Iowa Legislative Issues

Nov 10, 2017  | 27 min  | Ep 4510 | Podcast


The front lines of government policy are often at your nearby city council. We sit down with a pair of Iowa Mayors for a municipal perspective on issues ranging from water quality to race to economic growth. The Mayors of Des Moines and Waterloo on this edition of Iowa Press.

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For decades, Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa Public Television, this is the Friday, November 10th edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.    

Yepsen: When Iowa legislators make their annual January pilgrimage to Des Moines next year the usual talk of government and policy and politics will ensue. Often laws passed under the Golden Dome have real life consequences in the cities and towns across Iowa. For example, property tax changes my cause havoc on a city's budget and traffic camera bans can siphon off income for a nearby town. Here to discuss the most pressing municipal issues in Iowa, we have gathered a pair of leaders with a City Hall perspective, Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie and Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart. Gentlemen, welcome to Iowa Press and Iowa Public Television. Good to have you back with us.

Thank you.

Great to be here.

Yepsen: Across the table, Jason Noble is Chief Political Writer for the Des Moines Register and Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Gentlemen, there is a debate going on in Iowa that seems to pit rural Iowa against urban Iowa and it involves water quality. Mr. Cownie, what is the prescription for resolving this debate so that urban water users get clean water and farmers aren't put out of business?

Cownie: Well, I think that my perspective from the beginning has been that all Iowans, whether they're rural, they're suburban, they're urban are concerned about the quality of water in the state of Iowa. We all have to drink water, our livestock has to drink water, it's the future of Iowa. And it needs to be protected. How we get there I think is a source of part of the debate. But I think that we need to keep it front and center and make sure that we protect all sources of water whether it be in the aquifer or whether it be surface waters.

Henderson: So what do you expect legislators to do?

Cownie: Well, their debate last year was around the Des Moines Water Works but that really is not the issue. There was a lawsuit about the enforcement of the Clean Water Act and of course all cities and towns of our size and our size including Waterloo, we have to meet certain standards, EPA standards. And the question was whether or not anybody else had to abide by those rules out in the hinterlands. But nevertheless, we have been trying to work with legislators on that side and we're working with our neighbors in the suburbs to whom the Des Moines Water Works sells water to deal with regional water quality and how we work collaboratively moving forward.

Yepsen: Mayor Hart, what is the situation in Waterloo with water quality?

Hart: Well, it's not the same situation for right now. Our Waterloo Water Works of course is doing a great job. Some of the challenges that we've had comes with some of our waste and the ability for us to be able to partner with some of the local communities around us to be able to handle that. We've had situations where the DNR has come in and tried to make sure that we do certain things with the waste that we have. So we have set up a task force, a shared services task force locally within the Cedar Valley, within Waterloo, to see how we can partner, to see how we can work together, maybe not for the water portion of it, but when it comes to our waste and moving forward with some of the necessary changes we have to make.

Yepsen: Do you have issues with the legislature that you need resolved? Mayor Cownie was talking about the water, how about waste?

Hart: We have a lot of changes that we need to make to our plant. But the ability for us to be able to partner, the ability to be able to find resources, the ability to be able to find funding if we move to the portion of regionalization for some of those areas, that would be very much helpful. Sometimes the cities receive mandates that come from the state level and we have to respond to those. And we're talking about multimillion dollar changes whether it is reducing the nitrates within our plant or whatever it is. But those are really, really big changes that need to be made in some of our systems. And so it is forcing us to work with, just like Des Moines, to work with those communities around us and kind of think about regionalization on certain areas.

Noble: There is a national conversation happening right now about policing and race relations in this country. How would you characterize, Mayor Hart, race relations in the city of Waterloo?

Hart: Well, I always say the biggest room that we have is the room for improvement. We're not perfect. But with regards to police and law enforcement we made some significant changes since I became Mayor. We have worked with our law enforcement to work on implicit bias training. We formulated a foundation to make sure we're doing community policing activities. We put together programs and platforms, 2.0 Reaching for Respect. We have been working with our school systems so that we can make sure that, number one in this relationship, that we're working to build up trust. From that point of building up trust we have been able to see in the city of Waterloo that the overall crime rate has dropped about 30% over the course of the last four or five years. So right now we're dealing a little bit with some of the stigma that has been happening from years before, but Waterloo is becoming one of the safest cities in the state of Iowa. And if you take a look at the overall statistics for the top 10 cities those numbers and our numbers with regard to criminal activity has dropped. So we're not perfect, we have mental health challenges within our community and our police departments being able to know how to particularly identify and see symptoms and then that way that will help us with the correct enforcement for those that are in that position.

