Des Moines leaders eye regional cooperation on housing, broadband, water quality

The Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority, or DART, is run jointly by Des Moines area local governments. (Photo courtesy of DART)

Des Moines area political and business leaders are pushing for more cooperation in regional efforts, perhaps including work on affordable housing, library services, broadband service and economic development. 

Many of the local leaders who attended a Taxpayers Association of Central Iowa virtual forum this week supported building on regional efforts already in place. Among those in attendance were representatives of Pleasant Hill, Clive, West Des Moines, local businesses and area agencies. 

“If you are having a heart attack, you don’t care if it says Clive or Urbandale or West Des Moines on the side of the truck,” said Clive City Council member John Edwards. 

Taxpayers association President Art Wittmack said local cities may find ways to save money through learning from past mistakes and looking for shared goals that future agreements can address. 

“I think it’s helpful, not in terms of criticism but in terms of how we can improve,” Wittmack said. “And I think that’s what the effort is all about, finding those things about which we have an agreement, regionally, and in forcefully working through those.

“We’re all proud of our communities, and very passionate about our schools, and libraries,” Wittmack said. “Nevertheless, there are some ways we can do it more effectively or efficiently.”

Various combinations of Des Moines and its suburbs have cooperated on fire protection, library services, drinking water service, pet licensing, mass transit, cultural programs and an area sewage system. 

Much of that work has come through intergovernmental agreements. 

The Greater Des Moines Partnership, itself a regional effort, has stressed the cooperation and accessibility of local governments as a selling point for the area. Catch Des Moines, the local convention and visitors bureau, also acts regionally. 

Though the Des Moines market has the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Metro Waste Authority  and a variety of informal boards of mayors and other elected officials, local residents have not supported the idea of a full-fledged metro government. So leaders have focused on smaller joint ventures. 

Local voters soundly defeated a 2004 referendum to create a metro government. But in the aftermath of the failed campaign, local leaders later created Bravo Greater Des Moines, widely considered one of the area’s success stories in metro cooperation. The cultural organization is supported by hotel-motel taxes from member local governments. 

On the other hand, two boards of area local governments, the Central Iowa Regional Association of Local Governments in 1980 and the Central Iowa Employment and Training Consortium in 2006, each disbanded over allegations of misuse of federal funds, noted Clive City Council member Susan Judkins, a strong supporter of new regional efforts on water quality and other issues.  

West Des Moines has at times expressed concern with the financial fairness of metropolitan efforts, as it did when the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority revamped its board in recent years to give more power to member cities across the county. 

At the taxpayers’ meeting, West Des Moines Councilman Russ Trimble said it is important to make sure the cost-benefit analysis makes the agreements good for all communities involved. Affordable housing would be best done if it is spread throughout the area, for example, for example, he said. 

“I think this is very important,” Trimble said. “The partnerships that we do are really helping us be the most efficient, and we possibly can save taxpayer dollars.”

Eric Burmeister, executive director of the Polk County Housing Trust Fund, said the area’s critical shortage of affordable housing would be a good topic for future sessions of the group. 

“The need for affordable and moderately priced housing, both rental and owned, in the next 20 years is really pressing based on the kinds of job projections that were made two years ago and frankly are coming through to fruition,” Burmeister said. 

With jobs at local fulfillment centers and other new developments often offering $15 to $20 an hour, many families will have a tough time affording Des Moines’ housing market. “We are going to need to be producing substantial more housing units, more homes, both owned and rented, in that price range, if we intend to be able to house the workforce,” he added.

Wittmack said wants further discussion of broadband improvements, affordable housing, water quality and a “fair play” agreement that would discourage local cities from looking to take developments away from neighboring communities. He plans to call a series of meetings on the topics. 

“How long have we been working on a fair play agreement?” Wittmack asked. “We promised each other we’d stay out of the weeds right now, but sooner or later, I think we need to address some of these issues and learn from that dialogue. Let’s come together on the things about which we can agree.”