July 20, 2015 (Council Chambers, 220 Clay St, Cedar Falls, IA 50613)
We cover solar, big building projects and a major affordable housing concern.
-Committee of the Whole (5:20pm, Council Chamber, ELECTRONIC AGENDA & PACKET)-
In Committee we review six items: US Army Corp Levy Update, Solar Investments, Downtown Streetscape Plan, Deer Management, and Bills & Payroll. I'll comment on the Solar Investment.
The solar garden report relates to CFU's Simple Solar program. CFU is seeking commitments from all rate payers and is entering the commercial phase. As of writing, over 645 household shares have been pledged at $399/share, right on target on the residential side. 12 commercial accounts have already pledged bringing the total pledges to 2641 shares. The city is one of the largest electric customers at 7.6 million kwh per year. The City's light bill alone is around $400,000 per year. City staff is recommending we invest $183,000 in a share investment. If we consider pure economics, this investment makes sense. At the moment, the solar investment is projected to return about 2.12% per annum (a 4x improvement over our stingy money markets and CDs). In dollar terms, we make about $25,000 on our general fund reserve (~$5MM). Invested in solar, citizens could save $100,000. Naturally, the city needs to assess risks and opportunity costs, and liquidation options (these are 'marketable' shares after all) - especially if we are to class the investment as liquid reserves. Yet, interest rates could increase (or will according to the Fed), energy output could decrease, natural disasters happen, etc. On the flip side, electricity prices could dramatically increase as well. While $183,000 is a good start, I hope we will consider increasing our renewable investment if the pilot project is a success. Learn more about the program and consider signing up for this unique opportunity: Cedar Falls Simple Solar. The more upfront commitments secured, the bigger the project will be which will result in incrementally lower costs (and more energy) for all.
-Regular Council Meeting (7:00pm, Council Chamber, ELECTRONIC AGENDA & PACKET)-
G.2.h) This item relates to legal services agreement. We enter into an arrangement with an Omaha law firm to represent the city with negotiations for Wheaton's contemplated $120 million dollar hospital. The firm charges $155/hr-$390/hr which seems like a market rate for this legal work.
G.2.j & w) These items relate to a Senior Housing and Out-Patient Clinic and a new Unity Point Clinic. These are both significant investments and represent a growing medical services sector in our city with unique concentration in the Pinnacle Prairie development area.
Other notable agenda items include a GIS needs-assessment contract and a RABGRAI bridge loan (temporary).
- Nick's Briefs -
Section 8 - Denying Benefits
I am witnessing a disturbing trend in government. Perhaps it is a trend that has always been present, but not obvious. In its most permissible form, it is unintended, a fault of diminished thinking capacity of politicians and bureaucrats. At its worst, it is blatant policy creation of diabolical, immoral politicians. Most policy is accepted by the electorate, because after all, the voters endorse the policy by extension through the voting box. In this writing, like many before it, I want to illustrate how discrimination (the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things) percolates into our most local policy definitions.
On June 15th, Cedar Falls City Council adopted its Section 8 Administrative Plan (“Plan”) as required by communities that serve the Section 8 program offered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”). In Section 8-speak, Cedar Falls is a PHA – public housing authority. At 45 pages, the document is surprisingly brief, at least by most bureaucratic measures.
According to staff, the main goals of the amendments are the following [my gut reaction in italics]: (1) to attract more Section 8 landlord participants (erroneous causality - felony restrictions will not attract measurably more participants, there are other variable at play); (2) in the interest in public safety (this assumes a predisposition felons to re-commit a crime and our rehabilitation process is flawed. Denying affordable housing to a felons (ignoring the many flaws that make people 'felons') may have a counter-effect); (3) for more consistency in voucher portability (keeping up with the Jones').
Initially, I read the staff memo and skimmed the Plan acceptingly. It caught my attention just enough that I made a meeting comment requesting that the policy be reviewed by the Human Rights Commission. After reviewing the Plan in greater detail, I realized my voting mistake.
