Nick's Council Connection (13 May 2013)

Council Meeting Date: May 13, 2013TZZT.jpg

Council Meeting Location: City Hall, 220 Clay St, Cedar Falls, IA 50613

After a few light committee meetings, we will have some timely discussions on tasty topics. 

-Committee of the Whole (5:00pm, Mayor's Chamber)-

1) City Floodplain Remapping.  In 2011, the City adopted a new floodplain map that unbeknownst to staff or council didn't recognize previously amended map provisions for homeowners.  The recognized floodplain boundaries are important because it can impose expensive flood insurance requirements on impacted properties that with mortgages.  This doesn't only impact property owner finances, it also negatively impacts resales values.

FEMA.GIFTechnically speaking, the burden to remove the 'floodplain' designation is an owner obligation.  I was initially opposed to spending city tax dollars to challenge FEMA on behalf a small group of property owners.  Then considering the David versus Goliath task (many in the City have first hand experience dealing with FEMA - it is not a joy ride), I thought otherwise and justified it on the preservation of property values and principle.  With the city as coordinator and advocate, we felt we would be more successful than property owners acting separately or even as small groups (there were six related, yet geographically different revisions needed).  In the past, sometimes many decades ago, the original property owners took measures to mitigate flood risk (which were remote in nearly all cases) and made successful appeals to federal agencies to remove the properties from floodplain designation, therefore eliminating most mandatory flood insurance requirements.  The city spent a few thousand dollars, reduced property owner expenses, and eliminated the stigma for property resale.

This is a staff update on the progress, and it appears we will be successful in our plea for reason to FEMA. This also sets the stage for another interesting topic, should the federal government be in the flood insurance business at all?  Here's an interesting piece in the New York Times.

2) Full-time versus Part-time Mayor.  I have long advocated for this discussion.  Cedar Falls converted to a full-time strong-mayoral form in 1976. The position initially cost the taxpayer $16,400/year in salary.  Today, times are different.  The city is a multi-million dollar organization with amazing complexity in both planning and execution.  Thankfully, we have a well organized, efficient bureaucracy (some will read this as an oxymoron, it is not intended to read as such) full of some of the most competent and talented staff in the state.  In addition, the city has benefited from long-term mayoral consistency which has contributed to the stability of the political structure.  As our long-serving Mayor and staff (many life-career staff) eventually draw on their pensions, it doesn't take public policy major to foresee challenging circumstances ahead.  Our professional staff seem to agree:

Here are a few of their talking points (the full memo was exceptionally done): 

  • There are no minimum qualifications to be elected Mavor.
  • There are a limited number of people that could afford to run for the office of Mayor on a "full-time" basis.
  • Tum-over of the top management position (Mayor) every 2-years damages organizational momentum and continuity.
  • When a Mayor directly manages department directors, politics and elections will always be a factor regardless of who is Mayor in nearly every decision that is made to some degree.
  • It is easier to dismiss a poor performing Administrator than a poor performing elected Mayor.
  • A part-time Mavor with an Administrator can be a cheaper long term management structure.

While $70,000/year savings potential is the impetus to study a full-time versus part-time mayor structure, careful analysis of the pros and cons would have lead us to the same conclusion.  It is high time we do the study in the name of efficacy and efficiency.  I have been advocating for this discussion for several years; my most recent published piece was reposted on my blog, The Professional City

 3) Refuse Rates.  And the study says... we need to raise some rates.  Local government should provide a service when the WindStorm.JPGmarket doesn't meet the demand.  At other times, the service exists because of a built-in expectation of the public. In Iowa at least, most cities pick up the trash.  As landfills began to fill or regulations come into play, lawn waste was banned from the pick-up, cities added services. I am guided by a 'user-fee philosophy'.  Whenever possible, the user of the public service should pay the cost of the service.

Here's the breakdown of the proposal.

  1. Refuse Rates are self-supporting and successfully maintain 20-30% operating reserve balance.
    1. This is sound policy - no changes here.
  2. Yard Waste collection services operate at an annual $170,000 deficit.
    1. We need to close the deficit.  Curbside pick-up will increase $3 and occur other other weeks (versus weekly).  There's no free lunch, and no free pick-up.  However, in April, October, and November, pick-up will be discounted 50%, but not lunch.  Compost and Transfer Station drops will continue to be free during the same peak clean-up months.
  3. Transfer Station services operate at an annual $125,000 deficit.
    1. No rate increases are proposed except for curb pick-up.  The curb pick-up will increase from $0 to $5.

