The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

[Note: This is the text of a State of the City speech I delivered at a formal meeting of the Iowa City City Council on February 21, 2017.]

Good evening, friends. It’s my great honor to present this year’s State of the City address.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way”.

Although Charles Dickens wrote those words for a different place and time, they resonate with our experience in 2016. We had a year filled with good news and great progress, but also a year that ended with an array of traumatic challenges.

Let’s first celebrate the best of the year, beginning with quick overview.

Iowa City has been experiencing an unprecedented construction boom.

It has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country at 2.4%, just half the national average.

The City’s property tax levy declined for the 5th straight year while the City also maintained its Aaa Moody’s bond rating.

The city’s cultural core continued to pulse with life due primarily to the University, the Englert, the City of Literature, Film Scene, the Summer of the Arts, the Juneteenth and Pride Festivals, and many others.

And the city continued to be blessed with thousands of residents who strongly believe in the value of democratic governance, and who enact that belief by serving on our many boards and commissions and by participating in a broad array of not-for-profit organizations including the League of Women Voters, Friends of Historic Preservation, the Chamber of Commerce, the Center for Worker Justice, Shelter House, the Downtown District, the Rotary Club, the Affordable Housing Coalition, and many others.

Your City Council and staff have also been very productive.

We adopted a new Strategic Plan. It established seven priority areas of action, which collectively intend to foster a more inclusive, just, and sustainable city. While we still have quite a way to go, I am very pleased with what we have accomplished so far.

The first Priority calls for the City to “promote a strong and resilient economy.” I am happy to report that the city has witnessed a tremendous amount of new construction over the past year. In 2016, 794 building permits were issued at a total value of slightly over $388M. This reflects a very big jump over 2015 when 645 permits valued at $138M were issued. The University opened its new Hancher Auditorium, Voxman Music Building, Art Building, and will soon open the Stead Family Children’s Hospital. Construction of The Rise at Linn and Court, the Hilton Garden Inn, The Chauncey, several projects in the Riverfront Crossings District, and many other smaller but important projects is well underway. The School District’s new Alexander Elementary school completed its first full year, and the new Hoover Elementary is not far behind. The completed 1st Avenue grade separation project is proving to be a resounding success. Major improvements to Washington St. downtown were all but finished, and substantial progress was made on the flood-related Gateway Project and new Park Road bridge.

As part of this effort to ensure our local economy remains strong and resilient, we have also been working with the County to strengthen the local food sector. By providing additional community garden space, holding nutrition education programs in local neighborhood parks, and supplementing the Farmer’s Market effort to “Double Up Food Bucks,” we are introducing local fresh foods to a new audience. And, as many of you remember, last summer’s “Farm to Street” dinner with locally-grown dishes prepared by local chefs was a delightful way to spend an evening.

Additionally, we have taken major steps toward updating our economic development and Tax Increment Financing policies. One update requires that 15% of residential units must be affordable in any new project that requests TIF support. After receiving advice from over 60 diverse stakeholders, we are also very close to recommending other specific changes to our TIF policies.

Priority 2 encourages “building a vibrant and walkable urban core,” and Priority 3 seeks to “foster healthy neighborhoods throughout the city.” Last year the City hosted nationally-recognized experts such as Jeff Speck and Jay Walljasper to facilitate discussions about best practices for community design and walkable cities. And we hired a nationally respected urban design firm headed by Dan Parolak to help us prepare new development standards for the Northside and Alexander Elementary neighborhoods.

We also took major steps towards improving the bicycling and pedestrian experience. We set a goal of raising our bike-friendly status from silver to gold by the end of this year and ultimately achieving platinum status. We began updating the City’s Bicycle Master Plan so that we could expand our systems, increase accessibility, and ensure that traveling within and between neighborhoods is safe and easy. Street projects such as the ones on 1st Avenue and S. Sycamore included substantially improved infrastructure for bicycling. And let’s not forget the hugely successful UCI Cyclo-Cross World Cup race, which was held here last September and televised internationally.

To foster healthy neighborhoods throughout the city, we have also been making major investments in our neighborhood and community parks. These investments include playground installations and improvements at Highland and Mercer Parks, along with ones planned for Cardigan, Frauenholtz-Miller and Pleasant Hill Parks this spring. The Parks Department and Parks & Recreation Commission completed their Master Park Plan, which also addresses ADA accessibility at park facilities. The City’s first tree inventory is underway. It will help us sustain and develop our urban forest and be more strategic in responding to the Emerald Ash Borer infestation.

Priority 4 seeks to “maintain a solid financial foundation” for the City’s operations. The very good news is that our Aaa bond rating continues, and that the City is secure enough financially for our proposed FY18 Budget to reduce the City’s property tax levy for the 6th straight year, this time by 25 cents.

We have also been increasing our emergency fund so that we can respond effectively to natural disasters and periods of financial distress. We are acutely aware that the State Legislature might eliminate promised “backfill” payments for commercial and industrial property tax cuts enacted in 2013. Preparing for this possibility enables us to avoid or alleviate possible adverse impacts, such as service cuts or increases in the tax levy.

Our 5th Priority is to “Enhance Community Engagement and Intergovernmental Relations.” We have tried very hard to improve collaborative relationships with other local governments, and we have improved our ability to connect with diverse parts of the Iowa City community. As part of this effort, City Councilors conducted 5 listening posts in diverse parts of the city, and I took 5 “Mayor’s Walks” through our city’s neighborhoods. Our City staff dramatically improved its public outreach efforts through Cable Channel 4 and other media, including televising Council work sessions. And we hired a new Community Outreach Officer in the Police Department.

