City pays $1.5 million to biker who hit new curb on bike path. A primer on property tax. Good guys: Bill Stowe, Daryl Hecht.

Civic Skinny

DES MOINES CITYVIEW

The City of Des Moines has paid Mark Evans $1.5 million to settle a lawsuit he filed after hitting a six-inch-high, unmarked curb the city built across what most bikers believed to be the bike path on MLK Parkway at 16th Street.

The accident, around noon on April 16, 2017, left Evans with injuries to his head, right shoulder and ribs, according to the lawsuit.

For 15 years, since MLK and its adjoining bike path were built, bikers had a straight exit ramp to cross 16th. But in 2017 the city started fiddling with the intersection, replacing the straight exit from the path to the street with an angled one — and then putting the curb where the path used to be. There was no warning about the new route (until in the dead of night a biker painted the curb bright yellow and attached three toilet plungers as a warning barrier), and there quickly were four bike accidents there.

The city said the bikers should have been more careful. In its reply to Evans’ suit, it said he failed to “use due and reasonable care,” failed “to maintain a proper and adequate lookout,” failed “to maintain adequate control,” neglected “to monitor the condition of the roadways,” and failed to observe “general standards of care.”

But the city apparently had second thoughts. After months of motions and back-and-forth, the case was settled before it came to trial. City Attorney Jeff Lester confirmed the amount at $1.5 million.

A second suit, by biker Robert Foss, continues in Polk County District Court. A jury trial is set for Oct. 21. Asked if the city planned to settle that, Lester said that he “can’t comment specifically, but can tell you generally that the city vigorously defends litigation but is always open to appropriate resolutions that Council believes are best for the taxpayer.”

Foss broke his collarbone and two ribs when he crashed and “suffered severe temporary and permanent injuries,” his suit says.

A few months after the accidents, the city redesigned the intersection again — twice, actually — and ultimately put the straight path back in. Before that, though, someone made off with the toilet plungers.

FORMER POLK COUNTY Supervisor John Mauro has been named to the county’s Board of Review, the 10-person board that hears appeals from residents and businesses that think — that are absolutely positive — that the new assessments on their properties are too high. Way too high.

The board is in for a busy couple of months.

The county reassesses property every two years. The latest assessments were mailed out to around 180,000 property owners in early April, and the increases shocked home-owners. The average residential assessment went up 10%, the average commercial assessment 6.8%. So unless the taxing bodies — the county, the cities, the school districts, mainly — lower their rates significantly, everyone is in for a tax increase.

About 9,000 people will appeal, County Assessor Randy Ripperger estimates. Many will succeed. Last year, an off-year, there were 704 protests; 302 were upheld, 402 denied. Two years ago, there were 8,797 protests; 4,515 were upheld.

Ripperger says that the majority usually wait till the last minute, which this year is June 5. The board members need to have their work done by July 15.

If there are 9,000 appeals, and if, say, 6,000 of them are filed after June 1, that means the board will have to hear around 200 appeals a day in the 30 business days before the deadline.

But the board is nothing if not experienced. Ankeny accountant Everett Sather has been on the board for 50 years, and three others have served for more than 20 years. The last two openings on the board — the one Mauro is filling and another three years ago — came about when members died. The board members are paid $11,155.90 for each annual session, and the terms are for six years. Clearly, there are no term limits.

All told, there are 179,981 parcels of property in Polk County that are assessed, and the value on all that property is $46,386,944,510. There’s another $2.7 billion of property that is assessed but not taxed — churches, church schools, hospitals, fraternal organizations and the like. Finally, there is a huge chunk of property that is not even assessed — the federal buildings, the airport, colleges, city buildings, the Capitol and other state buildings.

Ripperger understands that thousands of people will be upset by the latest assessments, but he asks this question:

“When is it bad that the biggest investment you make in your life (or one of the biggest) goes up in value?”

And then he answers it: “Only when the assessor delivers the news.”

A HARBINGER FOR Marty Tirrell? Craig Carton, a popular sports-radio personality in New York who ran a Tirrell-like ticket scam and who was convicted of conspiracy, wire fraud and securities fraud, was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in federal prison by a New York judge last month.

DARYL HECHT WAS a fine man and a fine justice on the Iowa Supreme Court. Beside just being a nice guy, he will be remembered as one of the seven justices who unanimously ruled that gays have the right to marry under the Iowa constitution. Hecht was 66 years old when he died of melanoma on April 3 — the 10th anniversary of the gay-marriage ruling.

Bill Stowe, who died April 14, was as smart as he was unconventional. With his flowing gray hair and his Harley motorcycle, he was not the picture of an engineer, a bureaucrat, a lawyer or an executive. But he had been all four: a graduate of Grinnell College with a master’s in engineering from the University of Wisconsin, a master’s degree in industrial relations from the University of Illinois and a law degree from Loyola of New Orleans, he devoted much of his life to serving the public: as head of human resources and then public works for the city of Des Moines and, finally, as the gutsy head of the Des Moines Water Works. He took on Big Ag to protect the water for the people of Des Moines. He lost the suit, but the issue was joined for now and the future. Diagnosed just weeks prior with pancreatic cancer, he entered hospice in early April. He was 60-years-old. 

Memory

Former South Carolina Senator Fritz Hollings, who died the other day, was one of the Democrats running for President in 1984, so, of course, he spent some time in Iowa.

We had breakfast one morning at the Hotel Savery — that was the preferred hotel for Democrats in those days — and he said he had spent a lot of time walking around downtown.

“Let me ask you a question,” he said in his slow and wonderful drawl as we left the hotel. “I know a lot of politicians come out here and run for President” — he paused and looked around. And then he continued: “Did every single one of them promise you a parking ramp?”

— Michael Gartner

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