Monday, August 24, 2015

What you may not know: Week of August 24

With my apologies, this is going to be a short update. It's a committee week for the Appleton Common Council, but most of the items worth discussing have been discussed in this space before. As such, here are some updates on items I've written about recently:

Human Resources, Monday, 5 pm

Back in March the Human Resources committee was asked to recommend a salary structure for the mayor for the office's next term, from April of 2016 through April of 2020. That item was held in March and again in May, June and July while council debated, voted down, reconsidered and again voted down consideration of possible changes to the city's governmental structure.

With that debate behind us, on Monday the HR committee will again be asked to make a recommendation. Back in May I outlined the challenges inherent in doing so, noting that differences in mayoral duties across municipalities make it hard to compare apples to apples when setting a salary. I'll be interested to see how the committee opts to proceed here.

Finance, Tuesday, 4:30 pm

The city continues to wade through some challenges with a relatively new ordinance dealing with licenses issued (or not issued) to properties where a landlord has fallen behind on his or her property taxes. Last week a resolution calling for the city to create provisional licenses to deal with these cases was referred back to the Finance Committee, where it again appears on the agenda this week.

The issues we've experienced with this ordinance, however, will likely lead to a broader review than what's called for here. As one of the three co-sponsors of the resolution, I'm interested in withdrawing it to make way for that larger conversation.

Additionally, at Finance this week the committee will also be asked to again review an ordinance we've been discussing since June that would open the door for members of the council to participate remotely when they're unable to attend a meeting. I remain in favor of the spirit of what we're trying to do here, but voted against the final product at committee two weeks ago because I remain concerned about the details of the procedure used to determine who can participate and our ability to successfully allow it with our existing setup.

Finally, these items remain in process but will not be voted on this week:

  • The Appleton Police Department and Parks & Recreation Department are continuing to work on language for a change to the park ordinances regarding alcohol. Council will likely take action on a proposal to limit alcohol to those with a permit sometime in September.
  • A resolution calling for the city to expand the urban beekeeping permit process is also on hold, having been referred back to the Board of Health. That board's next scheduled meeting is September 9 at 7 am.
You can see agendas for all of this week's meetings and the full schedule at the city's Legistar page.

Keeping you informed on issues that may impact you around the city is one of my primary goals as an alderman. Making the council's activity as accessible as possible to as many people as are interested is part of my goal to make it easier for more people to get involved with issues that matter to them.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

What you may not know: Week of August 17

The Appleton Common Council will meet in its regularly-scheduled session on Wednesday, August 19, but before we get started we'll have a special meeting to discuss one of our longstanding items:

Expo center update

The Common Council will meet at 6 pm on Wednesday and is expected to go into closed session to discuss the latest developments in the effort to build an expo center in downtown Appleton. I don't know the specifics of what will be discussed on Wednesday, but I can tell you that two major hurdles remain if the city is going to purchase the prospective site yet this year.

The exhibition center likely cannot happen without agreement from many of our neighboring municipalities to raise their room taxes to help pay for it, so an intergovernmental agreement will be needed before anything can move forward. It's my understanding that work on this side of the project is ongoing.

Meanwhile, another critical piece of the puzzle is the proposed management agreement between the city and the new owners of the Radisson Paper Valley. I've seen public statements saying both sides expect this to be done soon.

Both of those agreements will need to come before the common council for approval, and I look forward to the opportunity to review them. It's my understanding that council will take no official action on the expo center at this meeting.

Once we've wrapped up that discussion in closed session, council will reconvene in open session to take up our other scheduled items. Here are the updates on items I discussed last week:

Alcohol in parks

Last Monday the Safety & Licensing and Parks & Recreation committees held a joint meeting to discuss proposed changes to our park ordinances regarding alcohol. After a fair amount of discussion there seems to be a feeling that something needs to be done but some of us appear to remain concerned about how the issues we're experiencing can be addressed without impacting others whose ability to have alcohol in parks is not causing a problem. In the end a resolution requiring a permit to bring alcohol into the parks was referred to staff for further development. No action will be taken on this item on Wednesday.

Licensing and landlords

Last week the Finance Committee voted 4-0 to recommend approval of a resolution calling for the city to create a new, provisional license to allow some temporary flexibility to business tenants caught in the middle of disputes between the city and their landlords over unpaid property taxes.

This issue is somewhat complicated and may lead to a review of the entirety of the ordinance, but I'm glad to see the committee understood the need to do something to help business owners who have done nothing wrong. I'm hopeful council will do the same this week.

Urban beekeeping

Finally, last week the Board of Health voted 3-1 to approve a resolution calling for the city to expand the urban beekeeping permit process to residential property. We've been discussing bees for some time now, and I wrote this piece on the existing regulations for beekeeping on public institutional and urban farm properties back in June.  If this item passes council on Wednesday night, the next step would likely be for staff to prepare a proposed ordinance for council to review on a future date.