The 6th Priority, “promoting environmental sustainability,” is woven throughout our Strategic Plan. In addition to the bike amenities and plans mentioned earlier, City staff put on a Monarch butterfly festival and various educational conservation programs, created an edible classroom with Backyard Abundance, and introduced improvements to the City’s recycling and solid waste programs. For the first time, the Parks and Recreation Department gave itself a “Million Gallon Challenge” to conserve water, and we exceeded the goal by saving over 1.5 million gallons. Staff also integrated the STAR Community Rating program into the City’s Budget, which allows us to quickly analyze our status with regard to specific sustainability measures.

We also initiated an ambitious Climate Action and Adaptation Planning effort by taking three steps: first, we adopted the challenging goals of reducing carbon emissions 26% by 2026 and 80% by 2050; second, we are on the verge of hiring a consultant to advise us about how we can achieve those goals; and, third, we created a Climate Action Plan Steering Committee, which will play a major role in building community support for key climate-related actions.

Not many issues have gained more attention recently than the concerns of social justice and racial equity. These concerns are the subject of our 7th Priority.

To promote social justice and respond to the pressures our residents feel in finding housing they can afford, we approved a comprehensive Affordable Housing Action Plan. This Action Plan intends to improve the overall affordability of housing in the city, to increase the supply of housing that low-to-moderate income households can afford, and to help the School District achieve better socio-economic balance among its schools. City staff issued construction permits for 1,080 new dwelling units. We adopted a new “Inclusionary Housing” ordinance for the Riverfront Crossings District, and we adopted an ordinance which will facilitate establishment of a new “Housing First” facility for chronically homeless individuals. We allocated $500K to the Johnson County Housing Trust Fund. We also authorized transition payments for former tenants of Rose Oaks Apartments who had been displaced unexpectedly by the new owner’s desire to renovate that complex. Through various measures, not only are we diversifying affordable housing geographically but also by housing type.

In addition to these housing affordability efforts, we also initiated use of a Racial and Socioeconomic Equity Toolkit within five City departments on a one-year trial basis, and we empowered our Human Rights Commission to recommend how to allocate funds contained in our new Social Justice and Racial Equity Grant Program.

Our Police Department hired a new Community Outreach Officer and three new black officers. This will improve the Department’s ability to serve and protect the city’s diverse neighborhoods and ensure that our city remains a safe and welcoming place for all its residents. Furthermore, having recently hired a new Police Chief, we can now respond more fully to disproportionality in police contacts and arrests.

Considered as a whole, this set of 7 priorities constitutes a pretty ambitious agenda. Achieving them requires that we provide sufficient resources through our budgeting process.  Tonight, we will be setting the date for a public hearing on our proposed budget for FY18 and our 5-year Capital Improvements Program.

In addition to reducing the City’s property tax levy by 25 cents, the proposed budget allocates $650K to the Affordable Housing Fund, and provides funds to restore parts of the Englert Theater and to preserve elements of Film Scene’s existing operation. It provides funds to compete work on developing Form Based Codes for the Northside and Alexander neighborhoods. It provides funds to conduct an Emerald Ash Borer Response Plan and to improve our neighborhood parks. It continues the very successful UniverCity program with up to 5 new units per year. It assigns $150K for complete street improvements, and increases the annual pavement rehabilitation budget to $1.5M. And, of course, the Budget provides funds to complete work on the Gateway Project

Due to the success of new programs this year, the proposed budget also increases funding in several areas, including from $100K to $150K for carbon emission reduction projects, from $25K to $30K for a local foods project, and $40K for a new residential historic preservation assistance program. The Capital Improvements Program also includes funds for streetscape improvements and a tunnel for pedestrians along S. Riverside Dr., further development of Riverfront Crossings Park, reconfiguring the intersection of Clinton and Burlington Streets, and converting part of Clinton St. to a 3-lane street with bike lanes. In 2018, we will begin work on Phase I of a new public works facility on Sand Road, and will begin making important incremental changes to downtown’s Pedestrian Mall.

Let me turn now to the second half of the Dickens quotation.

In a January 2016 op-ed for The Gazette, I wrote, “we are not completely the masters of our own fate. We will encounter unexpected events.” Sure enough, we have had to respond to several such events, including the departures of our City Manager, Police Chief, and City Clerk. The good news is that we were able to hire an a truly outstanding young City Manager, an impressive new Chief of Police, a terrific new Assistant City Manager and Director of Parks & Recreation, and to recruit a highly-respected individual to become our next City Clerk.

But the political context for our work will be quite different in 2017.

Few observers anticipated the outcome of last November’s election. That election consolidated political control in the hands of one political party, the priorities of which are quite different from those of our Council. Consequently, we must adjust to new realities without losing our moral compass.

Already we have seen the new President issue an array of executive orders concerning immigration and refugees that undermine the values that have made Iowa City such a great place to live: openness, diversity, inclusivity and creativity. Thousands of immigrants, refugees, non-Christians, and others are especially at risk, and we stand in solidarity with them.

Already we have seen the State Legislature approve new legislation that tramples upon the long-established rights of public employees to have a say in their working conditions. Hundreds of dedicated men and women work hard for the people of our city, and we fully support them.

No doubt there will be more executive orders and legislation that run directly counter to our objectives. Despite this somewhat discouraging prediction, I take heart in the ability of our Council and staff to carefully weigh options before us, adjust quickly to adverse circumstances and unexpected opportunities, and do what is best for the people of Iowa City.

But we cannot do this alone. We will need help from all of you, especially with regard to protecting the most vulnerable of our residents. Acting together, we can—and will—ensure that this city we love continues to thrive long into the future.

Thank you.

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