Des Moines and Waterloo Mayors

Iowa Press | Episode
Apr 8, 2022 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie and Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart discuss various issues of importance at the city government level. 

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for The Gazette, and Linh Ta, Des Moines reporter for Axios.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.



State and federal issues impacting communities on the local level. We dive into municipal issues with Mayors Quentin Hart of Waterloo and Frank Cownie of Des Moines on this edition of Iowa Press.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at


For decades Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, April 8th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson. 


Henderson: Our guests today are a couple of Iowa Mayors who make decisions about garbage routes and whether the potholes get fixed. I'm sure that is what they field in questions from constituents a lot of the time. But they have many other issues on their plate. Joining us on this edition of Iowa Press are Quentin Hart, he is the Mayor of Waterloo, just re-elected to a two year term and you are now serving your fourth term as Waterloo's Mayor. Welcome back.

Hart: Thank you.

Henderson: Also at the Iowa Press table, Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie. He is the longest serving Mayor in Des Moines history. He was re-elected in 2019 to his fifth term. Welcome back, Mayor Cownie.

Cownie: Thank you, good to be here.

Henderson: Across the table, Linh Ta of Axios and Erin Murphy of the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

Murphy: So gentlemen, communities like yours have recently been inundated with federal relief funding to help communities recover from the pandemic. And we want to start by asking each of you for some examples of what kind of projects your communities are putting that federal funding towards. So, Mayor Hart, we'll start with you. What's going on in Waterloo as a result of this pandemic relief funding?

Hart: Well, the first thing I want to say, first thank you so much for having me here today. And it has really felt good to have a federal partner that is very supportive of cities as well. We have lobbied hard on the national level to take a look at direct funding that comes to cities so we could figure out the best utilization and ways to use that. And so we've used some of our dollars to actually help backfill some of the monies for appropriate levels of staffing. We're taking a look right now at a broadband fiber system, fiber optic system for the entire city. We've been able to use those dollars for some public safety, for some public safety support as well. So we've used a number of different ways. But the biggest part of what we're planning to do right now with some of our ARPA dollars is to take a look at a fiber optic system for our entire community.

Murphy: Mayor Cownie, what's happening in Des Moines as a result of this federal funding?

Cownie: Well, certainly we're looking at we had some shortfall in funding as a result of the pandemic and so we're looking at how to fill some of those holes whether it's public works projects on infrastructure, streets, bridges, some of those projects. But one of the most important things that we have looked at is we're reaching out actually to our citizens. We know some of the areas that we can spend these dollars. But we want input. What is it that creates a better city for everyone? And we are actually still in the process of getting input from neighborhood groups and individuals to let us know what kind of projects would make a difference in your life to make Des Moines a better place to live, to have a business, to raise a family, to start a business?

Murphy: And to each of you, again Mayor Cownie, how much roughly has -- and I assume these are moving targets -- but how much have you dedicated in that funding? And how much do you still have in that pot to spend in the coming months and years?

Cownie: Well, so we haven't totally committed any of it. But we're looking at -- in other words, we haven't spent any dollars on it other than trying to fill some holes. So we've got in the first trunch I would say probably half of it that we're reaching out and trying to get some feedback and commitment on and then for the second trunch we're hopeful that we're going to get broad support to do a lot of these infrastructure projects around our city. And I'd say that we've still got probably two-thirds of it yet to commit.

Murphy: Out of what was the total number that you were expecting?

Cownie: About $94.8 million give or take.

Murphy: Okay, and you have until 2026. Mayor Hart?

Hart: And it's the same for us. We've used some dollars to be able to backfill some of the expenditures we've had due to the pandemic. But we're also continuing to still plan for our systems. So I would probably say we've used probably a little bit more, a little bit less than two-thirds of our money as well.

Henderson: And what was the total?

Hart: Ours was around $31 million. It shifts every now and then. But $31 to about $32 million dollars.

Henderson: Linh?

Ta: The state's rental assistance program has faced some hiccups and some challenges in doling out money to people who need it. How has that impacted you and your residents at the city level? We'll start with you, Mayor Hart.

