We were made very happy Aug. 12, when the Raccoon River Valley Trail was announced as this year’s inductee into the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, and even happier today, when induction ceremonies took place at the Perry trailhead of the RRVT.
The honor comes after the RRVT garnered “a record-breaking number of public votes during the annual contest,” the conservancy said in a statement, a whopping 38,000 votes, more than twice as many as ever previously received by an inductee.
Ryan Chao, president of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, said the RRVT “is an invaluable asset to the entire country and an engine for health, wellness, tourism and economic activity for the communities it serves. It’s no surprise that the trail received a record-breaking number of votes.”
Dallas County residents deserve to be proud of our RRVT, and Perry people even more so because the connector trail will eventually link the RRVT to the High Trestle Trail (HTT), making Perry a two-trailhead town and a magnet for tourism and commerce in Dallas County.
But the happy news of the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame was mixed with sadness, too, because the Dallas County Supervisors missed a golden opportunity this year to reconfirm their commitment to the RRVT and to promote economic development and tourism at the northern end of Dallas County, which sometimes seems to play second fiddle to the dynamic southeastern quarter of the county.
The opportunity knocked in early April, when $5 million in one-time funding for bike trails suddenly became available — with a fast-closing, five-week window on applications. Dallas County Conservation Board Director Mike Wallace hustled up and put his head together with Dallas County Engineer Al Miller and Snyder and Associates Engineer Rich Voelker, and the three framed a $3.5 million joint plan to extend the RRVT-HTT connector trail all the way from Perry to Bouton, including paving 128th Place east of U.S. Highway 169.
“Because this was a one-time special grant,” Wallace said, “and because of the parameters of the grant — they’re looking for big projects, with a minimum of $500,000 to even apply up to $1.25 million — and so we thought, okay, this grant carrot dangling in front of us came out of nowhere, so let’s try to put together a major project that can really move us along. So that’s why we were talking, okay, get into Bouton.”
The “major” $3.5 million project called for the county to pony up $1.9 million. So large a local buy-in would have made the state grant a virtual certainty, a slam dunk. Green lighting the project called for boldness and vision from our three-man Dallas County Board of Supervisors, but caution and not boldness characterizes the supervisors, and their vision does not seem to extend much beyond small annual decrements in the millage rate, that is, ever-lower taxes on the county’s ever-higher-valued properties.
This seems to us short-sighted. In 50 or 100 years, when one is asked, “What did you do as a supervisor, grandpa?” will one point proudly and say, “Look at that tax cut, my child”? No, leaderly vision demands a more concrete idea of a public good, a positive doing and not merely a negative not doing. The Dallas County Supervisors — all Republicans — summoned up sufficient vision to build a $20 million prison out toward Waukee, for instance, but they could not see their way to funding an economic-development project one-tenth the size in the north end of the county.
Mark Hanson of Waukee was the only supervisor to support the immediate funding of the project.
“Maybe it is time to just step up and figure it out and get it done,” Hanson said. “It is a quality-of-life play. It is a lifestyle play. It is a dedicated, separate trail that would help Woodward, and it would help Bouton, and it would help the Conservation Board. We already have probably the number one trail network in all of Iowa now, and it completes it compared to where we are today.”
Supervisors Kim Chapman of Adel and Brad Golightly of rural Perry did not share Hanson’s tax-dollar liberality, and they defended their opposition on the grounds of fiscal prudence and fiduciary responsibility. Since the project was not budgeted for in advance, how could it possibly be paid for?
Several suggestions for financing were offered: Why not use some of the $18 million in federal American Rescue Plan COVID-19 relief funds that the county is sitting on but without yet daring to spend? How about dipping into the $9 million that is lying in the county’s fund for capital projects? Could some of the $4 million in this year’s county LOST revenues be used? What about shifting down an item or two in the five-year plan of the Secondary Roads Department’s $10 million budget?
Even with the prospect of more federal infrastructure dollars on the horizon, all of these options appeared too risky for these cautious “stewards of the public trust and resources” as they “strive to maintain and improve the quality of life for the citizens of Dallas County,” particularly those dwelling in the southeast quadrant.
