by Gigi Wood

IOWA CITY – Iowa City councilors discussed passenger rail, passed its next budget and approved more authority for the city manager last week at informal and formal meetings.

Passenger rail
At its work session Feb. 28, the city council discussed with various transportation officials the proposed passenger rail service between Chicago and Iowa City.

In October, Iowa received the federal funding it needed to proceed with a $310 million Amtrak passenger rail service project between the two cities, with a possible extension to Des Moines and eventually Omaha. The state’s match is $20 million, to be paid over several years.

Two weeks ago, city officials met with the Iowa Department of Transportation, which is asking for a local match to pay for the rail service’s operation costs, including labor, fuel and maintenance, said John Yapp, executive director of the Metropolitan Planning Organization of Johnson County, formerly the Johnson County Council of Governments.

“One of the things the DOT was explaining is that they’re preparing a business plan for the governor’s office for the operations cost for future Amtrak service,” Mr. Yapp told councilors.

The city had anticipated paying for the train depot in town but not the rail’s operations costs. The city’s contribution to the DOT could better sell the program to state officials, he said, because the route will extend through a small portion of Iowa initially.

“Once it reaches Omaha it will be considered more of a statewide service,” Mr. Yapp said.

Initial numbers from the DOT office are a local city/county shared cost of $300,000 to $400,000. Councilors discussed creating a tax-increment financing district within Riverfront Crossings District, where the depot is located, to help pay for the cost.

“The service won’t start, best case scenario, until four to five years from now, and it’s difficult to make a commitment for something that is that far into the future,” he said. “Secondly, there was some discussion as to how much do local communities benefit from the Amtrak service versus the state as a whole. And I think everybody agreed that there is certainly some benefit to the local community hosting the railroad depot, particularly for the properties around the depot. For Iowa City, that fits in real nicely with the Riverfront Crossings neighborhood and redevelopment plans proposed for that neighborhood. And I think there is a relationship between the provision of the passenger rail service and attracting investment to that Riverfront Crossings area.”

The DOT has asked for a letter of support for the funding, which councilors agreed to send. Formal commitment of funding would be approved at a later date.

The council approved a $60.7 million budget at its meeting March 1for the fiscal year starting July 1.

With it comes an increase in property taxes and a decrease in public safety. The tax rate will go from $17.76 to $17.84 per $1,000 of taxable value. For those who own a home valued at $100,000, taxes will increase from $833 to $866.

The budget eliminates one police officer and one inspections position from the fire department. Councilors said the eliminated firefighter is not a front line position and although the police department loses one officer, three are returning from military duty later this year.

“I continue to have some problems with the budget as it was put forward to us,” said Councilor Regenia Bailey. “We’ve heard a lot about budgets being a reflection of our values and also I see budget as a tool to move our policies and our goals forward. And in many ways, it doesn’t do that.”

She was also unhappy with cutting the budget for flooded home buyouts.

“Our flood mitigation policy is to remove people out of harm’s way although we removed some of the money for buyouts in the Parkview Terrace neighborhood,” she said. “Once again, we’re not using the budget to move forward on some of these priorities and that concerns me.”

Councilors noted this is an election year for some and others acknowledged they campaigned on a platform of increasing public safety. Last year, the council passed a 1 percent franchise fee on MidAmerican Energy utility bills to help finance a new fire station and additional public safety workers.

Ms. Bailey said that with a new city manager in place, the city will be better able to set policies and priorities when setting the budget for the following year. She said the council is operating without a strategic plan, which is sorely needed.

“We talked a bit in the work session about how next year’s process will be very different, and I hope it is. But I don’t think that responsibility completely rests on the shoulders of our city manager,” said Ms. Bailey, who is up for re-election in November. “It should be shared equally with the policy makers to set the direction of what and why.”

Mayor Matt Hayek said that while Iowa City has been relatively unaffected by the national economic downturn, it has not been immune to revenue losses and cost increases. He said that after the franchise fee was passed, the city hired more public safety workers, construction of the northside fire station is on schedule and a police substation was added to the southeast side.

Other issues
The council also approved a resolution granting the Thomas Markus, the newly-hired city manager, more authority in economic development deals. He will have administrative authority to make up to $50,000 in disbursements from the city’s economic development opportunity fund without approval from the economic development committee.

The intent of the change is to allow the city manager and staff to act quickly when a company shows interest in locating in Iowa City and the city wants offer an economic development incentive in a quick timeframe.