Editorial Roundup: Iowa

Des Moines Register. March 27, 2022.

Editorial: Progress toward regional water utility gains steam in a victory for central Iowa

The commitment of city and utility leaders to break down obstacles and reject the comfort of the status quo is to be commended.

Plenty of work remains, but a finish line is visible now for a yearslong project to put management of various Des Moines-area water utilities under a single umbrella.

We commend the commitment of city and utility leaders to break down obstacles and reject the comfort of the status quo. Central Iowa Water Works should be better at planning infrastructure needs, solving crises and limiting overhead expenses than the systems that administer independent service now to customers in Des Moines, West Des Moines, Ankeny, Waukee and elsewhere.

While nobody expects providing tap water to get cheaper, officials estimate that cost increases can be mitigated by as much as 10% for Des Moines customers and by considerably higher proportions for suburban residents.

Our editorials often outline different directions we believe the metro or state should take. Instead, this editorial offers a full-throated endorsement of the work metro leaders have done to date and reflects our hope that this example could encourage other regional efforts offering the possibility of better, more efficient services at lesser cost.

Advocates of a regional model have for years noted these prospective benefits and pointed to other services, such as wastewater management, mass transit and recycling collection, that already are handled fully or partly on a regional basis in the metro area.

Such innovations reflect how technical advances and population shifts can make once-sensible structures less desirable. Des Moines Water Works’ history traces back over 150 years, and it has been selling water wholesale to rural suburban utilities for decades. Simultaneously maintaining distinct utilities was justifiable in decades past, but is no longer.

The modern landscape for providing water includes tremendous challenges, some emerging and others growing. The impact of climate change threatens to exacerbate droughts, flooding and water scarcity problems around the globe.

The most obvious challenge in Iowa: River and well water almost always requires intensive and expensive treatment to be safe to drink, mostly because of pollution caused by nutrient runoff from farms. Treatment equipment is a large up-front investment for Des Moines and the other utilities. As early as next year, they could tackle that issue in a more coherent way.

Agricultural runoff is connected with a wrinkle in the history of the regional water discussion. In 2015, Des Moines Water Works filed a lawsuit, which was ultimately unsuccessful, claiming that drainage districts in three northern Iowa counties were funneling high levels of nitrates into the Raccoon River, a primary water source for the utility. Meanwhile, in 2017, state legislators proposed a bill to require a new governing structure for metro-area water utilities. It did not pass, but many observers saw it as a punitive response to the lawsuit.

While the Legislature’s recent habit of meddling in local matters is not generally helpful, the premise of that legislation was correct, regardless of its motivation. And years of work is paying off.

Through the rest of this year, utilities and cities will consider and negotiate a draft agreement, available online, for how Central Iowa Water Works would work. The draft details how officials resolved the hurdle of who owns and administers utilities’ existing assets. Des Moines Water Works and the other entities would continue to exist and be responsible for piping the regional system’s water to their own customers.

We hope that they can iron out questions in time to meet the goal of formal operations beginning July 1, 2023, and that all the 13 invited entities see value in joining Central Iowa Water Works.

Regionalization should not stop there. The Register editorial board has long advocated that cities, counties and other boards and government bodies should join forces to stamp out redundancy and recognize that merged governments can efficiently serve Iowa residents.

For example, Iowa’s 99 counties are arranged so that nobody is ever more than a day’s round-trip buggy ride away from the courthouse. The judicial system has made considerable strides toward divorcing its personnel from county lines and better tying them to where people live, but much more room remains for achieving efficiency in county government. Supervisors and legislators should study the questions involved with more urgency.

Mayors and water board representatives started intense work on Central Iowa Water Works in 2017. The arrangement they have landed on makes sense: It gives suburban customers voice in the governance of the people providing their water, it facilitates more sensible planning for the supply of a vital resource, and it sets an example for how Iowa could be better organized.

Well done!

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Quad-City Times. March 27, 2022.

Editorial: Slow down this train

When the Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern railroads announced plans to merge last fall, the idea that train traffic would triple through the Quad-Cities was alarming to a lot of people.

We’re no less alarmed now.

The two railroads completed their $31 billion merger in December, and the federal Surface Transportation Board is now reviewing the deal. Meanwhile, the railroad has engaged in talks with officials in the Quad-Cities, who have flooded federal regulators with their concerns.

The likelihood of stopping the merger seems small, so officials here hope the railroad will take steps to lessen the impact. But what are the chances? What leverage do our cities have? Railroads are immensely powerful.

Bettendorf Mayor Bob Gallagher Jr. told us last week that overpasses over the tracks and quiet zones that would address many of his concerns would cost $30-35 million.

Canadian Pacific representatives were in the Quad-City area last week, including to meet with Gallagher. And while the mayor wouldn’t tell us what the railroad offered, it’s a safe bet it isn’t close to his asking price.

The fact is, the railroad and cities around here don’t even come close in the way they describe the potential impact of the additional trains, which would increase from roughly 8 per day to 22.

In an op-ed last month, a Canadian Pacific representative assured our readers the average train length of about 8,000 feet (or 1.5 miles) wouldn’t change due to the merger. And, in southeast Iowa, “on average, a typical mainline crossing in any given southeastern Iowa community will have a train moving through less than 4 minutes per hour. Put another way, on average, more than 93 percent of the time, a typical crossing will be open for vehicles.”

Put that way, it doesn’t sound so bad.

