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Cedar Rapids To Raise Property Taxes To Fund Flood Protection

Kate Payne / IPR
The Cedar River approaches major flood stage in downtown Cedar Rapids.

Cedar Rapids officials have adopted a plan to fund permanent flood protection in the city. Ten years after historic floods battered the city, its leaders want taxpayers to help protect it from the next disaster. 

The city council voted unanimously Tuesday to raise property taxesby $200 million over ten years, beginning in fiscal year 2020. The change means a tax increase of 22 cents per $1,000 in taxable value, or an additional $18 a year on a house worth $150,000.

The tax increases will cover the majority of the city's local contribution to its permanent flood protection plan, which also relies on state and federal funding. The seven-mile system of flood walls, levees and pumps is designed to protect the city on both sides of the river from another 2008-scale event, when floodwaters crested in Cedar Rapids at 31 feet.

At Tuesday's meeting City Councilmember Ann Poe said she believes the local government has a responsibility to protect residents from floods, just as it has a responsibility to hire firefighters and police officers.

"That should be a part of government, is to protect our community," Poe said. “Everything we do today, the decisions we make today are going to impact this community for generations. That’s important to remember as we move forward.”

City officials say the project will insulate business owners in the flood zone, many of them on the Cedar River's edge or within a few blocks of the water in the city's downtown. Government agencies, local residents and companies have invested billions since the 2008 flood. City Councilmember Tyler Olson says the flood control system is key to protecting that investment and preserving the city's economy.

"We all know there are tens of thousands of jobs that are in...people who work at businesses that were impacted by the flood of 2008. A lot of the city's assessed value is located in that area," Olson said. "So it's pretty easy to show what the direct benefit to those folks is."

Florist Al Pierson attended Tuesday's meeting to support the flood control plan, telling city officials his business has been impacted by floods eight times since 2008, endangering his product and disrupting his operations even when floodwaters don't actually flow into his building. 

"Just because the water doesn't come on my property doesn't mean I wasn't impacted," Pierson said. "In 2016, I hauled four semi loads of product out of business."

But city residents have resisted paying for flood projects in the past, with Linn County voters rejecting proposals to fund flood protection through a local sales tax. While there was no organized opposition to the property tax increase at Tuesday's meeting, city officals say they have to make the case to residents outside of the flood zone.

Councilmember Tyler Olson says even residents who don't live or work in areas that flooded in 2008 would feel the impacts of another disaster of that scale. 

"I don't think there's any question that a lot of the businesses that were flooded to the extent they were in 2008 might not make that same decision to come back," Olson said. "In order to recover, we're going to see decreased values and increased levy rates beyond what we may be voting here today."

The flood control system is projected to cost $750 million over a 20 year building timeline, though city officials hope to complete the project in 15.

So far the Cedar Rapids has secured $117 from the Army Corps of Engineers, $267 million from the Iowa Flood Mitigation Board, and $15 million from federal grants. Together with $9 million in already dedicated local funds, the revenues from current bonds and the additional bonds approved this week will amount to $264 million in funds from the city of Cedar Rapids. Under the plan as it stands now, there is still a $78 million gap in funding.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter