Think differently: What Des Moines needs to do for policymaking

With Clay & Milk I have focused most of my policy pieces on the federal level with a few at the state level. But the city level can often be overlooked despite being the level that most directly impacts our life on a daily basis.

Chris Draper—the founder of the negotiation management platform Trokt who recently launched a campaign for a seat on the Des Moines City Council—spoke at Gravitate on May 19 and discussed what Des Moines needs to do to make sure the tech community is well supported- and encourages entrepreneurs in the city.

Because Des Moines is changing

The workforce here used to be a three step process: 1) Get a job, 2) Keep your head down, and 3) Power through until it was time to retire. This often is no longer the case. Des Moines, in the past, has had an unfair reputation, but as I travel around the country when I say I’m from Des Moines, the response has changed. I ran into a guy whose daughter performed in the Opera here and he said he couldn’t believe how lovely it is here. Another man I met has a daughter who teaches at Grinnell College and couldn’t sing enough praises. It is important to look back and see how far we have come as a community.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t areas to improve.

City Council: What Can They Do?

How much of that change has come from city council? That’s hard to say.

During our discussion, Draper made the point saying, “It is the job of the City Council to react to the laws made at the state and federal level.” The job of city policymakers, for the most part, is to implement changes. This means that often it is challenging to be proactive at the city level since the nature of the job itself is reactive. There are some areas, however, that Draper believes the city can take action.

Draper put an emphasis on how he thinks Des Moines could better use Tax Increment Financing (TIF). TIF was created to be a flexible economic development tool. Essentially, when a developer decides to build in Des Moines, the city can offer this incentive to help persuade new development in Des Moines by offering a lower property tax rate over a set period of time. The idea is that the improvements within the city will generate new tax revenue and leave the city better off than when it started.

The most recent example of the TIF program in action is the controversial headquarters move of Kum & Go from the Western Gateway area to downtown. The city of Des Moines offered TIF to them as an incentive to build. Kum & Go will receive TIF for 20 years, totaling to an incentive around $11m. The TIF fund was created to bring new jobs to Des Moines and create more business. So what’s controversial about the project is the new downtown home is eight miles from the current headquarters. Does moving eight miles really constitute as something that is going to truly enhance the area? The project is scheduled to be completed in 2018. Draper thinks the incentive funds could be used differently to support schools or underfunded public services.

Some state leaders at the Iowa legislature have a different issue with TIF. The funding comes from backfills from the state, which means the city of Des Moines offers funds for TIF and then goes to the state and asks for the money that was offered. The issue here is a lack of oversight, which is possibly why certain projects qualify to receive TIF in the first place. There is no state board to approve TIF projects and without a governing board to approve what projects are worthy of receiving TIF, the well-intended program is sometimes not used effectively to truly enhance development within the region.

Invest in Access

There is a lot of talk about infrastructure and in a traditional sense, we think of buildings. But there’s another area that Des Moines could really use some innovative thinking to ensure access for all- broadband.

During discussions on city policymaking- education issues almost always come up. In this discussion, one attendee mentioned that they thought funds for new high schools in Des Moines was a top priority. While I do agree that school spaces are important, it’s also to look at how students learn today- often outside of school walls.

Local policymakers have the opportunity to think innovatively and create plans to put Des Moines on the map as a place that invests in access.

Broadband infrastructure and access is a critical piece to ensuring that Des Moines doesn’t go back to those harsh perceptions much of the country had, and sadly some still have. There is a lot of talk about “smart cities” which is the title many are trying to achieve. Smart cities are defined as urban development visions to integrate information and communication technology and Internet of things technology in a secure fashion to manage a city’s assets.

According to Governing, the infrastructure for smart cities are “created through the deployment of digital information and communications technologies and built on high-speed broadband. It incorporates intelligent infrastructure in its many variations: smart grids for energy and water, virtual environments for health care and education and intelligent systems for transportation and buildings.”

Some cities are getting innovative about broadband deployment. School districts are creating wi-fi buses, which they leave parked in neighborhoods that are populated by low-income families- giving students access to broadband while at home. Other cities, like Albuquerque, have partnered with industry to provide increased broadband speeds to 40 City locations, including three Senior Centers and nine Community Centers. The new broadband speeds will range as high as one Gigabit, over reliable fiber optic-based services. Other locations receiving increased broadband speeds include police and fire stations, as well as several recreational facilities. With the use of fiber optic technology, the broadband speeds can be easily increased by the City up to ten Gigabits as the need arises.

City Council Going Forward

Draper was eager to have this discussion as he announced through it he will be seeking election for Ward III in Des Moines. If you have ideas about your vision for Des Moines, reach out to him.