Hart: Well, it's unfortunate our city has had challenges with overall evictions and having high percentages of some of our residents being evicted from their houses. Those programs are absolutely important and we have been able to tap into it and utilize some of those assistance dollars. So whatever needs to be done we have tried to do our best to be able to work through some of those challenges.

Henderson: Mayor Cownie?

Cownie: Thanks for asking that question because we, as Mayor Hart said, we have really pushed to get some of that funding to come directly to the cities because as you mentioned some of the state dollars have been kind of slow to be released. We got originally in partnering we took direct funding so the city and the county together, we threw our dollars together and we pushed out about $15 million. And when we had pushed out $15 million, the state had pushed out $6 million. And so then we got a second trunch because we had done it so effectively, pushed us to about $25 million. And so we pushed that out and now it looks like we're going to get some additional state funding that will push us to about $45 million in Polk County and the city of Des Moines. So we're pretty proud of the way that we very quickly, and we think efficiently, pushed that money out to help people because like Mayor Hart we realize there's a lot of people that were really in a tough situation and ready to be evicted and we tried to step in as quickly as possible and I think we've been as effective as anybody in the state in doing that.

Ta: The pandemic has really highlighted the need for affordable housing, like you mentioned Mayor Cownie, but this has been a longstanding issue even prior to COVID-19. What do you both consider affordable housing? And what type of infrastructure would you like to see in your cities to help your residents? We'll start with you, Mayor Hart.

Hart: Well, number two, so what we've done during the pandemic, the city has gone back into strategic planning. We have our 2030 vision plan. Number two in that of our residents is focused on actual housing. We've been taking a look at just actually quality affordable housing within our communities. We've had some landlords that have properties that shouldn't even be available to people. So we've gone back and we put together an internal committee to take a look at the laws and the ordinances that we have on file. Number two, we have worked with local realtors in our community and have formed a grow committee, which focuses on how we could put affordable housing in particular areas within our community. We have created public-private partnerships with Hawkeye Community College, we work with neighborhood organizations to restructure and build new houses in neighborhoods like our Walnut historic restoration project. But we're also working to take a look at outside of the box programs that they're doing around the country and in the state and we just visited Des Moines, Iowa to look at the Invest Des Moines program and some of the work that is being done with your neighborhood financing corps to see if some of these models are models that could fit within our local communities well.

Ta: Mayor Cownie?

Cownie: Well, just to essentially tag on and continue, we have a lot of programs that we're looking at. It is a frustrating experience because we know that with the cost of building and the cost of maintenance and upkeep that it's really hard to find even a $500 or $600 or $700 a month housing for a family. The rents now are running $1000 or whatever. So how do we look at that? And certainly our Invest Des Moines program is trying to help neighbors fix up their houses and make them when they before maybe couldn't afford to keep them up, how can we partner with them? And again, it's the city and our county working together on that Invest DSM and we're having one of those meetings today as a matter of fact to look at how it's working. We've picked out four areas in each of the wards of the city to work that program. We also work with Polk County Housing Trust on affordable housing and certainly try to work through the state to get those low income housing tax credit dollars to invest and do projects in Des Moines that hopefully can provide housing to those that are below the median income of the county. And it is tough work. And one of the other things that we have to do, in my opinion, is to work to see if we can't help each of those families and those individuals get trained up to get better employed, to get better jobs, to seek a brighter future. So it's sort of a combination of a lot of things that we're working on.

Henderson: Mayors, one of the things people do in a city is work and the concept is they work in a place where a lot of people gather. Now this whole work from home concept means that there may be a lot of commercial real estate in both of your communities that is empty. Do you, Mayor Cownie, know what percentage of downtown Des Moines is unoccupied right now?

Cownie: I don't know specifically but I've heard numbers that have been in the 15% to 20% range, which is a lot when you've got millions of square feet in downtown. And what is going to happen? We've heard that some of the larger employers, whether they be banking or insurance or whatever, have rethought how they're going to operate to your model.

