply can’t wash it away.


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Be the Poll — CR Mayor

Yeah, I know it’s only May. But the race for mayor in Cedar Rapids is starting to get interesting.

So here’s a non-scientific chance to weigh in on your early favorite.


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