Cedar Rapids, Linn County seek collaboration on spending $72M in federal COVID-19 relief funds

A worker Thursday welds tiebacks for concrete forms into place as construction continues on the foundation of a flood wall near the intersection of First Avenue SE and First St. SE in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Funding for flood control on the west side of the Cedar River is one of the many areas the city and county could cooperate in spending federal COVID-19 relief funds. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Old disagreements between Cedar Rapids and Linn County’s elected leaders remain in the background as the officials consider how they might spend a combined $72 million in federal COVID-19 stimulus funds, but the influx of cash has stirred hopes that they will set aside their old wounds to maximize the good this money can do for the community.

The city of Cedar Rapids and Linn County are each examining ways to allocate their shares of $28 million and $44 million, respectively, in funding from the federal $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act. The stimulus package envisions an equitable economic recovery by uplifting vulnerable populations — including people of color, immigrants and low-wage workers — who disproportionately grappled with the toll of the virus’ spread.

These municipalities are pursuing collaboration despite a history of having a “rocky road” relationship, as local activists put it. The Gazette has reported on previous disputes between the elected bodies, when the county sought money from the city for a youth violence initiative or when city officials have sought funds from the county for flood control. Council members also have bristled at supervisors’ declared support for candidates in city elections.

This long-standing friction begs the question: For the American Rescue Plan funding, will the elected officials come together?

People listen to a speaker sharing ideas July 13 for the use of American Rescue Plan funds at a City Council meeting at Cedar Rapids City Hall. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

So far, Cedar Rapids officials have identified four areas to fund: Affordable housing and social services, workforce training and education, west side flood control and public sector revenue loss. Staff identified those “buckets” through communication with service providers and post-derecho outreach efforts, some of which involved going door-to-door in low- to moderate-income neighborhoods.

Work on the Czech Village underground floodgate is nearly completed Thursday. Cedar Rapids city officials say they’re collaborating with Linn County on how to allocate pandemic relief funding — possibly on flood control projects but also possibly on affordable housing and other initiatives. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Linn County officials have not committed yet to any specific uses of the funds while they have pursued a public outreach process of forums and an online survey.

The federal government directly allocates these funds to all counties. Cedar Rapids is receiving a direct allocation because its population exceeds 50,000, while cities below that level receive their shares through the state.

In the coming months, the city and county plan to launch a competitive request-for-proposals process so community organizations and not-for-profits can apply for funds to pursue a project that meets requirements.

That opens up an opportunity for the city and county to collaborate and leverage their separate allocations and pool at least some of them together on mutually beneficial projects.

City seeks ‘greater impact’

City officials point to the facts that Cedar Rapids makes up nearly 60 percent of Linn County’s population, and many service providers that seek to meet needs such as food and housing insecurity are based in the city, as reasons it makes sense to collaborate.

Plus, as City Council member Scott Overland, chair of the council’s Finance and Administrative Services Committee, put it, Cedar Rapids is the “job engine” and industrial center of the county. Mayor Brad Hart said he sees a number of potential Cedar Rapids projects as fair game for collaboration.

The old sticking point of flood protection is top of mind for him and other city officials, as county facilities such as the courthouse and jail are located near the Cedar River and would benefit from the city’s construction of a segment of its permanent $750 million Flood Control System.

Another possibility to identify a permanent west side library location as a hub for services has come up. The Ladd Library operates in leased space at 3750 Williams Blvd. SW. Hart noted people from around the county, not just Cedar Rapids residents, use the city libraries, which makes it seem like another potential fit for a collaborative project.

Three advocacy groups — Sunrise Movement, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Advocates for Social Justice — also have joined forces to push for $10 million to go toward building affordable housing with net-zero carbon emissions, keeping that proposal at the forefront for both governments as well.

“My expectation was never that the county would be spending all of its ARP funds solely in Cedar Rapids,” Hart said. “These are just projects that … at least a general if not a specific ask has been out there for a long time.”

Council member Scott Olson, who has engaged in discussions over American Rescue Plan allocations, said the city and county expect some of the same groups to seek funding through the request for proposals.

Teaming up to award some of each municipality’s funds to certain projects could help make a greater impact, especially in the areas of homelessness, affordable housing and flood control — all areas where there is some overlap, Olson said.

There has been some verbal consensus to collaboration on those issues, he added, and he hoped to see representatives from each government together when it comes time to vote on these joint projects.

“We can do more projects together than by each of us trying to do them alone,” Olson said.

The sooner Cedar Rapids and Linn County determine where they can work together, Overland said, the better off all people will be.

For instance, the city recently allocated $1 million in relief funds toward the PATCH program — a collaborative initiative administered by local organizations to repair housing damaged in last summer’s derecho. The impending arrival of winter weather will be an obstacle to making repairs, Overland said, so it wouldn’t have done any good to delay that contribution.