Henderson: So then what do you do because property taxes collected on that property will not be collected?

Cownie: Right. And, well they'll be collected as long as they own it. But then what happens after that? I would guess that an insurance company or a bank, which is the strength of our employment in Des Moines being the -- I'll advertise for one second, we're the third largest insurance center in the world -- and so, but even those companies are looking at what they're doing. And we know of one that is downsizing a little bit and is vacating a building. But it looks like there's a number of different entities that are looking at occupying that building and to keep it on the tax rolls. And back to what we are looking at in Des Moines in the larger picture is what makes Des Moines that place where you want to have a business, own a business, start a business, raise a family? And to occupy and support some of those industries that are here that are strong and we think will continue for we hope generations to come.

Henderson: Mayor Hart, do you know what percentage of your commercial property is unoccupied?

Hart: I do not, I do not know that number right now. But I think we've had some of the same challenges that other communities have had, which is part of the reason why number four with our strategic goal is powering up our downtown, bringing all the stakeholders to the table and trying to create out-of-the-box programming to be able to help incentivize and encourage and continue that momentum. We have seen a shift, you take a look at restaurants now where you used to be able to go into a restaurant at noon and have a lunch. Some of our restaurants aren't opening up until 4:00 now. And so it's a challenge that Waterloo is having, probably a lot of other cities. So we need to continue to bring people to the table and think about the best ways to be able to help support them in this time of need.

Murphy: We wanted to ask you both about some tax policy that is happening at the state level and its impact on local governments starting first with earlier this session state legislators passed a sizeable state income tax reduction that will gradually kick up in the coming years. And concerns were raised as that bill was debated over the impact it might have on local governments and might local governments find themselves having to foot the bill at their level by having to increase local property taxes in order to keep their budgets whole. Mayor Cownie, we'll start with you. Do you have that concern about how those state income tax reductions will impact Des Moines' budget?

Cownie: Absolutely. And we've had this kind of concern for a while whether it is income taxes and what we do to have to do it if the state has less money that they can push out to local government and to county government. What is it that we do? We saw it when they lowered the commercial property tax significantly and also the multifamily housing, moving it from commercial to residential. That had a big effect. And what happens is you're balancing that out, unfortunately the residential folks had to pay a larger percentage of it. So we implemented the local option sales tax, which we were kind of slow in doing because it looked like another burden, but when almost everybody else in the state had done it, it seemed like a good option to balance out and so we wouldn't have to raise those property taxes. And so we are very skeptical about what other responsibilities are going to be passed onto local government to fill that hole that is we think maybe going to be created as a result of this.

Henderson: Mayor Hart --

Hart: So always a little bit of cautious. If we take a look historically at the commercial backfill, incredible idea. Over the course of time this was to create this incredible amount of the growth and the cities would realize that benefit. But in actuality, cities are realizing that deficit now because now over five, six, seven years that commercial backfill money cities have to pay. The city of Waterloo I think it was around a couple hundred thousand dollars that we would have had for revenue for our citizens and to be able to have our city operations, now we have to pay that back progressively over the next several years. So the conversation about the local option sales tax, which Mayor Cownie just mentioned, could be something that is very good for our communities. But what happens four or five years from now if there is some type of deficit on the state level? Will those dollars remain for our cities? So very good initiatives starting out, but very leery of what could possibly happen over the next several years.

Murphy: Well yeah, and speaking of the local option sales tax, there is another proposal that would essentially eliminate communities' ability to do that in order to increase the state sales tax and trigger natural resources and recreation funding. I'm curious to get really quick here both of your reactions to that because on one hand you would think it would be a good thing because you're going to get funding for recreation projects in your communities, which we know residents want, but on the other hand as you both have stated there might be concern about whether the state would make good on that promise to backfill that local option sales tax that would go away. Mayor Hart?

Hart: So, as I just said, very good on the surface, but just always taking a look down the road. If things change, will we still be able to be made whole on that one cent local option?

Murphy: Mayor Cownie, what is your thought about that proposal?

Cownie: I second his motion.


Henderson: Okay. Linh?

