Yesterday I met with Iowa City city manager Michael Lombardo to find out from our city administrator's perspective how, in his opinion, the local option sales tax would benefit the community and the risks associated with it. He was generous with his time.
To start, he stated the need for the projects is justified to ask the public to consider the local option sales tax. For one, federal regulations make it neccesary for Iowa City to be in compliance within three years, irrespective of how it is done with regard to the north sewage treatment plan. Secondly, with the damage done to structures on Dubuque street, which is one of two main gateways into Iowa city from I-80, and the Park Rd. bridge, it would be irresponsible of the City not to take advantage of the availability of FEMA funds at this time to mitigate future flooding concerns.
A third point, though not part of the LOST referendum, which Lombardo mentioned is a need to reinforce or harden the city water wells. The wells were nearly contaminated by floodwaters last year. He said it would likely cost $2 million dollars.
I asked him about the fact that some of the construction is reliant on funds not in hand and, with taxes collected at the state level going down, was it sensible to think that people wouldn't end up with higher water and sewage bills to make up the difference. He explained that there are a number of state and federal sources for funds and that the City was pursuing all known grants. He agreed that it is not a sure bet that they will all come through, but expressed confidence that at worst, the city could bond the difference of about $1.5 to 2 million to accomplish the projects through a state program to bond projects related to last year's flood.
I asked about the process to make sure that community interests are addressed to make sure that there is transparency and input as to how these projects are done. For instance, once the treatment plant is shutdown, how will the land be used? When Dubuque St. and the Park Rd. are planned, will consideration be made to improve pedestrian and bicycle traffic? He said that he hoped that there would be a very public process, as city administrator he will recommend it to City Council but ultimately, it is their call.
Lastly, I asked him about the perception that the City should not be trusted to accomplish these projects, in light of the referendum about municipal power and current concerns from some about how money is being used for an $80,000 public arts project. He did point out that he was not sure that support would be there for the tax, but hoped that after the case is made for the necessity of it, that voters would approve the measure. He offered that as people have questions about the referendum that they will contact him.
As he has been on the job for less than a year, he expressed his appreciation for the residents in Iowa City and his commitment to using resources to the betterment of the community. In closing, I mentioned that during the flooding I noticed how people's better selves seemed to be present in dealing with the crisis and hoped that our better selves show up in choosing to support this effort. He said "You don't mind if I use that, do you?"
Despite earlier misgivings I had, particularly about funding the projects, I do not believe there is a better alternative to taking care of these essential projects. If someone has a plan to do it more economically, I hope they will bring it forward. However, I feel strongly that the city manager "gets it" regarding public input as to how these projects are accomplished and is done to improve the quality and safety of the community. I also think that the knives are sharpened (axes are ground?) to prevent this referendum from being successful. May our better selves prevail.
For the facts about the local option sales tax from the city, check out this link.