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Neighbors Growing Together | Nov 18, 2017

Franchise fee debacle offers lessons for state

Dec 08, 2016

Des Moines Register, Dec. 1

Franchise fee debacle offers lessons for state

 

Des Moines residents are finally receiving refunds from a franchise fee wrongly imposed on their utility bills. The average household will receive a few hundred dollars, marking an end to a legal, financial, bureaucratic nightmare that dragged on for more than a decade. And it's important for Iowans to understand what happened so government bodies avoid making a similar mistake in the future.

As allowed by state law, Des Moines collected franchise fees from gas and electric bills since 1960. In 2004 and 2005, the city increased the fee to maintain services and reduce property tax. Beaverdale neighborhood resident Lisa Kragnes sued, alleging the action was illegal and urging the city not to proceed with the increase.

Des Moines proceeded anyway. The lawsuit was certified as a class action on behalf of all ratepayers. The city lost in court and was ordered to refund a portion of the fee paid between 2004 and 2009, the year the Iowa Legislature changed the law, legalizing the higher fee imposed by Des Moines.

Since money doesn't grow on trees, the city issued bonds to cover the $40 million cost of the judgment. To pay off the bonds, voters approved a referendum in 2014 raising the existing franchise fee. The irony of customers paying more to bankroll their own refunds is lost on no one. Especially painful is paying other costs related to the mess, including $7.5 million to lawyers, $650,000 to a third-party administrator distributing refunds and $7,500 to Kragnes.

If city officials had known how a single lawsuit would snowball, they likely would have immediately halted the fee. Except no one ever knows how a legal challenge will turn out and both sides always think they're right.

The Iowa Department of Transportation might want to take note of that.

According to a court filing this month seeking class-action status, the state agency has illegally issued more than 20,000 traffic tickets. The lawsuit alleges the DOT is obligated to refund the fines and remove the wrongful convictions from motorists' records.

The court filing builds on a legal battle launched earlier this year after a DOT officer issued a speeding ticket to a teenage driver. Peyton Atzen, a student at Southeast Polk High School, and his family successfully argued in Polk County District Court that Iowa law limits officers outside the state's public safety department from enforcing most moving violations. The ticket was dismissed. Two more motorists filed a request for a court injunction against the state, arguing their tickets were illegally issued and the DOT should immediately stop issuing most citations to noncommercial motor vehicles. Now the plaintiffs seek class-action status.

If the lawsuit is successful, the state could be on the hook to repay millions of dollars in fines and court costs.

Des Moines learned an expensive lesson in continuing a practice being challenged in court. The Iowa DOT might want to take that into consideration in considering its next move.

Franchise fees make sense

The lengthy ordeal in Des Moines may have left Iowans with a bad feeling about franchise fees. But imposing fees on utilities is a fair way to distribute the cost of government services.

Nearly 40 percent of property in Des Moines is exempt from property tax while benefiting from services that include police and fire protection. When churches, schools, medical facilities and others don't contribute to the public purse via taxation, homeowners and businesses pay more to compensate. Franchise fees ensure everyone using utilities within the city share in the expenses of a city.

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Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. Nov. 30

Gaming grants are an asset to the community

 

Since 2007, the Black Hawk County Gaming Association has awarded millions of dollars to hundreds of projects across the Cedar Valley. It has been an incredible infusion of funding for a variety of recipients, and we are fortunate to have this supplemental funding source.

The BHCGA holds the gaming license for the Isle Casino Hotel Waterloo and receives 5.75 percent of the casino's gross receipts to distribute to nonprofit and public projects each quarter.

Last week, another round of grants was announced. The two largest included landscaping for the University Avenue reconstruction in Cedar Falls and a Korean War exhibit at the Grout Museum District.

The association awarded $450,000 to the city of Cedar Falls for the University Avenue reconstruction now underway, which will help cover pedestrian and bicycle safety and accessibility improvements.

That will include plantings, benches, bus shelters, sidewalk-trail connections, bike racks, brick pavers and trash cans. The landscaping grant applies to the entire length of the project.

The roadway is a popular connecting link between Waterloo and Cedar Falls and includes a wide variety of business operations. It's heavily used by residents and is one of the most visible roads for visitors to the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area. It's a grant we believe makes the Cedar Valley stronger by enhancing public facilities.

The gaming association awarded $210,000 to the Grout for a Korean War history exhibit. Major elements will be incorporated into the permanent Korean War exhibit within the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum. The Grout will use the funds to expand oral history projects to include more Korean War veterans from all over the state.

The Grout video-records veterans telling their stories for a permanent record, and we hope this project helps state residents learn more about the conflict that is often referred to as the Forgotten War.

The Gaming Association also awarded the following grants:

$17,669 to Friends of Fontana Park for a winter bird wildlife display building at Fontana Park & Interpretive Nature Center near Hazleton in Buchanan County.

$12,000 to Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy Center of Waterloo for a program called Refugee Empowered Access to Community Health that will train interpreters in the health care system so they can better aid Burmese refugees.

$3,781 to the city of Hudson for a fire department boiler system.

For nearly nine years, this arrangement has benefited the Cedar Valley by funding capital improvements, making charitable contributions and helping fund programs and projects that would otherwise rely more heavily on tax dollars.

