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"Big Picture" Instead of "Big Bull"...and more PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Editorials
Wednesday, 06 September 2000 18:00
All of the Quad Cities are facing a federal mandate to fully implement citywide stormwater management systems by 2007. Moline just approved a utility fee to cover the cost of its system, and that will be the path most likely taken by the other area municipalities because there is no room in current budgets for such a substantial expenditure. In Moline, the average household will have a quarterly bill of approximately $4. Commercial properties will pay a significantly larger portion of the cost due to their larger share of “impervious” land (meaning more of their property is under roof or concrete).

This mandate has been issued by the Environmental Protection Agency and applies to all cities in America. Phase I included the larger metropolises, while Phase II includes cities with populations over 50,000 and was initiated this year. Plans must be designed by 2003, and full operational by 2007. Yet no one but Moline appears to be dealing with this tremendous obligation. Or at least they aren’t publicly debating it.

Meanwhile, city leaders are suggesting that we bond to capacity (remember the “big bull” theory?) and get some major capital improvements completed to “better our city.” However, to do that, we will have to suck it up for a property tax increase of somewhere in the neighborhood of 10% for an additional $25 million in bonding, which will put the City at approximately 75% of its entire bonding capacity, considered by city finance to be the lid.

But what will that leverage, exactly? Street repairs? What streets, how much, and what percentage of the $25 million does it represent? Sewer repairs? We have an initial estimate of sewer projects at the cost of about $96 million, and that does not include all the newly identified sewer trouble where raw “effluent” is running into homes. So, how much will sewers take of the $25 million? The renovation of John O’Donnell? Well, that depends on which estimate you consider. If we include flood protection and skyboxes, $13 million is the round number. Personally, I would like a head count of those who would use skyboxes at John O’Donnell for minor-league baseball. We could back off that kind of over-improvement and simply bring the stadium to professional standards and be done with it, but still it would be anywhere from $3 million-$5 million. The relocation of the Davenport Museum Art is a $6.5 million investment, and we’ve already accounted for half of it in the next fiscal budget. So we need to cover the other half, which is the best money we will ever leverage with a private partnership, considering the private sector is bringing nearly $24 million to the table. That is a deal we cannot say no to and has the very real potential of turning Davenport’s downtown back into the flagship it used to be. Parking ramps appear to be a done deal and the City should be commended for getting that priority launched because one improvement like this will leverage other, privately funded investment in downtown. However, what are the estimated costs of two ramps? The City is going to spend approximately $680,000 in design fees as recommended by the Rich Study that will include 1,076 spaces. A new police department building is already in the budget four to five years down the road, yet we could speed it up, but at what cost? How much is the EPA mandate going to cost? The list goes on and on.

And what about the Trust and Agency Fund, the one that will be bankrupt soon, but is the fund from which all city employee benefits are paid? Options to replenish the fund are limited and include some kind of tax or fee increase as the only possible means to restore it. Add these together and it is no longer just a 10% property tax increase. It is a whole hell of a lot more, so we all need to get on the same comprehensive page. We need a “big picture” versus a “big bull” approach to these very real community needs and obligations. Once we understand all the costs and options for financing them, we can at least get a handle on what the community’s threshold for increased taxes and/or fees truly is.

Governor Vilsack: The Makings of a President?
Two weekends ago, I attended a small fundraiser for a handful of Scott County Democratic candidates running for various State offices. Governor Tom Vilsack was the keynote speaker at this informal gathering before the evening’s larger fundraising event. I have had the pleasure of observing Vilsack on several occasions in similar environments, where he appears more comfortable and approachable because he is eye-to-eye with his constituency. I sincerely believe that Governor Vilsack has the makings of a president. He is genuine, articulate, confident, appealing, humorous, intensely committed, motivated by “common rather than special interests,” and he can rouse the spirit, to name a few of the prerequisites.

The most important point he made during his oration was to emphasize how powerful we are as Americans because we have the freedom to participate in the political process—to directly impact the direction of our future. Vilsack spoke of the “sacred duty” Americans have to participate in that process by “good people getting involved” and exercising our power to influence our country’s political decisions.

Finally, the Governor reminded us of the countless men and women who have died fighting to establish and preserve America’s freedom to dictate our own destiny. Vilsack challenged Iowans to use our collective voice to raise the standards by which our state accomplishes its goals of superior education, attracting high-paying, quality industry and jobs, increasing cultural and recreational opportunities, integrating technology with our most valuable resources (such as our rich soil), so that our young people stay in Iowa and continue the tradition of quality of life, intimacy of family and friends, and of peace and productivity.

