June 19, 2024

Friendship between 2 Iowa mayors could benefit cities

CEDAR FALLS (AP) — Quentin Hart and Jim Brown have at least one guy they can lean on — each other.

When the two men punched in their first day as the mayors of Waterloo and Cedar Falls, respectively, they started a support group of two.

Both were under 50. Both still had kids at home. Both came with past government experience on elected bodies. Both were practically simultaneously plunked down on top of multi-million-dollar operations for the first time in their lives. And both had critics who were sure they weren’t cut out for the job.

Instead of having their backs to the wall, they had each other’s backs. Instead of being a deer in the headlights, they looked for daylight, and looked to each other.

The friendship is apparent. When Brown sees Hart not wearing a necktie, Brown whips his off so as to not show up his counterpart for a photo shoot.

“He’s a nice guy,” Hart said of Brown when he’s not within earshot.

And they discovered there weren’t gun turrets, barbed wire and a demilitarized zone along Midway Drive between the two cities. They both stuck their head out of the foxhole and found an ally in each other. And the ongoing dialogue may result in long-term dividends for the taxpayers of both communities.

Cooperation between the cities and among local governments in general, isn’t new. It goes back 45 years to the formation of the Iowa Northland Regional Council of Governments. Frank Magsamen, a member of the Black Hawk County Board of Supervisors and a former Waterloo fire chief, said he’s been involved in discussions of intergovernmental cooperation since 2009 with then-Waterloo Mayor Tim Hurley and Cedar Falls Mayor Jon Crews, and later, Waterloo Mayor Buck Clark.

But the friendship that has developed between Hart and Brown, and their shared circumstances, has made the discussions all that much easier.

A “shared services task force” has been meeting for about a year and a half. It involves Hart, Brown, staff support as needed, Magsamen representing the county, Hawkeye Community College President Linda Allen and University of Northern Iowa provost Jim Wohlpart when he served as acting UNI president prior to Mark Nook’s hiring.

Hart said the discussions actually started during the 2015 mayoral campaign, when he and Magsamen, a sitting county supervisor, were both running for mayor.

“We just talked about, regardless of what happened, how could we all bring folks together and work together,” Hart said. “Not that anything’s broke, but how can we do that?”

Several areas of potential cooperation were identified, based on earlier discussions and ideas from a previous blue ribbon task force, INRCOG director Kevin Blanshan was contacted to facilitate the current task force, and Hart reached out to Brown. Invitations also were extended to HCC president Allen and UNI leadership.

“We have the leadership in those areas, and then we see some commonality, we get the staff involved,” Hart said. A wide range of areas of potential cooperation and collaboration are discussed.

“It’s the real deal,” Brown said. “Like the mayor (Hart) mentioned, it could be everything from insurance for physical facilities; health insurance consortium; training; purchasing; public safety; infrastructure.”

It can even be something as simple, but important, as how University Avenue will be reconstructed at Midway Drive between the two cities to ensure a smooth transition for motorists. Cedar Falls is ahead of Waterloo on construction. Waterloo, unlike Cedar Falls, will not have roundabout intersections. Cedar Falls is working near the Midway intersection soon, while Waterloo won’t be there until a later phase of the work.

“It’s a prime example out here,” Brown said, pointing out to University from The Other Place restaurant just inside the Cedar Falls city limits, where the two mayors are meeting for lunch. “Our folks communicate with Waterloo because of the different construction schedules. Regardless, Waterloo’s going to be a year or two (away); on this side, it’s going to be different timing. I know they (staff from both cities) have been talking about how it’s going to blend.

“It’s not as if Cedar Falls is saying, ‘This is it. Deal with it,’” Brown said. “They’re going to be communicated and make sure it’s a good blend and a safe blend here at Midway.”

One major immediate venture — maybe even ahead of University, and coming over the next month — will be coming in the area of wastewater treatment. Both cities are looking at updating a study from the early 1970s, under the administrations of Crews and the late Waterloo Mayor Leo Rooff, on a possible intercity sanitary sewer connection, the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier reported .

“We’re looking now for both councils to support the study,” Brown said. “This study isn’t to go forward. It’s a study to say, ‘Is this plausible, if and when we need to move to this?’”