“How do we finance it?” said Chapman. “I don’t see how we can take our plan to use any of the capital-fund dollars for this (bike trail) project at this time in light of other expenses.”
The “other expenses” now on the supervisors’ radar include repurposing the former county jail for use as criminal courtrooms, consolidating the administrative functions of the county into fewer buildings and repairing the courthouse by tracking down once and for all the source of the moisture that has caused the building for many years to rot inwardly.
Golightly similarly disliked the idea of tinkering with the five-year roads plan, saying “that it really didn’t feel appropriate to take money from roads to supplement (the bike trail) because of not taking something out of the five-year current plan.” He said he was “just not comfortable not knowing where the dollars are going to come from and have to come back later and say, ‘We can’t do it.'”
As part of the American Rescue Plan, the U.S. Treasury allocated $65.1 billion in Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds to counties across America. The money is aimed at helping counties in offsetting public health costs associated with COVID-19, replacing lost public-sector revenues, boosting wages for essential workers, investing in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure and “addressing the negative economic impacts caused by the public health emergency.”
Within these categories, the U.S. Treasury’s Interim Final Rule provides guidelines and principles for determining what types of programs and services are “allowable” and will qualify as eligible expenses, such as “speeding the recovery of the tourism, travel and hospitality sectors” and “supporting industries that were particularly hard-hit by the COVID-19 emergency.”
As part of the American Rescue Plan, Dallas County is eligible for $18,152,150 in Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds, according to data from the U.S. Treasury. Dallas County Director of Finance and Operations Rob Tietz told the supervisors that he was doubtful whether the recreational-trail project would qualify as an “allowable” use of federal funds.
“I didn’t see anything in there that looked like there was an acceptable use for something like this,” Tietz said. “I mean, it all really relates to COVID-19 loss of income. Other than water, sewer, broadband infrastructure, it didn’t really look like there was really any provision in there for just projects, wish lists, unless the project was delayed or caused by a problem related to COVID.”
Golightly suggested that this particular project might not serve the general interest of the county’s residents.
“Even if you had that money, you’re taking it from the general funding purpose elsewhere for this purpose,” he said. “How does that serve our general public?”
Chapman raised the same point, which seems to apply to all the less populous parts of Dallas County.
“Why is it more important to pave that section of the road than a higher-use traveled road?” he said. “I can’t support the project not knowing if the finances are lined up.”
“We’ve got lots of uses for dollars,” Golightly said. “You know, we’ve identified all these other projects, and we’re not sure we have enough money to do those. Unless there’s some miraculous enlightenment on how these new (federal) dollars could be used somehow, existing dollars, I believe, don’t exist.”
While the supervisors made it clear that they support the building of the RRVT-HTT connector trail in principle, they just could not see their way to paying for it.
“I can be supportive of the project,” Golightly said, “but I’m stuck on not diverting dollars from other planned projects to do that.” Chapman said he would “be supportive of the project as well if the financing lined up.”
Wallace was not downcast by the board’s rejection of the “major project” and its special, one-time funding. He has been in the trail-building game a long time and knows the RRVT-HTT connector trail will eventually be built. Instead of opening the route in two or three years, it will take another eight or 10 years. In the meantime, Wallace still submitted a scaled-back version of the project to the Iowa DOT, a design that would have taken the trail from east of Perry to U.S. Highway 169 but omitting the paving to Bouton.
“I just can’t let the opportunity of this one-time money go away,” he said in May. “You’ve got to give it a try to get something. So now we’re changing the scope of it and just going from M Avenue and then stopping at 128th and not even worrying about that. There’s still a remote chance that we can work out something with a landowner, that type of thing.”
Wallace informed the Dallas County Conservation Board in August that the revised plan did not receive any of the one-time $5 million in federal funding from the COVID-19 Relief Recreational Trails Program. Undaunted, he submitted another application for next year’s federal grant cycle just this week, and he announced Thursday at the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame induction ceremony — where our Dallas County Supervisors were not to be seen — that “key parcels” of land were recently acquired by the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation that will be crucial to the completion of the RRVT-HTT connector.