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Waterloo city attorney retirement could prove costly

WATERLOO — City Attorney Dave Zellhoefer has warned his employer that his pending departure could be expensive.

Zellhoefer, who is planning to retire Aug. 2, told Waterloo City Council members Monday it may be difficult to find another full-time attorney with experience in municipal law willing to take on the duties he performs.

He urged council members to begin searching for a replacement or consider restructuring the legal department and funding it to a level commensurate with similar Iowa cities.

“You better start advertising,” Zellhoefer said. “You better start putting some feelers out. You better start finding out what’s going on.

“You’re going to need some more money probably,” he added. “You’re going to need more money and more people.”

Zellhoefer, who earns $105,000 a year, has an administrative assistant but no other staff in his office to help cover legal activities, prosecution of municipal infractions and traffic cases and code enforcement oversight.

“There isn’t a (another) city attorney in the state … that also runs code enforcement,” he said.

Before Zellhoefer was hired as a full-time, in-house city attorney in January 2015, the city utilized an outside law firm for much of its work. Longtime City Attorney Jim Walsh was employed on contract, but Zellhoefer and others were hired part-time to handle small claims and traffic court work.

Zellhoefer noted Waterloo’s legal department budget averaged more than $400,000 annually in 2012 and 2013 but has fallen to $256,000 under the current arrangement.

That’s below funding levels in similar cities, he said. Dubuque has a full-time city attorney, two part-time city attorneys, a senior counsel, paralegals and a budget nearing $1 million. Ames has a nearly $800,000 yearly legal budget.

Chief Financial Officer Michelle Weidner has tentatively included an additional $200,000 in next year’s published budget in case the council wants to make major changes in the legal department.

The published budget can be reduced before it is adopted at a planned March 7 budget hearing. But Weidner cautioned council members not to rely solely on legal department budget amount when comparing Waterloo with its peers.

“Different cities organize things differently,” Weidner said. “They might do lobbying or working with lobbyists under their legal department.

“I don’t know that you can necessarily look at just the dollars of a legal budget,” she said. “You need to establish what duties they were doing as well.”

Waterloo, for example, does not include all of its outside contractual legal work in the city attorney’s budget.

The city uses the Ahlers law firm in Des Moines for bond counsel and labor negotiations, running the costs through the finance and human resources departments respectively. Several city departments also use outside attorney Chris Wendland for certain legal work.

Winter roadways, potholes taking a toll on vehicles

WATERLOO — If your car or truck is sitting in a collision shop right now, it’s in good company around northeast Iowa.

With tow bans around northeast Iowa lifted, body shops are seeing more and more vehicles being towed into their shops, adding another layer of woe to winter’s unrelenting weather onslaught.

“It’s been really bad these last few weeks,” said Brad Vaughn, manager of Rydell Collision Center on San Marnan Drive in Waterloo. “This February has been extreme — it seemed like we’ve had a more excessive winter. But winter is always a little busier.”

Normally, Rydell’s body shop sees around 25 to 30 vehicles per week in need of major repairs. Lately, they’ve had 40 to 45 vehicles, and employees are working 10-hour days trying to catch up.

“It has definitely picked up tremendously,” Vaughn said.

The backlog has been caused by a combination of factors besides just more wrecks, however: Truckloads of necessary parts were unable to traverse the roads as normal due to the highway shutdowns over the weekend. Tow bans in several nearby counties at the same time complicated getting vehicles into shops until today.

The most common incidents, Vaughn said, are the “ditch rides,” where vehicles go into the ditch, or sliding into and over curbs in town. Both can mess up suspensions.

But there are worse crashes than that in his shop right now, like vehicles getting T-boned sliding through an intersection, and some rollover crashes.

“The main thing is, drive to the conditions,” Vaughn said. “You might have nice, dry pavement in one spot that then turns to black ice — and that’s where they end up in a problem.”

The extreme weather hasn’t made Community Auto Group Body Shop any busier than normal — “not yet, anyway,” said manager Jason Kitner.

The Waterloo shop is seeing around the same amount of vehicles they usually see this time of year, mostly from fender-benders, he said.

“Ii would say it’s fairly normal this time of year,” Kitner said. “People are holding off on getting their cars repaired until this (weather) gets through.”

Slippery roadways aren’t the only trouble plaguing drivers.

Potholes big and small have sprung up as a normal part of the freeze-thaw cycle, and city crews in Waterloo were already out Tuesday patching up priority routes like Ansborough and Ridgeway avenues, said the city’s operations supervisor Tony Pauley.

Crews use a “cold patch” to fill holes in the pavement, which can take anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes depending on the size of the pothole, Pauley said.

But the weather and the slick roadways put his crews at risk, so they’re only filling potholes where absolutely needed right now.

“I don’t want them to get hit,” Pauley said. “Once the snow melts and the streets get clear, we’ll have every street employee out filling potholes.”

Photos: Latest snowstorm, cold

Under proposed legislation, schools would be allowed to forego hiring nurses


DES MOINES — School districts would be given the flexibility to decide whether to hire full-time school nurses and librarians under a sweeping piece of legislation advanced Tuesday by statehouse Republicans.