You can see agendas for all of this week's meetings and the full schedule at the city's Legistar page.

Keeping you informed on issues that may impact you around the city is one of my primary goals as an alderman. Making the council's activity as accessible as possible to as many people as are interested is part of my goal to make it easier for more people to get involved with issues that matter to them.

Monday, August 10, 2015

What you may not know: Week of August 9

After a couple of quiet weeks (an off week to end July and a very light council agenda to open August), the Appleton Common Council has a very busy committee week starting today. Here are some of the highlights:

Parks & Recreation/Safety & Licensing joint meeting, Monday, 6 pm

The issue of alcohol in parks has been making significant headlines in recent weeks, and we'll likely take a step towards addressing the issue when the Parks & Recreation and Safety & Licensing committees come together for a special joint meeting Monday night.

The discussion will center around a resolution that would eliminate drinking in the parks without a permit, which would be very similar to the ordinances in place in most communities around the Fox Valley. The hope is that eliminating permit-free alcohol in the parks will help the police keep disorderly, frequently homeless drinkers out of downtown parks.

I sympathize with the police department's desire to do more about this issue, but I worry that we're addressing a symptom of a larger problem here. Our recent annual count showed that homelessness in the city is on the rise, and that's likely a contributing factor to the issues we've been experiencing in the parks. We're certainly capable of chasing these individuals out of the downtown parks, but unless we take steps to address the underlying issues we're just going to find them drinking somewhere else.

Finance, Tuesday, 4:30 pm

On Tuesday we'll discuss another resolution, this one an effort to try to mitigate some unintended consequences to a change to the city's licensing ordinances.

As you likely know, the city licenses all kinds of businesses: restaurants, bars, tattoo parlors, etc. Recently we changed city policy to make issuance and renewal of those licenses contingent on property taxes being up to date, giving us some leverage over property owners that may otherwise have allowed their debts to the city to continue to lapse.

This creates an issue, however, when the property owner and the business operator aren't the same person. We've had at least one instance this summer where a business owner was leasing from a landlord who failed to pay their taxes, causing us to shut down a business that got stuck in the middle of the dispute.

Last week Alderpersons Plank, Martin and I co-submitted a resolution calling for the city to develop a provisional, short-term license to issue in these cases. The provisional license would give tenants an opportunity to continue to operate for up to three months while the tax issue was being resolved, or in the worst case it would allow them to continue to operate temporarily while looking for options to relocate. These tenants have committed no crime, and I hope we'll find a way to help them make the best of a bad situation.

Board of Health, Wednesday, 7 am

Finally, a longstanding debate will reopen on Wednesday morning when the Board of Health will be asked to make a recommendation regarding Alderpersons Dalton and Meltzer's resolution calling for an expansion of urban beekeeping in the city. I've written a fair amount about this issue in the past, and remain convinced that the permitting process we've been using for hives on public institutional and urban farm properties can be tweaked to allow safe, successful, low-impact beekeeping on residential zoning.

Any action these committees or boards take on any of these action items will go as recommendations before the full council at our next scheduled meeting on Wednesday, August 19.

You can see agendas for all of this week's meetings and the full schedule at the city's Legistar page.

Keeping you informed on issues that may impact you around the city is one of my primary goals as an alderman. Making the council's activity as accessible as possible to as many people as are interested is part of my goal to make it easier for more people to get involved with issues that matter to them.

Monday, July 20, 2015

What you may not know: Week of July 20

I'm anticipating a quiet committee week for the Appleton Common Council, with the Human Resources, Finance and Community & Economic Development Committees and Transit Commission all canceling their regularly-scheduled meetings. There are still a couple of items of interest, however:

Parks and Recreation, Monday, 6 pm

As you may have seen in the Post Crescent over the weekend, the issue of alcohol use in city parks is becoming a concern and may need to be addressed. Chief Todd Thomas of the Appleton Police Department sent a letter to Parks and Rec committee chair Joe Martin and I (as chair of the Safety & Licensing Committee) late last week to express his concerns.

The concern, in a nutshell, is this: alcohol-related complaints at our downtown parks have skyrocketed this year, with groups congregating to drink during the day and at times harassing other park users. This issue takes up a lot of our police officers' time, has led to some events being removed from the parks and creates the impression that our downtown parks are unsafe.

This issue was at least partially exacerbated by a 2014 change to the city's park ordinances which expanded the hours (moving the start time from noon to 10 am) during which one can legally consume alcohol in the parks. That change stemmed from a five-month review of park ordinances, which included several extensive debates on allowing dogs in parks (a change we eventually opted not to make). In the interest of full disclosure, I was a member of the Parks and Recreation Committee when we made that change. It was largely an afterthought to a long debate on dogs, and I don't remember hearing much in favor of or against it.