Vilsack has vision enough to see that each of us individually contributes his/her part to the “power” that creates change, to the energy that defines progress. Such “power” translates across borders and soon the excellence of Iowa could reflect the standards by which America measures itself as a whole. Pretty lofty stuff, but hugely inspiring, especially when considering the truth of it. Right now, in America as much as anywhere, a small percentage of people control our destiny because we allow it by not voting, by ignoring issues unless they directly affect us, by buying into the mainstream theme that individually we are powerless. In Scott County alone, only 11% voted on the last Davenport School District referendum regarding the local sales tax option. In November’s last local election, less than half the public bothered to vote. But if each of us considered it our sacred duty to vote, to get involved with politics enough to at least make our individual vote an informed one, imagine the power we would collectively wield. It is staggering to contemplate. But it is also exciting. Nowhere on Earth are people so privileged or so honor bound to participate politically to maintain such incomparable freedom—a privilege that cost so many Americans, our families, their very lives to protect for us. Caring about this single matter, particularly voting, is a huge step in taking back our country from special interests and returning it to the collective interests of all Americans.

New Powers for Mayor and Administrator
Most of the seven new members of the Davenport City Council claimed that if they were elected, they would do some housecleaning at City Hall, especially where City Administrator Jim Pierce was concerned. After six months of waffling on the issue, they finally gathered enough muster for a quasi-evaluation of Pierce’s job performance. Whereupon they realized they really had no criteria for such an evaluation. Which set them to the task of creating criteria by which to evaluate the job performance of the city administrator, be it Pierce or whomever. Which actually caused the evaluation to be postponed for six months. After which, they will reconvene to evaluate Pierce via the newly devised performance criteria. For which Pierce should be able to buy even more time now that he’ll be privy to precisely what his job criteria is—something he should have known from the day he was hired, if not before.

Meanwhile, the Council is considering broadening the city administrator’s authority by giving him the ability to hire and fire his own department heads. Pierce claims he has no teeth in his position because he cannot hold departmental heads accountable. Yet, he argues, the council holds him accountable for their actions—a predicament to say the least.

The way it is currently structured, the council has authority over the entire upper management staff. If a department head is questionable, he/she need only persuade four of the ten alderman of his/her satisfactory performance because a dismissal requires a supermajority vote of seven aldermen. If the city administrator is given authority over the departments, then they are answerable to him/her, not necessarily the council. A clause for council review is also being considered, but a vote would not be necessary to hire or fire a staff manager.

Also under consideration is an ordinance giving the mayor the authority over the city administrator, giving the mayor a stronger position within city government. If the public were dissatisfied with the city administrator, they could look to the mayor for a change, rather than try to convince seven aldermen. However, it is a lot of oversight to place in the hands of just a few individuals and the potential for abuse is great.

In Bettendorf, the city enjoys the same strong council/weak mayor form of government. The difference appears to be in the relationship between the city administrator and the mayor, as well as the administrator and the staff. There is a constant stream of communication flowing between the three, then back through the administrator to the council, which in turn communicates to the public. It appears to work smoothly for the most part. But that strong connection between the administrator and the mayor is key. I am not sure whether or not the city administrator in Bettendorf has the authority to hire or fire department heads, but I am sure that if there were problems, the combined weight of the administrator and the mayor would be no small measure of influence with the council. Trust and credibility are the two major components of success in this model. They are commanded through competence, communication, and concern for others’ points of view. Team efforts are critical and respect for the public is at the heart of it all.

If I were the CEO of an organization, but had no authority over the managers under me, and I was accountable to the board of directors for their actions, I am sure I would be seriously hamstrung. So I can appreciate Mr. Pierce’s situation. However, he is the newcomer, and if he has not been able to be an effective leader even under these circumstances, then what can be expected if he is able to suddenly clean house? Before this ordinance is passed, the council needs to look hard at the problems and determine what the real causes and effects are, rather than looking for a quick fix that simply allows them to shift the responsibility elsewhere.

Vacant Lot Stands for Empty Promises
A final word must be said about the editorial staff of the QC Times. It would be remarkable if just once they could convey an original thought or opinion about a community issue. Last Sunday’s drivel on the Sugarbowl is just further confirmation that they relentlessly cater to special interests. The saying, "You are known by the company you keep" illustrates the editorial staff's predictible disregard for serious and meaningful public debate, and the civic battles against government officials who operate with impunity.

The fact is people at City Hall didn’t “feel” betrayed, they were betrayed by the Davenport School District. Had any member of the editorial staff bothered to read the briefs submitted as arguments, they would have seen the stacked deck. At least I think they would have—the blinders worn by this group of writers appear to be getting ever narrower. The Historic Preservation Commission was given the authority to govern and protect our historic resources. They made a deal with the DSD to do exactly that and the DSD flatly reneged. It had nothing to do with money and everything to do with politics and egos run amok. The previous council had an obligation to deny the DSD’s appeal for demolition because the DSD did not prove financial hardship. But they wanted to make sure they gave the community the finger as they left office, and their final action approving the “compromise resolution” was their way of doing so. When the Sugarbowl comes down, the vacant lot will represent the empty promises of the DSD, and the final disgrace of the previous city council. It will emphasize the underhanded tactics, the bullying, and the dishonor that the DSD demonstrated throughout this entire ordeal. And it will now also stand as a reminder that predictable parroting is the only opining that the QC Times’ editorial staff is capable of.
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