A volunteer helps fix skirting on a mobile home in the wake of the Aug. 10, 2020, derecho as part of a Matthew 25 team working on the PATCH program. Cedar Rapids earlier this year allocated $1 million in pandemic relief funds to the program. (Courtesy Matthew 25)

“As far as if we can pull money for certain priorities, it gives us a better idea of what direction those are going to go in and you can have a greater impact if you’re putting your money together,” Overland said.

He and Hart hoped for continued collaboration, but not at the expense of providing swift aid to the community if a decision came to that point.

“If it looks like there’s a stalemate, then I would be in favor of the city moving forward so we get this money out and get it put to use as quickly as possible,” Hart said.

Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart speaks at a July 8 news conference to announce funds awarded to the city and county as part of the American Rescue Plan at Beems Auditorium in the Cedar Rapids Public Library. Linn County Supervisor Ben Rogers, left, is the point person in talks with the city over collaborating on how to use the aid. Cedar Rapids is receiving $28 million and Linn County is receiving $44 million. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

‘We are Linn County’

While county officials remain open to collaboration, they are carefully approaching working in tandem with Cedar Rapids as they say they also want to keep in mind the other 17 cities within their jurisdiction.

County Supervisor Ben Rogers, who is running point on American Rescue Plan funding discussions with Cedar Rapids leaders along with county staff, said early on each entity sought to coordinate similar processes for allocating funds and discuss where they could make the greatest impact.

He identified affordable housing, establishing a permanent overflow shelter and other human service projects that could accelerate existing work or provide more flexibility to implement a new service. Rogers also raised the possibility of flood protection as a likely collaboration point.

“We plan on finding projects in which we have shared mutual interests and areas where we can collaborate on projects,” Rogers said.

Linn County communities will have equal opportunity to apply for a share of the funds, he noted, “and then we’ll go through the process of figuring out where the dollars can best be targeted, best be spent and have maximum impact.”

Supervisor Stacey Walker said it is in the best interests of all people for government entities to collaborate.

But for Walker, chair of the three-member board, that collaboration comes with some caution: “I want to be really, really careful about not overcommitting funding to any one particular municipality before we’ve heard from all communities and all organizations,” he said. “We’ve really got to be careful about that. We are Linn County, and we have an obligation to every resident of this county.”

Walker said he wanted to ensure the allocations do not fund “too many special government projects,” but declined to delve into hypothetical “pet projects.” These funds ought to be invested in people, Walker said, and that takes spending time on a public outreach process to do it right and equitably.

“That’s why you’re hearing a lot of push back from me about any of these preconceived notions that we’ll be working with one city more than other communities,” Walker said.

The city and county are designed to function differently, Rogers noted, with cities focused on matters such as economic development and counties responsible for human services.

“We all have our areas of focus, but I think that there’s a lot of opportunity for multiple entities to really make a big difference, whether it’s an economic development or mental health or other human services that can really assist people in need,” Rogers said. “That’s what I’m most excited about, and excited that there’s 70-plus million dollars available that I hope every penny gets spent and stays in the community.”

Maximizing ‘public good’

The advocates urging to use this “public money for the public good” say it is promising to see that city and county officials are consistently meeting to determine how to leverage American Rescue Plan funds.

“There’s just been a lot of rocky road situations with the city and the county in the past and difficulty working together, and I think the fact that they’re having regular meetings with the city and the county on this is really going to make it all more intersectional and blanketing this good for the whole area,” said Ayla Boylen, leader of the Sunrise Movement’s Cedar Rapids hub.

Advocates have met with some city and county officials to push for their affordable housing proposal, and attended some council meetings not to protest but to keep the focus on helping the most vulnerable community members who are struggling with the impacts of COVID-19 and last summer’s derecho.

Coe College student Harold Walehwa, an Advocates for Social Justice member, said it seems officials’ minds are in the right place in terms of centering equity and helping people, so “making sure no one’s forgotten is the main thing.”

“Hopefully they’re doing some things in those meetings and we’ll be able to see that they’re able to collaborate on a lot … to make sure the most people are able to be helped,” Walehwa said.

They have primarily aimed advocacy at the city, but Boylen said the advocates are looking for the county to contribute to their $10 million affordable housing request or to help fund more affordable housing units in surrounding cities.

Boylen hoped that elected officials understand the urgency of making these allocations because it takes years to build new housing developments or to rehabilitate existing ones. And a federal ban on evictions has expired, removing that safety net from people who have struggled to keep up with rent payments during the pandemic.

The city’s recent PATCH program contribution was a promising step, Boylen said. Now, Boylen said, municipalities will have to bridge access gaps to ensure people who need help actually receive it.

“There’s going to be people that slip through the cracks, and they’re going to need alternatives,” Boylen said.

To seek rent, mortgage or utility assistance, or to apply for the PATCH program, contact Waypoint Services at 319-366-7999. More information about PATCH also is available at ecicog.org/patch.html.

Comments: (319) 398-8494; marissa.payne@thegazette.com