Cedar Rapids City Leaders Host Leaders in Washington D.C.
By Rick Smith, Reporter
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - Trips to Washington, D.C., have helped before as City Hall has clawed for federal funds for flood recovery and flood protection, says Mayor Ron Corbett.
So Corbett and four other city officials returned to the nation’s capital again this week for two central purposes — to drive home how costly it will be to the City Hall budget if the city does not prevail in two appeals to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and to lobby to keep federal money flowing so that the Army Corps of Engineers can complete its $12.5-million pre-construction engineering and design work on the Corps’ proposed flood-protection system for the east side of Cedar Rapids.
“We’ve had very successful, very productive meetings, but time will tell,” Corbett said of the two days of meetings. The meetings included ones with Iowa’s senators, Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin, and their staffs as well a meeting at The White House with Obama administration staff and FEMA staff.
A most immediate priority, the mayor said, is for the city to convince FEMA to pay the full $21-million cost that the city already has paid to demolish and remove debris from the flood-damaged former Sinclair packing plant site and another $16 million already paid or obligated to repair a flood-damaged incinerator at the city’s Water Pollution Control plant.
The city says FEMA’s front-line staff in Iowa approved the two pieces of disaster spending only to have FEMA’s regional office subsequently change the decisions and lessen FEMA’s backing for the recovery projects.
Joe O’Hern, the city’s director of flood recovery and reimbursement, has said the city and FEMA are $7 million to $10 million apart on the Sinclair payment issue with the disagreement centered on how much FEMA is willing to pay to remove Sinclair debris and bury it in a landfill. FEMA wants to pay $65 a ton on work for which the city has paid $117 a ton. The city decided to put the material in a local landfill, though one contractor proposed hauling it to a private Illinois landfill for about half the cost.
O’Hern has said, too, that FEMA has proposed paying just $8 million for repairs to the city’s Water Pollution Control incinerator, repairs that the city has said could cost twice as much as the $16 million the city has already spent or obligated in local dollars for the project. At one point, FEMA also said it would provide an additional $30 million to build a replacement incinerator once the existing one is fixed.
“These issues represent a lot of exposure for the city,” Corbett said. “So we went out there to tell our story, advocating why they should rule in our favor.”
Corbett said a City Hall visit to Washington last fall to appeal another FEMA decision paid off. In April, FEMA officials agreed to pay $13.8 million for flood damage to the city’s hydroelectric plant at the base of the 5-in-1 bridge. The plant had been disabled at the time of the flood, but in the end, FEMA agreed that the city had been moving in the direction of repairing the facility at the time of the flood and so qualified for disaster assistance. Just this week, the Cedar Rapids City Council decided to use the money for an alternate project — a new city parking ramp near the new federal courthouse — while it mothballs the hydroelectric plant, as allowed in FEMA rules.
Corbett said another earlier visit to the nation’s capital led to a reinterpretation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development of what should and should not be subtracted from buyout checks to property owners as a duplication of benefits.
“We think these trips have paid off for the community, and we hope this trip will pay off in the future,” the mayor said. “We have this financial exposure, we’ve spent this money and coming to a successful resolution is important.”
Corbett said Grassley and Harkin both reported that Congress will not authorize a new Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) this year, but they added that Congress may in 2013. WRDA legislation provides funds for flood-protection systems.
Corbett said the city’s more short-term flood-protection objective is to secure additional funding so the Army Corps of Engineers can complete its current pre-construction work for the city’s east-side flood protection. The city must pay 25 percent of the $12.5-million cost of the pre-construction work, work that already would have run out of money if the city had not fronted its entire share of the total.
City Council members Justin Shields and Ann Poe, City Manager Jeff Pomeranz and O’Hern accompanied Corbett to Washington, D.C.
The mayor said the group also met with Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., on FEMA and Corps issues. Kerry and Shields, a longtime Cedar Rapids labor leader, know each other well. In fact, Kerry came to Cedar Rapids to campaign in Shields’ first run for City Council in 2005. Kerry was the Democratic nominee for president in 2004.
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