Each quarter, the 16-member volunteer board reviews and ranks grant applications. While the primary focus is Black Hawk County, grants also have supported projects in many outlying areas across seven counties.

It places an emphasis on proposals that enhance public facilities; create, replace or upgrade substantial capital items; or create new opportunities where none now exist.

We appreciate this stream of funding provided by the BHCGA, and we recognize the hard work of the board in prioritizing projects in need of funding. Along the way, we have seen what these contributions can help accomplish. This granting source has been a great asset to the communities within the Cedar Valley.

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Sioux City Journal. November 30, 2016

Give glass recycling change a chance


We didn't support ending curbside collection of glass recyclables and beginning collection of glass at drop-off locations, but we didn't get our way.

Still, because we believe in the overall value and importance of recycling, we urge our community to get behind this change and make it work.

The discussion began because Van's Sanitation and Recycling of Le Mars wanted to eliminate glass from the recyclables it processes for the city. As a result, the city studied several alternatives, including a change to Millennium Recycling of Sioux Falls, which would have resulted in an additional cost to residents of 55 to 60 cents per month on water/sewer/ garbage bills. We backed the Millennium Recycling option because we did not view the extra 55 to 60 cents per month as prohibitive.

However, the City Council on Nov. 21 gave final approval to an alternative to curbside collection of glass. Beginning Thursday, Dec. 1, the city no longer will accept glass in curbside recycling. Later in the month, glass recycling drop-off bins will be installed for public use at the Fareway grocery stores at 4016 Indian Hills Drive and 4040 War Eagle Drive and the Hy-Vee grocery stores on Hamilton Boulevard, Gordon Drive and Sergeant Road. Another location will be available at the city's transfer station, 5800 28th St.

When each bin fills up, Gill Hauling Inc. will transport the glass to the transfer station for storage in a concrete bunker. Once the bunker fills, Kansas City-based Ripple Glass will collect the glass and transport it to its facility.

As we have said before, we fear some residents who currently recycle glass won't take the time to find and travel to a glass drop-off site because it will be easier to throw glass in the garbage. Convenience is a valuable recycling incentive and curbside collection is the ultimate convenience.

However, for the long-term life of the local landfill and the long-term good of the environment, we urge residents to resist this temptation and embrace and make the best of the drop-off sites. In other words, we encourage everyone to give them a chance.

"I think it's extremely important to our community and to the nation as a whole that we really step up recycling," Councilman Dan Moore said at the Nov. 21 meeting.

We agree with Moore. We do not wish to see this change drive down voluntary participation in the city's recycling program; if anything, we wish to see an increase in the number of residents who recycle.

Why?

Because recycling is, simply put, the right thing to do.

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Quad-City Times. December 2, 2016

Getting the riverfront debate right


It's all about the process. And, this time, Mayor Frank Klipsch and Davenport City Council got it right.

Things didn't look great in August for proponents of transparency. That's when Klipsch floated the idea of putting private organizations, groups outside of sunshine laws, in charge of riverfont development.

But Klipsch saw the light. Realizing that every Davenport citizen had a vested interest in the riverfront's future, he assembled a public advisory group of Levee commissioners, Parks and Recreation officials and City Council members to accept redevelopment proposals. That group moved a proposal, offered by heavyweight Restoration St. Louis, to the full City Council.

And, on Tuesday night, in the open, the council killed the proposal.

This is how government should work.

There are two sides to Restoration's failed pitch, which hinged on keeping Rhythm City Casino's barge moored along the riverfront. The proposed brew pub built atop the barge would have been immune to regular floods, rising and failing with the river itself. But, as dissenters rightly noted, the barge would also detract from the viewscape in direct opposition to the much-loved RiverVision planning guidance.

RiverVision isn't some edict from on high. It's not even a zoning document. It's merely a rough framework. Yet, after more than a decade, deviating from RiverVision could have whittled support from groups that spent so much time and effort debating, drafting and tweaking the guidance over the years.

The council, in its rejection of Restoration's plan, sided with a global idea over a singular development.

But good government was the real winner Tuesday night. Klipsch's penchant for consensus building has, at times, proved to be as much a weakness as a strength. This time, he didn't dawdle or try to be everyone's friend. Klipsch put his foot down and provided targeted leadership.

City Council, too, looked to move beyond its recent past of closed-door "work sessions" with the well-connected.

The process completed Tuesday night gives reason for optimism. By most measures, it was open. In most instances, it was transparent. Sure, it took a column on this page to get Restoration's actual proposal released, but previous administrations would have doubled-down on the obfuscation. This one reacted by releasing information, a posture that, barring specific exemptions in Iowa's Freedom of Information Act, should be the default for every government body.

Transparency ultimately proved its value by propelling the council's rejection of Restoration's plan. Several City Council members cited criticisms voiced by constituents who had reviewed the firm's renderings in detail. It's the kind of feedback made only by an informed, engaged public.

Klipsch looks to be growing into his role and realizing that any good politician will make enemies. City staff defaulted to openness when questioned. And the City Council hashed out its decision in front of a crowd of interested citizens.

It might be back to the drawing board at the riverfront. But City Hall looks to be constructing an environment of transparency, and that's of far greater import than any one redevelopment project.

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