The proposal also would eliminate requirements that schools report some health screening measures, which the bill’s supporters say are duplicative.

Amy Sinclair, a Republican from Allerton and chairwoman of the Senate’s education committee, said the proposal’s simple goal is to grant more authority to school boards and other local officials who, she said, know best how to serve the students in their districts.

“We are giving those options back to the school boards, where they rightly belong,” Sinclair said. “This allows them to make the best decisions possible for the kids they serve.”

The bill is opposed by a slew of health care advocacy organizations but supported by groups representing rural school districts and the state’s school boards.

Now, schools are required to gather students’ health screening information from parents. The elimination of that requirement is among the legislation’s many proposals.

School boards requested the elimination of those mandates, according to Emily Piper, a lobbyist for the Iowa Association of School Boards. School boards think the requirement is redundant because health care providers are required to provide that information to the state’s public health department, Piper said.

“Our intention is ... to better focus our attention and our energies,” Piper said.

Sinclair clarified during a legislative meeting on the bill that the proposal does not allow schools to remove the requirement that health screening tests are conducted.

“There’s no elimination of screening or the data collection,” Sinclair said. “It eliminates the schools from being that (data) collection point.”

Herman Quirmbach, a senator from Ames and the top Democrat on the Senate’s education committee, said it is important that schools continue to collect that information because it is easier for parents to work with local school districts than the state, and it’s easier for a school district to reach out to parents than it would be for the state to do the same.

Quirmbach said his concern is if districts do not collect the health screening data, children who do not get those screenings could slip through the cracks.

“The schools need that information,” Quirmbach said. “They’re the most effective at gathering that information. They’re going to be the most effective at making sure that requirement is satisfied.”

Piper said rural districts could be helped by eliminating the requirement that all schools have a full-time nurse and librarian. She said smaller districts may prefer to contract with individuals to perform those duties as needed.

Quirmbach said he would be amenable to a discussion about modifying the requirement and how it applies to some districts, but he opposed the proposal to remove the requirement altogether.

Health care advocacy groups pushed back against the repeal of the requirement that each district employ a nurse, and others testified about the need to have librarians to assist students with their research.

“I can tell you that it’s critical to have a school nurse in every single district, every single day,” said MaryAnn Strawhacker, with the Heartland Area Education Agency.

Sinclair and Jerry Behn, a GOP senator from Boone, approved the legislation, which heads to the full Senate education committee. Quirmbach did not sign off on the bill.


Waterloo faces steep hill to avoid tax hike

WATERLOO — The Waterloo City Council kicked off its budget deliberations this week like a junior high prom.

There were a lot of people talking but nobody ready to dance.

The city has published a proposed budget for a March 7 public hearing that would boost overall property tax collection by $3.2 million, or 8 percent, and raise property tax rate from $17.46 to $18.19 per $1,000 of taxable value.

Few believed the ultimate budget would be that high.

“It’s a huge increase right now in the published budget, done to give us flexibility to choose what we want to do to bring that down,” said Michelle Weidner, the city’s chief financial officer. “I’m assuming that will come down before we certify the budget.”

Published budget documents included numerous requests for additional money for city departments, which gives council members the option to fund those requests. Once a budget is published for hearing, it can’t be increased.

But the five council members who met for more than 90 minutes Tuesday were unable to move the needle before adjourning. There was extensive discussion about a mechanic’s position but no talk about a tax rate target.

Work sessions are scheduled for 5 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday for more deliberations.

Personnel cost increases are a driving factor in the proposed $3.2 million tax hike. That includes about $413,000 for projected wage increases and more than $1 million in health insurance cost hikes.

The published budget includes hiring another police officer requested by Police Chief Dan Trelka; more overtime for the fire department to ensure Fire Station No. 6 is open nearly full time; a new city planning position; and another mechanic to service the city’s vehicle fleet.

Other big ticket items included $200,000 more for the city’s legal department, $60,000 for election expenses next year, $71,600 in additional MET Transit support, and $65,000 for Waterloo Fire Rescue to outsource some of its vehicle maintenance to private garages.

The budget also adds $710,000 to make up for the use of general fund reserves. Because the city balanced its current budget with those reserves, it would need to do the same thing next year or tax to make up the difference.

The city also is projecting a $106,000 bump in principal and interest payments on its debt, although council members have had discussions about reducing this year’s bond issue to avoid that hike.

The published $18.19 per $1,000 tax rate would result in a 6.6 percent increase in the city’s share of a homeowner’s property tax bill next fall. Commercial and industrial property owners would see a 4.2 percent tax increase if that rate is adopted.

Waterloo’s property tax rate has steadily declined since hitting $19.15 per $1,000 in fiscal year 2006. It has not been above $18 per $1,000 since fiscal year 2013.

Mayor Quentin Hart has asked council members to contribute their budget proposals by Thursday. Councilman Pat Morrissey countered that he wanted to hear the mayor’s budget proposals sooner than in previous years.