Over the coming weeks I suspect we'll hear several possibilities to address this issue, including narrowing the drinking hours in parks or eliminating alcohol in parks without a permit. It's still too early for me to predict how this will go or advocate for a certain outcome. This item is information-only and no action is expected to be taken this week.

Utilities, Tuesday, 5:30 pm

Managing stormwater runoff and the associated flooding issues are one of the elements of running a city that I think a lot of people don't think about. There's a very difficult balance to maintain between spending too much on stormwater infrastructure and allowing flooding to occur, and every project we take on to reduce flooding comes at a not-insignificant financial cost.

Over the last several years the city has been working on a project to better identify properties with large amounts of impervious surfaces and use the actual square footage of that impervious space as the basis for their stormwater charges. That's a time-consuming process and it's being done in multiple phases, with the most recent implementation happening for multifamily properties.

Last week the council heard from several residents of multifamily properties upset over their new stormwater charges, and as a result Alderman Ed Baranowski submitted a resolution calling for a review of this process and its implementation.

The existing process was largely debated and put into place before my time on council, and was the subject of much discussion at that time. I suspect I'll get an opportunity to learn a lot more about it in the coming weeks.

You can see agendas for all of this week's meetings and the full schedule at the city's Legistar page.

Keeping you informed on issues that may impact you around the city is one of my primary goals as an alderman. Making the council's activity as accessible as possible to as many people as are interested is part of my goal to make it easier for more people to get involved with issues that matter to them.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

What you may not know: Week of July 13

I hope everyone is doing all right following Sunday and Monday's bouts with severe weather, and my thoughts go out this morning to those with damage remaining to repair and clean up. In the meantime, however, the Appleton Common Council will meet for its regularly-scheduled session on Wednesday, and here are some of the items I'll be watching:

City government structure

Last week the Human Resources Committee voted 2-2 to recommend denial of a resolution calling for city staff to research alternatives to Appleton's longstanding Mayoral structure, including the possible hiring of a City Manager or Administrator. This week that debate will move on to council.

I do appreciate one amendment made at committee, calling for a City Manager position to be considered in addition to a City Administrator if this resolution passes. If we're going to look at options, I think we'll be best served by considering all of our options.

However, I'm still not intending to support this resolution. As I wrote last week, any change to our existing structure will come at a significant annual cost and I'd prefer to see that money used elsewhere.

Parking ramp changes

We're continuing to look at changes suggested in the city's recent downtown parking study, and have already voted to eliminate meter restrictions after 6 pm. Now we'll shift our attention to parking ramps, where the first step in a significant change could occur on Wednesday.

This week the council will be asked to vote to approve a contract with Walker Parking Consultants for "professional services" related to transitioning the Green, Yellow and Red parking ramps (the ramps near the PAC, Library and Paper Valley Hotel) from a flat-fee, "pay as you enter" model to a "pay on exit" model that will charge users based on the time used.

The contract is for $46,500 and does not include the actual transition: This is the data collection and bidding preparation portion of the project, in addition to some oversight of the final contractor should we choose to proceed. No final decision on a transition to a new rate structure or the form of that rate structure will happen here.

Cell phone tower reconsideration

Two weeks ago the Common Council voted to deny a request for a Special Use Permit for a proposed new cell phone tower along West Wisconsin Avenue, citing aesthetic concerns with the large structure. This week one council member who was absent from that meeting will ask for the item to be reconsidered.

Voting down a cell phone tower request creates a pretty significant legal challenge for the city. As part of the 2013 budget the State Legislature passed significant changes to the process of cell tower siting, greatly limiting municipalities' local control over new towers. Details about the changes are available here, and the fifth and sixth pages of that document include a list of actions municipalities cannot take regarding towers. The first item on the sixth page reads "Disapprove an application based solely on aesthetic concerns."

Given that information, this debate changes a bit. State statute overrules any decisions we may make locally, and as such we have two choices:

  1. Vote to approve the Special Use Permit and allow the tower to be constructed, or
  2. Vote to deny the Special Use Permit, likely face a lawsuit we have very little chance of winning, incur legal fees, and still end up allowing the tower to be constructed.
I certainly understand the concerns about the impact of this tower, but denying this request is a clear violation of state statute and won't prevent the new structure from eventually going up. As such, I hope we'll take the responsible step and reconsider this vote.

You can see agendas for all of this week's meetings and the full schedule at the city's Legistar page.

Keeping you informed on issues that may impact you around the city is one of my primary goals as an alderman. Making the council's activity as accessible as possible to as many people as are interested is part of my goal to make it easier for more people to get involved with issues that matter to them.