Deficits are shored up by the general fund (your property taxes) or other intergovernmental transfers.  Higher rates are painful but necessary for long-term financial sustainability.  My goal - make waste collection (refuse, lawn, and transfer) a break-even venture where the costs are borne by those that benefit from the service.  My only questions to staff will revolve around the surplus/deficit projects for the proposed changes above.  Have other ideas?  Let me know your thoughts.  

 -Regular Council Meeting (7:00pm, Council Chamber)-

In New Business

F.1.c) relates to Bioretention Cell Project Phase II (Receive and File motion, companion item is F.2.m on the Resolution Calendar).  Some of you may have noticed the cells on Waterloo Road which should fill-out with vegetation this year.  The Cells are designed to reduce point discharge into Dry Run Creek (an impaired waterway) as well as to improve stormwater quality.  These cells have a lot of tangential benefits such the traffic calming effects observed on 8th and Clay.  I am going to inquire further about the proposed designs to learn the benefits and challenges. The cells are grant funded. 

On the Resolution Calendar

F.2.q) relates to the establishment of a multi-unit development in a C-2 Zone.  Since 'residential-use' is non-conforming, it CedarHillsEstates.GIFrequires formal council approval.  I'm not too keen on the variance, especially given the poor transportation planning in the area (I'd call it reprehensible in light of connectivity standards that we strive for today), proximity to the floodplain, and the general lacking of design quality for this all-too-familiar cookie-cutter, multi-unit development type.  The finishes are certainly improved over similar structures.

Commercial development designation is normally favored because of its scarcity in the city (and property tax advantages). So I will require a bit of convincing that this use-variance has merit.  

 -Nick's Briefs-

Since I lacked brevity above, I will spare the reader from my Briefs except for one important message - Happy Mothers Day!

TZZT.jpg Nick, Mother Sue (Z) Taiber, Grandma Lu Zurbriggen, Brother Jon

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  • Nicholas Taiber
    Hi Matt, great questions.
    1) CF should have its first CNG pump this year. With this new infrastructure, I could see CNG as the fuel of the future. Conversion would take time (equipment, maintenance, specs, etc.), but it will surely be evaluated in the future. Will talk to Bruce S. on the possibilities.
    2) The Union Road trail is funded as part of the Capital Improvement Program (CIP). Funding comes from general obligation bonds (GO). We have a current policy of only issuing replacement debt, so we maintain a fixed debt level, more or less (less this year!). Debt service (principal and interest) is paid from the general fund (i.e. property taxes). The Debt Service Levy could be used as well, another property tax. On Center Street, incremental improvements are occurring, but not the full Hamlet plan. The level of spending is a matter of Mayor/Council prioritization which comes down to competing priorities. Much needed Center Street improvements are coming, but the pace may test the patience of the stakeholders!
  • Matt Miller

    Thanks for the insights. Two questions.
    1) Refuse rates. Has the city considered CNG (compressed natural gas) as future fuel source for city vehicles? Substantial growth in TX and OK appear to lead the national trend. I believe DM has a single fueling station. Future savings appear to be substantial, along with reduced carbon emissions.
    2) In the Sunday edition of WCF Courier (5.12.13), a public hearing is planned for Monday’s council meeting on a recreational trail along Union Road. It states “Up to $272,000 of the estimated $368,856 cost wil be funded by IDOT’s Transportation Alternatives Program.” I’m all for more trails. But where does the $96,856 balance the city coughs up come from?
    The general fund? Perhaps its more complicated.
    As one of the most fiscally responsible city council members, in my humble opinion, I know you’ll continue to vote with fiscal restraint. Considering the council spent $90,000+ on engineering plans for “Main Street” designs in Northern Cedar Falls and five years later hasn’t put implementation into the budget, but continues to spend on other public improvement projects, I hope a discussion ensues on what we say we’re going to do to develop and support this city’s “culture” while remaining fiscally responsible, and what actually happens. We’re only as strong as our weakest link.
    Thanks for your desire to change and improve this city.