Quickly, a word on Section 8. Section 8 is a complex, low-income or no income housing assistance program. Individuals apply for vouchers from PHAs (Cedar Falls). Landlords qualify rental units with the PHA after going through a rigorous Section 8 inspection to assure quality housing. The PHA issues vouchers which are portable to other PHAs (i.e. a Cedar Falls voucher would be honored in Waterloo). In summary, voucher holders get subsidized, quality housing, landlords get a market-based, direct payment from the government. Each PHA, can create criteria, including voucher and housing denial provisions. In effect, this creates significant inconsistencies (and complexities) between municipalities.
I mainly take issue with one section of our plan (even before the amendments!!), the voucher denial language for Cedar Falls Section 8 vouchers (changes are bold and underlined):
4.6.I.6) If any family member has drug, violent criminal activity or any felony charge pending, the application will be held until the charges are adjudicated.
4.6.I.8) If any family member has a felony charge it will result in denial of assistance from any housing program for five years from the date of conviction.
On the surface, this seems OK, right? Who would want a felon or a minor drug offender living next door? This question, however, is irrelevant because nobody gets to choose their neighbor. You could live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and if the next door property qualifies for Section 8, tough luck. Your neighbor’s record, be it criminal, medical credit score or otherwise is not your business, not your concern. We live in a free society and that affords all certain guarantees of privacy, rights of association, freedom to move about. We do not have the authority to banish people to islands or inner-cities. We have a responsibility to assure all citizens are afforded opportunity for betterment.
So when we write discrimination (unintended as it may be) into local policy, that concerns me. Let’s dissect the two provisions above.
- A voucher is denied based on adjudication. In other words, an innocent person is denied a voucher before the outcome of a judicial proceeding. This violates due process, a charge is not a conviction – all are innocent until proven guilty.
- A charge or conviction creates a family dragnet whereby everyone is considered guilty. An innocent mother or child could be denied housing assistance due to no act of their own!
- A simple misdemeanor offense for drug (and most know how I feel about the decades-long, misguided war on drugs) is cause for denial.
Putting our broken justice system aside, many people may actually endorse this policy seeing it as a tough on crime measure. What housing policy was intended to be tough on crime?? Penalties for crimes are to be doled out by judges and juries, not local housing authorities. In fact, if we look at the intent of public housing assistance, it is to help economically-disadvantaged people assimilate and participate in neighborhoods in the pursuit of betterment. Felons and drug offenders may need this type of housing assistance more than any to re-enter the world as productive members instead of outcasts. But if you are of the not-in-my-backyard camp, in whose neighborhood (or city) should these ‘undesirables’ reside? Why should your neighborhood be exempt? Why should you get to discriminate and place a disproportionate burden for human renewal on non-exempt neighborhoods (or cities)?
What should Cedar Falls do? This is beyond Cedar Falls’ sphere of influence, but program elimination and a minimum income entitlement would be a good start (minimum income is an emerging policy approach that addresses many policy failures, while delivering a more efficient allocation of welfare resources). We can talk about this another day. At minimum, Cedar Falls, and all cities, should eliminate discriminatory language starting with the provisions listed above. This simple change would restore program equality and fairness creating an example for other cities to follow.
The Public Forum
On the Public Forum, there is no doubt that this has become a pulpit for a select few. At times, the language can be testy, redundant and non-germane. But still, it seems this is within a speaker's rights and I not only admire, but I encourage people to speak their minds, even if I am falsely accused of rubbing elbows with the Koch brothers (which is entirely false, view my campaign fund balance to verify). But, we do have decorum and out of respect for council, staff and viewers, reasonable rules need to be enforced. The meeting is run by the Mayor and he has proposed very reasonable meeting procedures which give ample opportunity for the public to openly speak, while preserving a sense of decorum. A recess was called in the last meeting which successfully brought the meeting back to order and purpose.
I am riding RAGBRAI this week. Regretfully, this means I will not be in attendance, but rest assured, if there are pressing council issues, I will dial in from Fort Dodge. See you in Cedar Falls on Wednesday!