Saturday, January 7, 2012

Opinion: When waters run high

Cedar Rapids/Iowa City Gazette weekly column, “On Topic,” from 01-01-12
To a newcomer, it appears Cedar Rapids has gone from debating a once-popular television program to arguing about a popular brand of toothpaste.
Both discussions, as it turns out, are about levees.
So I was intrigued with this past May’s Popular Mechanics magazine, which presented instructions on how to build a levee in your own front yard.
Step 1: This undertaking begins pretty much as you’d expect — gather gloves, shovels, sand bags and a wheelbarrow. And lots of plastic sheets.
When I stopped by Harrison Elementary for an April 21 forum sponsored by The Gazette and KCRG, just before the LOST vote, I was struck by how much the atmosphere reminded me of the autoworkers union meetings I’d been to back when I was reporting on a massive General Motors strike in Ohio.
Lots of buzzing among attendees in the gym, nodding of heads in agreement and “Uh-huh.” Consensus was being built.
Step 2: A successful levee can’t spring up just any old way, Popular Mechanics contends. So it advises banishing all vegetation and “organic debris” — this is to avoid creating “a seepage plain.”
At that April forum, lots of folk came with speeches, documents and long questions. Attendees were resolved, by golly, that Mayor Ron Corbett and others on the panel were going to listen to what was on the minds of those who lived west of the Cedar River.
Step 3: OK, this next bit gave me pause. “Dig a trench,” it said.
A trench? To stop a rampaging flood of water? Isn’t that like jumping from a 20-story building to cure vertigo? (“See, nothing to worry about — you’ll be perfectly calm in just a moment.”)
But the instructions note this is where you lay foundation. Concrete is good. But in case you’re in a hurry — let’s say maybe there’s a big wall of water barreling at you — you might want to try particle board ….
The mayor apparently had believed he’d laid a good foundation for passage of the sales tax. But a number of people in the audience were clearly angry.
One man demanded to know why the budget for this project was being kept secret. I could see the mayor struggling to remain civil while trying to tell the questioner — again — that the budget was on view to one and all on the Internet.
These folk were not here to be comforted.
Step 4: Now, build a mound using clay, soil or what have you. (Speed, after all, might be critical if you’ve left your personal levee building a little late.)
The magazine, which points out it gathered its recipe from “the levee masters at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers” — there’s irony for you — adds you should make certain the top of your levee is higher than you expect the flood waters to reach. Just in case, I suppose, you’d not thought of that yourself.
Words heard most often at that forum, along with “levee” and “LOST,” were “fancy” and “Taj Mahal” — as in, City Hall wants to build something fancy with our money, more Taj Mahals downtown, rather than on trying to protect the west side of Cedar Rapids.
And I realized, this issue is not about levees or floods. This is about trust. These folk would rather take their chances with the Cedar River than with City Hall.
Step 5: Here’s where all that plastic comes in: Use the sheets to spread over your levee on the river-facing side.
This is to create impermeability.
Impermeability is like trust. If done right, it doesn’t erode easily.
But here were citizens who lived smack in the danger zone who were saying no to city government. And they said no in the voting booth in May when they rejected the LOST proposal.
For the newer iteration, the CREST initiative — Cedar Rapids Extended Sales Tax — there’s no reason to think they’ve had a change of heart.
I’ve no idea how this distrust has come to be. As I said, I’m a relative newcomer.
But there’s this: There was a Gazette story this past July in which City Council member Don Karr asked how the cost for renovation of the old federal courthouse to become the new City Hall grew to $10 million.
City Manager Jeff Pomeranz replied at the time that the price tag bulked up when the building’s requirements increased. More of the city’s operations would now be housed there than initially envisioned.
And really, the final cost would be closer to $9 million city officials added.
A fair answer.
In September, the Gazette reported higher-than-expected bids for work on the $75.6 million Convention Complex would mean less than 10 percent would remain in the city’s $3 million contingency fund.
It was noted the project remains within budget. The Frew Nations Group said it would keep an eye out for ways to rebuild that contingency fund as purchasing decisions were made.
Still ….
As the mayor and others work to erect levees to protect both sides of the Cedar River, it does seem they need to find a way to build trust, too — before the next vote and the next big advance of water.

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