New federal funding for Cedar Rapids flood protection is much smaller than politicians claim

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Workers add dirt to a levee on the riverfront near the Penford Products plant on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. — photo by Lauren Shotwell.

As Cedar Rapids prepared for the Cedar River to crest at “major flood level” on Sunday, Pat Rynard of Iowa Starting Line reported on quiet worries about the loudly celebrated $117 million in federal funding for the city’s flood control project announced in July.

On Wednesday, Rynard published a story on an Aug. 8 letter from City Rapids Mayor Brad Hart and City Manager Jeff Pomeranz to Rep. Rod Blum, regarding their “grave concern” that $41 million, or 35 percent, of $117 million will be a low-interest loan that must be paid back over 30 years.

Hart and Pomeranz said they had been under the impression the whole $117 million would be a grant awarded to the city as “emergency recovery dollars,” but had only been recently informed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that Cedar Rapids would only get $76 million as a grant.

“Obviously, this represents a lower federal funding award than was previously announced,” Hart and Pomeranz said. They asked for Blum’s “strong support in securing the full amount $117 million as announced on July 5, 2018.”

As you know, Cedar Rapids is still facing a funding gap of approximately $342 million, which will fall on the shoulders of our residents and businesses. Receiving the full $117 million is inherent and critical to the project’s completion and success in protecting Cedar Rapids from another devastating disaster.

In a July 5 press release, Blum never said anything about a loan: “I am pleased to inform you that we are receiving $117 million to complete the Cedar Rapids Flood Project. I have worked hard to ensure Cedar Rapids receives the needed federal funds to secure and protect the City of Five Seasons from future flooding disasters.”

Nor did Blum mention it during a July 27 appearance at event in Peosta, Iowa, featuring President Trump. Trump brought up the $117 million in his introduction of Blum, during which he momentarily forgot Blum’s first name.

“I’d like to maybe have Matt Blum speak next, because he’s been so incredible in so many ways,” Trump said. “He fights so hard, he loves his state, he loves his people.”

After a brief attack on Abby Finkenauer, the Democrat running for Blum’s seat, Trump gave Blum credit for securing funding for Cedar Rapids flood control.

“He came to me recently about a flood wall. And that’s a big deal.” Trump said, looking to Blum for confirmation.

“Big deal, big deal,” Blum confirmed.

“How much money did you get?” Trump asked.

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“117 million,” Blum said.

“117 million,” Trump repeated, “If somebody else had come, they wouldn’t have got, they would have got $2. But he got $117 million. And it’s going well, right? Is it going well?”

“Absolutely,” Blum replied.

The same letter, with names swapped out, was also sent to Sen. Joni Ernst and Sen. Chuck Grassley. As Rynard noted, “Cedar Rapids threw a ‘Flood Control Thank You Celebration’ for Blum, Ernst and Grassley on August 8. City officials, however, learned of the $41 million loan change just before the event, sending the urgent letter” to the offices of all three members of Congress.

In a story following up on Iowa Starting Line’s publication of the Blum letter, The Gazette explained,

The federal influx was seen as major boost, especially since hopes for federal aid had begun to wane after years of receiving no funding following the $5.4 billion in damage and loss after the 2008 flood. The $117 million amount — announced by Ernst, R-Red Oak, Blum, R-Dubuque, and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds — was far greater than previous project outlines, which put the federal commitment in the $70 million to $80 million range.

The July 5 statement Grassley’s office put out on $117 million contained a link to an Army Corps of Engineers report that described than 35 percent as of the funds as a loan.

According to The Gazette, Blum acknowledged after the Aug. 8 celebration was over that more than a third of the federal funds he had just be celebrating would be a loan.

“It’s complicated — of course it is — it’s government,” Blum told a reporter that day. “It can’t be simple, right?”

In an update to his story, Rynard pointed out that Blum was still boasting about the $117 million, without noting any complications, after his Aug. 8 admission. In an official taxpayer-funded congressional mailer — as opposed to a campaign mailer — that reached Cedar Rapids residents on Aug. 13, Blum said, “I was pleased that we secured $117 million from the federal government to complete the flood wall project.”

“A spokesperson for Blum declined to comment on Wednesday,” The Gazette reported. “Pomeranz also declined to comment, and Hart did not return a message on Wednesday.”

Ernst’s spokeswoman Liz Bowman did not address the differing figures, but in a statement said, “This level of federal support for Cedar Rapids is something to celebrate. The previous administration had years to provide federal funds for the Cedar Rapids flood control project, after it was authorized in 2014.”

According to the most recent update from the city of Cedar Rapids, “The Cedar River is currently projected to crest Sunday at 17 feet, which is considered major flood stage.” On its flooding information site, the city said it currently has “protection measures in place against a crest of 18 feet,” and “is prepared to quickly increase protection to 20 feet.”

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