Noble: Mayor Cownie, what are you seeing in Des Moines?

Cownie: Well, we have done many of the same things that Waterloo has done and we've got a great police chief who has reached out to the community in so many different ways to try to have a good relationship between the Des Moines Police Department and the neighborhoods whether it's faith based, whether it's youth based, whether it's gender based, race based, whatever it is he is reaching out and trying to work very closely with the community. He's got a number of programs that we have worked on for a long time with not only this chief but previous chiefs, a second chance program for minor offenders that shouldn't have their lives impacted forever and a day by petty theft or break and entry or something like that and give them a chance to do other things. And he even, instead of run from the police he started a police run and they say, run with the police, and we have a lot of programs like that and work in East High School, for instance, our community ambassadors go out and serve breakfast one day a week and reach out to the youth and let them know we're there and we're here to support.

Henderson: Mayor Hart mentioned the crime rate in Waterloo. There are people who are concerned about the murder rate in Des Moines. What can you tell people who are concerned about murders in places like church parking lots?

Cownie: That's a tough one. We have seen a spike in those types of crimes in Des Moines this year and it's interesting that all of them seem to be relationship based. They all have known each other for one means or another. The church parking lot incident was one that we would not have anticipated. But it was, as near as we can tell, was a debate to begin with over a dowry on an arranged marriage from some immigrant population and in the parking lot after midnight there was a shooting. A horrible tragedy and those are things that we in Des Moines as we look at diversity and look at our population and knowing how diverse Des Moines, Iowa has been, what has happened over the last 20 or 30 or 40 years, and look at the population of the school district, when you see that countries of origin, almost 70 different countries of origin in the schools and they speak over 100 languages and dialects in the schools, it's something that we have to learn about and we're working on it very, very hard.

Yepsen: Mayor Hart, you're the first African-American to be elected Mayor of Waterloo. I want you to think a larger question, as long as we're sort of on this general topical area. What is the state of race relations in Iowa? What do you see around the state? You mentioned what you see in your city. But what about around the state? What is the state of race relations?

Hart: Well, the interesting part, if you take a look at Iowa in 2000 and you take a look at Iowa right now it is completely changing. We have immigrants and other residents that are moving in from throughout the world. And so it's forcing Iowa to take an approach, and yes diversity is happening, but it's forcing us to take the approach to talk about inclusion and making sure that every resident, every immigrant that comes to the state that we're putting in programs and opportunities to help them to be able to participate as much as they can. When we take a look at some of our immigrants come from countries where they were doctors, where they were welders and they have various skills but sometimes those skills aren't acknowledged within our educational system and them having the experience they need. So it's forcing Waterloo, it's forcing the rest of the state to not just talk about diversity but making sure they're included in the conversations we have. One program in particular I want to highlight is the I-BEST program that is with Hawkeye Community College. And that program works with English language learners and it also provides them with a particular type of skill to be able to earn a livable wage once they complete the program because we don't want to get to the point where we create a permanent underclass. We want everyone to be successful.

Yepsen: You mentioned immigrants. Talking about sanctuary cities is a big debate around the country. Mayor Hart, Waterloo going to be a sanctuary city?

Hart: That's a good question and one that was just asked on NPR a little while ago, or IPR. But the question is, what exactly does that mean? There's different variations, different bullet points on being able to achieve that. Right now our focus is to learn how to be a more welcoming community and help provide opportunities to those that come within our city. When we take a look at the fact that job growth that is going to happen within the city of Waterloo, we're talking about next year or so, a couple of years, about 8,000 or so jobs. And our population is to expand probably about 3,000 to 4,000. Then who is going to fill that gap with regards to that? We need trained people that have the opportunities afforded to them to be able to participate in our workforce and create that promise that we all have to be successful here.

Yepsen: And Mayor Cownie, quickly update on where that issue stands in the city of Des Moines?

Cownie: The city of Des Moines, we have looked very hard at the issue and have talked to all kinds of people in and around the cities, the neighborhoods, faith based communities and we have gone out and stated that we are very supportive of anybody in the city of Des Moines and we want them to be protected, we want them to have as much benefit from all the areas of activity in and around Des Moines. We don't want to separate anybody because of the color of their skin, their religion, the way they dress, their language. We want everybody to know that we're going to protect them and we're going to be compassionate about our work doing that.