Ta: Mayor Cownie, the Des Moines City Council just recently approved hiring a third party consultant to analyze the Des Moines Police Department's policies and trainings to try to get national accreditation. What was the driving force behind that?

Cownie: Well, we've seen a lot of things happen over the last two, three, four years and of course obviously when you have your first responders that are so, the city of Des Moines has over 200,000 911 calls a year and so somebody has got to respond to it. But we're looking at should we say accrediting our department and make sure that we are at the top of that national scale on how our department responds, how we equitably treat all of our community and what is it we're doing and we think bringing in that outside consultant and nationally recognized group to do that is the fairest way to do it rather than us do it internally and saying we think this is how we look. I think it's important that we do it. And we're listening to the community and constantly trying to respond to that.

Ta: There's been some accusations of excessive force by residents against the Des Moines Police Department. Was that part of the factor in deciding to hire a consultant?

Cownie: Well, obviously when you get complaints and comments that are like that you need to respond to it. And again, we believe that it's important to get an outside source to help direct that. And hopefully that will assuage a little bit of the uneasiness in the community that it's not just we're looking at it ourselves and saying this is how we're doing. Again, when you look at the number of complaints as you compare it to the 200,000 plus calls that we get a year, they're insignificant, but it doesn't mean that any of them shouldn't be addressed. If there's some behavior that needs to be addressed, there's training that needs to be addressed, there's equity issues that need to be addressed, we need to, I want to have the best policies and the best practices.

Ta: And for both of you briefly, it has been almost two years since the killing of George Floyd. How have your police departments changed since then? Let's start with you, Mayor Hart.

Hart: I probably couldn't be more proud of our department with regards to the 8 Can't Wait and those policies. Out of those that fit our department we have incorporated those into our policy not just for the police department, but actually ordinances, chokeholds, duty to intervene, all of those policies and practices we have put in place. We have also been able to work with the local businessmen to create a $250,000 racial equity fund for trainings for our police department. We have incorporated CIT training, which is crisis intervention training, and partnered with one of our mental health providers that when we have situations we have mental health counselors that go to the scenes of incidents so that we could make sure that we get the correct help in those situations. So we've seen increased participation with regards to citizens giving feedback on criminal activity taking place. So we have a long way to go but we've taken several different steps moving in the right direction I believe.

Henderson: Linh?

Ta: And kind of moving onto another topic. So we've recently seen reports that Afghan refugees who have come to reside in the state have faced issues finding affordable housing and getting basic resources like food, water. Were you aware of some of these issues? And what would you like to see done about it? We'll start with you, Mayor Cownie.

Cownie: Well, obviously we've got to dig deep into a lot of resources and of course we've had some of those in Des Moines with the Food Bank of Iowa and a number of other groups that are doing the best they can and plus we're trying to see what resources are available. Also the faith-based community has stepped up a lot to help. I also want to say, if I could step back for one second, we also are working very closely with Broadlawns on mental health responses to any of those and we're actually putting a person in our 911 call center that is a psychologist trained to analyze what kind of resources we should put at each of those other deals. But back to that, we realize that there's a lot of people whether they are low income now that are present citizens or they are immigrants that are coming from somewhere else, they need a lot of help and we're trying to reach out and partner with all of our resources in our city to help.

Ta: Why do you think they didn't immediately have that when they first came?

Cownie: I'm sorry?

Ta: Why do you believe they didn't immediately have some of those resources when they first came? Was there a delay at the state level? Or were there any issues with --

Henderson: About half a minute left.

Cownie: We feel like we all need to work together, all levels of government need to look whether federal, state, county, local, I think those are the resources and we have to spend a little bit more time together. I don't think we're spending enough time partnering with each other. We're non-partisan. We have to deal with the red party, the blue party, the green party, all the parties, we have to respond to everybody. It's not a partisan issue on the government level that we work at. We need to work together.

Henderson: Gentlemen, thank you for joining Iowa Press again. And if you at home need to watch previous episodes of Iowa Press you can do so at On behalf of everyone here at the network, thanks for watching.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at