Nick's Council Connection (9 December 2013)

Council Meeting Date: December 9, 2013wethepeople.jpg

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

Your city council is earning their fruit cake - saving money on street lights, evaluating MET services, approving urban renewal projects and much more. Read on to learn more.

- Committee of the Whole (6:10pm, Mayor's Conference Room, ELECTRONIC AGENDA)-

Committee of the Whole is the meeting before the meeting. The time when Council does its real business of idea exploration and informal vote counting. This week, we get review two important items:

1) LED Streetlight Conversion: this story just gets better and better. CFU presents its final recommendation to council for the LEDHPScompare.jpgconversion of HPS (high pressure sodium) to LED (light emitting diode) of our 3000 or so streetlights. The LEDs are 65% more efficient than current HPSs, they have nearly 4x the life of an HPS. What does it mean to you?

  • More visible, reflective light spectrum - see better
  • Better light dispersion - light more area
  • Lower yearly operating and maintenance costs - save $4.4 million over the 20 year life of LEDs
  • Fixture retrofit is cost effective - was $900/LED in 2008, now $140/LED!
  • Neutral cost for new infrastructure (i.e. a new light poles)  - only $100 difference, expected to go down

This little investment will pay major dividends for years to come in energy savings, maintenance avoidance and improve the safety of the city.

2) MET (Route 9 bus service). Route 9 is the only regular bus route serving Cedar Falls exclusively. The cost to operate the line was split 50/50 between the City and a federal JARC grant (the JARC grant was eliminated in the last transportation bill).  In the last fiscal year, the city provided $83,000 to support the service to fulfill half of the cost of the service. This year, we funded the 50/50 portion through March 31st, or the end of the JARC grant. 

Understandably, there is a lot of emotion surrounding this service. It's a good example of how higher political subdivisions will entice a lower political subdivision into providing some service with no future funding guarantee.  Then like a 2x4 in the face, the funding stops and the local jurisdiction is left holding the bag. A funding commitment of this size would raise the general property tax levy by nearly 1%. The City Council faces tough decisions.

For me, this is a matter of transportation freedom. Public transit for a city of our size and transit demands is an essential service. We spend more on transportation infrastructure than any other capital category in our city. A couple questions... should a car be a necessary investment to make a living? To gather groceries? To go to school? In many respects, we plan our community around cars first, which is why there is such distance, expense and danger getting to key job areas (the Industrial Park), education institutions (UNI) and commercial centers (Viking Rd).

MET_Bus.pngI am a champion of transportation freedom and I believe that alternative modes should be accommodated via sidewalks for pedestrians, bike markings for cyclists or infrastructure modifications for handicap users. Public transportation should also be reasonably accommodated. The council, as tax payer stewards, needs to find the right balance for service delivery to meets public transit demands. 

I have been studying MET funding challenges since February 2013 when the ending of JARC funding first came to light. I asked MET questions about unique ridership, ride length, ridership count, and a breakdown of variable and fixed expenses. Unfortunately, I didn't receive information beyond 20 text files of inbound ridership. I spent several hours on the ridership analysis and researching how to improve service and lower cost.  
I must levy deserved criticism on MET. It doesn't operate CF routes (UNI and Route 9) as effectively as it could. It designed the operation around the JARC budget rather than first understanding need. We could operate smaller, more efficient buses. Routes could be optimized by demand analysis and appropriate technology. At the moment, it appears the cost per ride is $5-6. Standard fare is $1.50, many riders receive free service. The question is - how do we drive the cost down so the operation is more sustainable? How do we increase revenues (revenues could come from CDBG funds or something similar)?
Fortunately, I think we can do both but it may require exploring solutions beyond the convention we know today. And this means seriously exploring all alternatives, public, private, and public-private. Given the urgency to act, I think we will ultimately select a bare-bones MET service level. But I think the real solution exists in a public-private partnership that delivers a demand-based, innovation infused service model that will drive down cost and improve service. More work needs to be done. 

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

Near the beginning of the meeting, seven elected officials will take the Oath of Office, including myself. This goes beyond honor, it is awethepeople.jpg terrific responsibility. We take a oath to the Constitution of the United States, to the Constitution of Iowa and to faithfully and impartially discharge the duties of the office, in my case, council at Large. I find this particularly meaningful, because ever since Marbury v. Madison, the Constitution is to be interpreted as the supreme law of the land, even if in conflict with federal, state or local provisions. It seems appropriate the we take our oath in that order. In many respects, the Constitution is easier to understand than our code of ordinances. With that, I will read the Declaration of Independence the Constitution prior to taking my oath (and really, they must be read together to understand the ties of common law, natural law and the political framework for which it calls). 

New Business - Resolution Calendar

I.1.c) We receive and file the product of our 7 hours of goal setting (this is meeting time, total time is double or triple). We pat ourselves on the back, regurgitate issues and concerns, develop broad policy statements, priorities, initiatives and touch on organizational effectiveness. Yeah, you are saying wow, that sounds great. But really, I don't think any chest bumps are in order. The process could be greatly improved, I tried, but I don't run this pony show.

 I.2.m) This item deals with a relatively new development incentive for current homeowners in the College Hill overlay. In 2012, City Council adopted the College Hill Urban Revitalization Plan. It grants property tax exemptions on valuation improvements over 10% of the original value over 5 years. This particular improvement on the corner of Tremont and 22nd Street will exceed $100,000. Take that amount times the rollback factor, times our property tax levy (~$12.8 per 1000), times 5 and you have your incentive. This tool is having an impact and encouraging property owners to make significant investments which adds to the renewal of the neighborhood (and building tax base on existing infrastructure).  So if you live in the College Hill area, take note, assess, and invest!

I.2.n) This item involves a site plan review for a new Condo development in the Pinnacle Heights area. Nothing special to note, other than it will be 'gated'. To each their own I suppose, just avoid this area on trick or treat or caroling nights.

I.3 and I.4) This item deals with the Merchant Mansion at 1927 College Street. First, the Board of Adjustment granted a parking lot variance. This is pretty rare in that the Board of Adjustment rarely grants such requests, but the parking redesign met the criteria for approval. With the variance, the property owner will be adding a screened parking lot and perform a $300,000 rehabilitation project that will result in 6 new dwellings. The development will maintain the historical integrity of the structure while keeping parking in the back section of the lot, screened from street view and adjacent properties. Incidentally, this also qualifies for the Urban Revitalization Plan tax exemption credit. More investments, more improvements... the incentive seems to be appropriately working.  

 -Nick's Briefs-

Hold the Date - Four years ago, I inquired about changing the Council or School Board meeting times so the community could CFSchools.pngparticipate in discussions of both. If you didn't know, I am nearly as passionate about our school's advancement as I am our city's.

Today, City Council and School Board meet at the exact same time. City Council is televised, School Board is not. City Council has a flexible public input forum, School Board does not. Considering that over 40% of your property tax bill is devoted to schools and that over 90% of our children receive public education, you might think there would be more community discussion involving the largest local government entity in the city. The Board, operating in a shroud of secrecy, received some well-deserved criticism for firing a very well liked school visionary. Thankfully, I know that our new Super, Dr. Andy Pattee, is open to the notion of a community discussion. In our last goal setting session, the Council agreed to explore moving its meeting time to accommodate the School Board schedule. This is an open invitation to open up the School Board meeting  and let city join the dialog on topics ranging from total asset management plan to the common core. Hey, maybe we could even talk about early language learning! Yeah!! 


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