Yepsen: But you avoid the label sanctuary city.

Cownie: We chose compassion.

Noble: Mayor Cownie, as you know in 2013 lawmakers passed a tax reform that included some payments from the states, from the state back to cities to offset lower property tax collections. There has been talk now about scaling back those payments from the state to cities. What would that mean for a city like Des Moines?

Cownie: Well, not just Des Moines but I think cities all around the state. There was a promise when they reduced the commercial property taxes that there was going to be a perpetual backfill and former Governor Branstad fulfilled that promise. What it's going to mean moving forward given the condition of the state and their budget and what they have done with their fund balance we'll see what happens. We hope that they continue to fulfill that promise. But we have to also think about what might happen if they don't.

Noble: Mayor Hart, have you gamed this out in Waterloo?

Hart: Absolutely. When you talk about the Iowa League of Cities, the governing mayors and municipalities of this state, when you talk about the Metro Coalition, this is our number one priority, to make sure that that backfill is honored. You're talking about $1.7 to $1.8 million that will be added to our city budgets. That is almost unbearable and that is 25 full-time, 25 to 30 full-time positions, 78%, 79% of our overall general fund budget is public safety and so we're talking about jobs being lost, we're talking about the safety of our communities. It would be great to see the anecdotal evidence that we're all growing at that same rate, but we absolutely have to have that backfill.

Noble: So if the state doesn't uphold its end of the bargain what are the options for Waterloo?

Hart: About 25 positions. Our goal over the last eight to ten years, we reduced our levee rate, we have been great fiduciary agents and partners with the state, we have done what we needed to do, we're just asking for the same thing, for that promise to be kept to us, regardless if you're a new legislator or not, whether it was set a while ago and you weren't here then, we need that honored because that is tough on the backs of hardworking citizens.

Henderson: The Iowa legislature passed a law which undid the local ordinances which raised property, minimum wage rates in counties like Polk County. Mayor Cownie, what would be your message to legislators about that kind of state policy in regards to decisions made at the local level?

Cownie: Well, I think that every city and town has their own set of circumstances and we work with Polk County pretty hard to look at the possibility of raising minimum wage within the city of Des Moines. We have as a Council and I pushed it forward, we think that the minimum wage for anybody that works full-time for the city ought to be $15 an hour. We were somewhat disappointed by the state when they rolled back Polk County's decision to move to $8.75 last year and $9.75 in '18 and $10.75 and said apparently $7.25 is good enough. I will tell you just in retrospect as I look back anybody that makes $7.25 an hour qualifies for almost any and every low income opportunity in Des Moines including free and reduced lunches in the schools.

Henderson: Mayor Hart?

Hart: I agree with the same statements.

Henderson: The legislature also legalized the sale of fireworks and cities were preempted from forbidding the sale. Ordinances have sprung up around the state regarding when you may explode these fireworks in your community. What has been the debate in Waterloo about fireworks?

Hart: Well, we actually shrunk down the time that you're able to do it. We went about five days. I think it was the 30th of June to July 4th. So we were a little bit more stringent in that ordinance. But the calls into public safety have far exceeded what we thought they would be, any accidents that happen. So we're going to take another look at this ordinance to see if we want to siphon that down a little bit more. But we wanted to wait at least until we got past this week.

Yepsen: Gentlemen, we have way too many questions and not enough time. Jason?

Noble: Mayor Cownie, there has been sort of this rolling epidemic across the country of opioid abuse. What are you seeing in Des Moines? And what aid do you want to see from the state of Iowa to address the scourge of opioids?

Cownie: We would like to see any and all help that they can legally through legislation and other actions. One of the things that is a little scary is what is going to happen to health insurance and all the things that we need to help support people that have a problem with those in terms of law enforcement and what it is that we have to do. We need the strictest of laws possible to help us and our public safety people reduce the risk of opioids, get them off the street and have penalties that are pretty severe to curtail it.

Yepsen: Mayor Hart, you're nodding your head in agreement.

Hart: Absolutely, absolutely. And it has an impact on so many different people, even from personal family and friends' experience. So prevention is excellent, increasing enforcement, but also making sure we help those to change their lives.