Monday, July 6, 2015

What you may not know: Week of July 6

Hopefully everyone had a great and safe holiday, and is ready for an interesting committee week for the Appleton Common Council. Here are some of the items I'll be watching:

Human Resources, Monday, 5 pm

The City of Appleton's governmental structure is back on the table for discussion this week as the HR Committee will have their first discussion on a resolution calling for the city to consider eliminating the current mayor-council system in place of a format including a city administrator position. The resolution in play doesn't call for a change outright, but calls for the possibility to be researched and for a recommendation to come before council by October 7.

This discussion isn't new, by any means: The possibility of a change was researched at length in 1990 when council opted to stick with the current structure.

From my perspective, this issue comes down to efficiency. Hiring a city administrator could cost the city over $130,000 annually, and we'll likely continue to have a mayor at a reduced role and salary. In 2015 the mayor is receiving $94,686, so that's a significant annual cost increase. It's possible the money we're considering spending here could fund an entire additional staff person or more in another city department.

The proponents of this plan likely have a lot of work to do to demonstrate that the city would experience enough improvement under a new system to justify the cost.

Finance, Tuesday, 4:30 pm

On Tuesday the Finance Committee will take up three items that may be of minor interest:

First, the committee will be asked to reject all bids for a tennis court project at Highview Park, pushing the construction back to 2016. We had budgeted money for this project in 2015 but the bids for construction came back well above our expectations during our initial bidding process this spring, and have come back high again following an attempt to re-bid the project this summer. Assuming council approves the request to reject all bids, we'll likely budget for this project again in 2016.

Second, as I've mentioned previously, council will be asked to consider a proposed ordinance regarding remote participation for members who cannot make it to our meetings. I'm in favor of this ordinance in concept but will likely recommend a change or two to its execution before I'll be comfortable supporting it.

Finally, I wanted to mention an action item dealing with debt management. On Tuesday the committee will be asked to recommend approval of a recommendation allowing $845,330 of the city's unassigned fund balance to be used to pay down long-term debt. That figure represents 75% of the city's balance surplus, meaning we can use it to pay down debt and still hold on to three months' worth of operating expenditures to be used in case of emergency.

I know I've mentioned previously that Appleton's long term debt per capita is easily lower than any other comparable community in the state of Wisconsin, and here's another example of why that's the case. Responsibly handling our fund balances and paying down debt early helps us keep costs down for our projects and ensure low interest rates for borrowing going forward.

Board of Health, Wednesday, 7 am

Finally, the Board of Health will be up bright and early on Wednesday for the latest addition to an ongoing conversation about urban beekeeping.

I've written at length about some of the possible regulations that could be considered if beekeeping was expanded to residential property, as proposed in Alderpersons Polly Dalton and Vered Meltzer's resolution. In addition, there's an extended story in today's Post Crescent discussing the possibility with comments from one Fox Cities beekeeper discussing the benefits of implementing a change.

If the Board opts to take action on this item on Wednesday, the resolution would appear before the full council on Wednesday, July 15.

You can see agendas for all of this week's meetings and the full schedule at the city's Legistar page.

Keeping you informed on issues that may impact you around the city is one of my primary goals as an alderman. Making the council's activity as accessible as possible to as many people as are interested is part of my goal to make it easier for more people to get involved with issues that matter to them.

Monday, June 29, 2015

What you may not know: Week of June 29

Good morning,

This is likely to be a quiet week for the Appleton Common Council, as we have a relatively light agenda for our regularly-scheduled full council meeting on Wednesday. Here are some updates on the items I discussed in last week's post:

Bees

After a bit of discussion and information gathering, last Monday the City Plan Commission voted to refer a resolution calling for expansion of urban beekeeping to the Board of Health. That body is expected to meet on July 8 at 7 am.

I spent a lot of time last week discussing beekeeping with various interested parties, and gathered some of what I learned in this post. In addition, beekeeping is also the topic of my WHBY Viewpoint today.

City government structure

Last week the Human Resources Committee voted 2-1 to delay action on setting a mayoral salary for the 2016-2020 term to allow alderpersons time to consider the possibility of changing the city's management structure and hiring a city manager to take over some of the duties currently performed by the mayor.

As I mentioned last week, I don't support the proposed change. However, if we don't discuss it now before setting the mayor's salary, then it would be very difficult to make any changes before the office's next term is up in 2020.

Council remote participation

Last week the Finance Committee discussed but did not take action on a draft of ordinance language that could allow alderpersons to participate via speaker phone or Skype when they cannot phyiscally attend council meetings. This ordinance could solve some notable concerns about council absences but still needs some tweaking before it's ready for an up or down vote.

You can see agendas for all of this week's meetings and the full schedule at the city's Legistar page.

Keeping you informed on issues that may impact you around the city is one of my primary goals as an alderman. Making the council's activity as accessible as possible to as many people as are interested is part of my goal to make it easier for more people to get involved with issues that matter to them.