Cedar Falls has already included $35,000 for its share of the study in the 2018-19 city budget the Cedar Falls City Council approved more than two weeks ago. The Waterloo council will be asked to follow suit later this month. The mayors are envisioning a work session of the Waterloo council with the joint staffs of both cities. Cedar Falls council members would be invited to attend as well.

“It’s not a formal joint session,” Brown said. “I’m just inviting council to show up. This is a very early start.”

The study is not completely out of date; quite the contrary.

“I asked the question ‘It was 40 years ago; is it applicable?’ and the experts in the room said ‘Oh, it is,’” Brown said.

“It’s amazing how folks way back then could take a look at the infrastructure today. It’s still doing fairly well,” Hart said. “There are some changes, there are different developments — their (Highway) 58” development, “our northeast (industrial) site. So it’s time to update it. But it is still very relevant.”

“All they’re doing is piggybacking on the study of ‘73 or ‘74,” Brown said. “What does it look like today? Is it pertinent? Are there going to be huge hurdles? That would have to be a very big consideration if we have to move to something more formal,” whether the cities make that choice themselves or have those decisions foisted up on them by state and federal regulators. It’s an issue both cities, and all cities, have wrestled with individually.

“The thing about any or all of this,” in wastewater treatment or any other area, Hart said, “is it has to be feasible for a community. There may be some areas where it may not be feasible. But we’re asking the questions. We’re having conversation. We’re taking away the politics of it, the emotion of it, and are just asking simple questions. How can we work together on this?”

“The mayor and I have been very candid on this,” Brown added. “In the big picture, it’s the benefit versus the cost and savings. We’re not going to do something because it looks good. We need to see how we can improve and how we can share the savings by sharing the cost. It’s a zero-sum game.”

“Working smarter,” Hart said.

“Nothing’s off the table but we have to start from the premise of feasibility,” Brown said.

Asked if both councils support their discussions, the mayors indicated their proceeding with small, deliberate steps — like the proposed wastewater study update — with plenty of opportunity for discussion.

“First things first,” Hart said. “This will be a good sign.

“It’s probably the prime step. Steps have been taken to go to this prime step — the stakeholders involved, INRCOG, both cities, the county. We want be prepared with questions and answers. I think it’s been done very well in terms of good conversations and good feasibility and now, going to the elected folks to make a decision.”

“Human resources and wastewater have been the primary two (topics) so far,” Hart said. “Wastewater is a monumental task.”

“We’ll still look at procurement,” joint purchasing, maybe some joint training in some areas. “Those are low-hanging fruit to look at. But there still has to be that benefit versus cost and savings. We can talk until we’re blue in the face but it has to make sense. At least the conversations are being had. And that’s important.”

“We’re in the early stages,” Hart said.

And Brown said there has to be long-term buy-in from both cities — beyond either of their tenures — and buy-in from a succession of staff and officials over time for such initiatives to work, not to mention other entities such as the county and schools.

“But I think with all of these conversations, these are real conversations we’re able to have through this shared services committee,” Hart said.

They acknowledge the friendship that has developed between them is an asset in those discussions.

“It makes it that much easier when you have that level of trust, and a friendship and a rapport,” Hart said. “But underlying is thinking about the greater good of our community. He’s taken an oath and I’ve taken an oath to try to move our communities on the best route — to work smarter and work harder.”

They indicated that neither of them, and neither of their cities, can limit their conversations to past conventions of thought, while recognizing and building on the significant accomplishments of those who have gone before.

“The beginning of the friendship was natural,” Brown said. “It was just, here’s someone in the same boat — same age group, wife’s a teacher, kids in school — why wouldn’t we talk to each other? I hear from many individuals, business and civic leaders, that it is refreshing. We’re not going to turn the tables upside down. The friendship’s first and that just happened organically. And in the conversations there’s that low-hanging fruit” of potential areas of cooperation. “And when we get into some heavy stuff — and I don’t know when it would arrive or what topic that would be — we have a better premise from which to have those discussions.”

“We can call and talk about it,” Hart said. “We may not have seen it a certain way. But it’s coming from a good place and we can address whatever those issues are.”