Noble: Are those resources available? Do you have the resources in Waterloo, in Des Moines to get people into the treatment they need?

Hart: I don't believe there is enough money, enough opportunity to be able to have the right amount of treatment. So hopefully, and on the national level with the Conference of Mayors and other national organizations we're working with to try to find some more funding and opportunities to help people in our communities.

Henderson: You mentioned mental health in regards to policing. What do you do in Waterloo to find adequate care for people who need mental health services?

Hart: Well, that has also been a challenge that has been impacted on the state level as well. We recently had an incident within the last year someone with severe mental health challenges and having access to a gun. We were able to diffuse that person and it could have been a more tragic situation. But the training that we have for our officers and our community, continuing to make sure that people have access to that is highly important when the resources ae limited. But we've just got to pool our partner agencies together again and work on that.

Noble: Mayor Cownie?

Cownie: Funding has been tucked back in the mental health area and it is really a huge issue and a huge problem because there's a lot of people with mental health issues and the agencies in and around Des Moines that are out there trying to support their funding has been cut back from the state on many different areas. And I've got to tell you that I've talked to some of the people that work for those agencies, they have had their salaries cut, they have had staff cuts and they have an ever increasing number of people that are seeking the services. So it's a huge problem.

Yepsen: Another issue that is going to be coming up in the legislative session is the issue of tax incentives, tax credits. Legislators are saying we can't afford all these tax breaks. What do you, Mayor Hart, what do you think?

Hart: I'm absolutely in favor of attracting business but I'm also in favor of smart growth and smart opportunity. So when we leverage that with the overall corporate backfill and we leverage that with our opportunities within our local communities to attract business with tax incentives or increment financing we just have to have smart growth, we have to balance that with jobs and opportunity.

Yepsen: Mayor Cownie, is this a tool you need in the toolbox? Or should the legislature put some limits on this?

Cownie: I think the legislature should put some limits on it. Iowa is known as generally speaking 15% less expensive for a corporation to operate in the state of Iowa than on average across the country. I think it's quality of life that draws businesses and people to want to live in Iowa. Iowa is a great place to be whether it's rural or suburban or urban. We have good work ethic, good quality of workers and I don't think tax incentives are what is going to make the future for Iowa.

Yepsen: Mayor Hart?

Hart: For areas within our city we have been able to utilize some of these tools to jumpstart economic development in areas that have been challenged like our Logan Avenue corridor hadn't seen growth in a long time. So it's about smart growth, smart opportunity and smart usage. But we have been able to jumpstart communities that haven't seen development in 40 and 50 years.

Henderson: Mayor Cownie, a lot of people had expected you to run for Congress at some point in your career. Has that, is that water under the bridge? Or is that still a possibility?

Cownie: Well, I appreciate the ask but I've got to tell you, I feel like every single day in the jobs that Quentin and I have we can get something done. I can help somebody, I get a call from a citizen whether it's fill a pothole or work on a public safety issue or improve a park or improve their quality of life. And I feel like I can get a lot more done here and I have spent a lot of time trying to work with people in Washington and it's always waiting for the next session, waiting for an appropriation, waiting for something. But I've got to tell you, at the local government level it's kind of fun because every single day nobody wants to hear they're going to wait two years to fill a pothole.

Yepsen: Mayor Hart, we've got just a minute. You're running unopposed so you must be doing something right in Waterloo. What is your political aspiration?

Hart: My political aspiration to be completely honest, I was born and raised in the city of Waterloo, so my aspirations right now are to be the best Mayor that I can possibly be. There's things that we need to take care of and I have the opportunity every day, I don't say I go to work, every morning I say I get to go to work. So we have a lot of things that need to be taken care of and that is first and foremost.

Yepsen: Waterloo is the known as the city that keeps its mayors around for a while. Would you like to do that too?

Hart: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. I love the city of Waterloo. I love the Cedar Valley.

Yepsen: Great. Gentlemen, thank you both. Appreciate you taking time to be with us today.

Thank you.

Yepsen: Thanks for joining our latest edition of Iowa Press. We'll be back next week with another program and our guest, Congressman Dave Loebsack, the lone democrat in Iowa's Washington delegation. Catch us Friday night at 7:30 and Sunday at Noon on our main IPTV channel. Iowa Press also rebroadcasts on our .3 World channel Saturday mornings at 8:30. For all of us here at Iowa Public Television, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa Bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.       

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