But in a letter to regulators in December, Bettendorf had a decidedly different description. It estimated train traffic through the city would grow from 49 minutes per day to 2.5 hours. “This does not account for the trackage rights granted to other companies on the CP line. This additional rail traffic will directly affect homeowners that live near the tracks, commercial business, industrial businesses, and people living in or traveling to the Quad-Cities to enjoy our riverfront.”

Sounds quite a bit different, doesn’t it? Especially if you’re one of those homeowners or businesses located near the tracks, or even if you’re just interested in enjoying a peaceful visit to the riverfront. A letter from Davenport, which has even more crossings than Bettendorf, called the merger’s impacts “real and detrimental.”

The cities in our area say they’re concerned about the ability of police and fire crews to reach homes and businesses on the river side of the track. They also are worried about noise and vibration and the harm it could do to development near the Mississippi River, which after all, is the Quad-Cities’ signature attraction and our economic lifeblood. There also are vital facilities, like a water plant, near the railroad tracks.

Meanwhile, as Davenport City Administrator Corri Spiegel pointed out last week, “If you look at the census tracts that surround the downtown and the west end, quite frankly, those most greatly impacted by an increase in train traffic both from a noise and a potential kind of environmental disaster — any of those things — are predominantly families who are living in poverty and where the majority of our community of color lives.”

This should interest the Biden administration, which has criticized past transportation decisions that have adversely affected minority communities. What about now?

The Surface Transportation Board, which is an independent agency, estimates a draft of its report on the potential impacts of the merger will be ready by spring and finalized in the fall.

The idea the impact to cities and surrounding areas along hundreds of miles can be fully assessed in just a few months is far-fetched. It took years to produce the draft Environmental Impact Statement for just the Interstate-74 bridge project. And this one will be finished in a matter of months?

We’re told the merger probably can’t be stopped, and STB prefers railroads deal with communities rather than getting involved itself. But when the two sides seem so far apart in how they even describe the problem, what are the chances of reaching an agreement that satisfies all concerns?

Make no mistake, the merger’s impact would be dramatic. A tripling of train traffic can’t help but upend the lives of people here and elsewhere.

We implore the Surface Transportation Board to slow down this process. Our elected leaders at the state and federal levels also must join their colleagues in city halls and county courthouses and get more fully involved in this matter.

The railroads laud the merger’s benefits. But what about the impact to people in the Quad-Cities and elsewhere who live near these railroad tracks?

Who will speak for them?

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Dubuque Telegraph-Herald. March 27, 2022.

Editorial: Sunshine state takes steps toward dimming sunshine in government

Florida legislators recently voted in favor of a bill that would change the requirement for government entities to place public notices in local newspapers. If signed into law, local governments would be able to provide the public notice of government meetings, zoning changes and legal proceedings on government websites rather than in local newspapers.

It’s a move that could have broad consequences and strikes at the heart of government transparency.

Public notices cover a variety of subjects and actions — meeting minutes, government expenditures, annual salary summaries, notices of public hearings, unpaid property tax bills and various other items of interest.

Putting this information before the public, through an independent source, assures levels of transparency, accountability and visibility. When these notices appear in local newspapers near other information that citizens are reading, they might spot the notices and spend a few minutes keeping tabs on their local governments’ activities. Some watchdog readers specifically will seek the information out in the pages of the TH.

Similar bills have been introduced in the Iowa Legislature over the last few years, and, thankfully, they have not found traction. Like the Florida bill, proponents propose allowing local governments to post these notices on their own websites.

When was the last time you visited a government website just to check it out and see what’s going on? And if you have done it a time or two, how willing are you to do this every week or so — and, if necessary, to do it for your municipality and your county and your school district?

For government officials wanting to conduct business with the least amount of public attention, we can’t think of any better way — short of concealing the information entirely — than posting it on government websites.

The argument for moving public notices to government websites is about two things: cost savings for local government and (allegedly) accessibility. Proponents suggest government websites are accessible to anyone, while not everyone subscribes to a newspaper.

Here’s the thing: State newspaper associations — including those of Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin — aggregate their members’ public notices on statewide websites — at no additional charge. So, for those who want to access legal notices online, there already exists a means.

As for cost, it’s true that newspapers are paid for placing those notices — and, yes, the Telegraph Herald and other “legal” newspapers have a stake in this issue — but the rates are set by law and, we assure you, are artificially low. With the exception of some very small publications, no newspaper’s survival depends on retaining legal notices.

How much of a financial burden are public notices to local governments (and taxpayers)? A few years back, an Iowa Newspaper Association survey showed that local governments spend about one-twentieth of 1% of their budgets on public notices. Entities needing to cut spending won’t find much savings there.

The nominal savings also would come at the expense of transparency and public accountability. In Iowa, where internet connectivity can be an issue, some rural residents would have virtually no access. How many older residents who have no computer or internet service are going to find a way to see this key government information?

In March, we celebrate Sunshine Week and set aside a week to honor the commitment to accessible government and the public’s right to know. U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, makes a point of offering remarks on the importance of Sunshine Week each year: “I’ve found sunlight deters wrongdoing and strengthens the public trust between the taxpayer and those who hold the purse strings. Secrecy breeds distrust. Conducting the people’s business behind closed doors erodes the public trust. Transparency brings accountability.”

We couldn’t agree more. Citizens who want to retain the convenience and accountability that public notices in their local newspaper provide should tell their state legislators so.

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