Monday, August 22, 2016

What you may not know: Week of August 22

The Appleton Common Council is back in action this week with a partial schedule of committee meetings, and one item that will likely dominate the conversation:

Municipal Services Committee, Tuesday, 6:30 pm

Months ago I mentioned that the city included funds in the 2016 budget for a look into the possibility of becoming a Railroad Quiet Zone and eliminating the loud train horns that can be heard in large portions of the city during the day and night. As you may have heard, our consultant has come back with their recommendations and this week the Municipal Services Committee will be asked for the first time to make a recommendation on their proposal.

This project required a full review of two dozen rail crossings in the city, and a review of the work that would be necessary to meet the minimum safety requirements to allow for trains to pass through without needing to sound their horns. At many crossings, the necessary work involves the installation of raised medians to prevent cars from going around the gates to cross the tracks. In one case, on Locust Street between College Avenue and Lawrence Street, the proposal does call for the closing of a street.

All told, the consultant's recommended series of improvements would cost around $785,000 and would have a pair of noticeable benefits:

  • The risk of train-related accidents at crossings in the city would be reduced around 14%, with a "risk index" decrease from 12,103 to 9777.
  • The entire train corridor through the city, from Prospect Avenue on the west end to Ballard Road on the east, would become a quiet zone.
For several districts in the central city, this is a pretty significant quality of life issue. While the trains are unlikely to ever be fully silent, eliminating train horns (especially during the overnight hours) should have a pretty significant impact on nearby residents and could result in an increase in property values down the road.

With that said, a proposed price tag of around $800,000 is also a significant expenditure and will likely generate a fair amount of discussion. I'm curious to see where this will go. The earliest this item could come before the full common council for a vote is Wednesday, September 7.

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. Good governance happens in the open, and I remain committed to raising awareness on the issues coming before us.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

What you may not know: Week of August 2

My apologies for a brief update this week, as (in my opinion) the most notable items coming before the Appleton Common Council at our regularly scheduled meeting this week are unlikely to be controversial. Here's a quick update on the action items I discussed in last week's post:

  • The Finance Committee unanimously recommended the 2017 Special Assessment policy for approval. The policy features at best minimal changes from what is currently in place for this year. The most newsworthy note to come from that discussion was a report that the revenue generated by the Wheel Tax is effectively replacing revenue lost by eliminating special assessments for street reconstruction, as intended.
  • The Community and Economic Development Committee also voted unanimously to approve a redistribution of 2016 Community Development Block Grant funding in response to one sub-recipient rescinding their request. The new proposal spreads an additional $15,460 between STEP Industries, Harbor House, Homeless Connections and LEAVEN.
Last week's most notable discussion, however, likely came at the Municipal Services Committee where we learned for the first time what it might take to make Appleton a 24-hour quiet zone for trains. Madeleine Behr of the Appleton Post Crescent did a great job outlining that presentation, which will likely generate much more discussion going forward. 

The short version of the story is that it is projected to cost somewhere between $600,000-$800,000 to improve safety measures at the city's 23 railroad crossings to qualify for quiet zone status. Some of those improvements could require closing a crossing, while others would include safety measures intended to make it more difficult or impossible to go around safety gates at crossings.

No official action will be taken on this item this week, but I thought it merited mentioning as an item that will likely generate significant discussion in the future.

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. Good governance happens in the open, and I remain committed to raising awareness on the issues coming before us.

Monday, July 25, 2016

What you may not know: Week of July 25

The last full week of July is also a committee week for the Appleton Common Council, and here are some of the items of interest on various agendas:

Finance Committee, Tuesday, 4:30 pm

As part of the city's annual budget process, the Finance Committee and Common Council are asked to approve the city's special assessment policies for the following year during the summer. It's important that we take this up as early as possible because any changes could have 2017 budgetary implications.

The number of people impacted and the depth of impact felt due to special assessments has greatly decreased in recent years with the implementation of Appleton's wheel tax, which replaced the revenue lost by the elimination of assessments for street repairs. However, some assessments remain and, if any alderperson would like to propose changes to the system this is the time to do so. Personally, I have no amendments planned.

Municipal Services Committee, Tuesday, 6:30 pm

Efforts to turn the City of Appleton into a "Railroad Quiet Zone" will take a step forward on Tuesday night as the Municipal Services Committee receives a study from SRF Consulting Group on what it would take to make this happen. While the railroad does not run through or significantly impact the 13th district, I still frequently receive complaints about the volume and timing of train horns in the city and can only imagine the number of complaints received by alderpersons in districts with tracks running through. I'm looking forward to seeing what it would take to alleviate this issue.

Community and Economic Development, Wednesday, 5 pm

Back in March the Common Council voted to approve a recommendation to allocate around $500,000 in federal dollars available through the Community Development Block Grant program based on the results of an extended application process and review. Unfortunately, some unforeseen circumstances are going to require us to reopen that discussion this week.

One of the measures the federal government uses to gauge the effective use of grant dollars is timely expenditure: Grant dollars are supposed to be given to projects that can start quickly and expend the money within a program year. In this case, that creates an issue for one subrecipient that is experiencing an unexpected delay in a program due to changing state regulations. On Wednesday the committee will be asked to recommend approval of a reallocation plan that reassigns that subrecipient's funds among four other organizations that did not receive their entire request. Here's a quick breakdown of the new allocations:

  • STEP Industries requested $30,000 and will now receive $24,398.50, up from $12,384.
  • Harbor House requested $27,500 and will now receive $22,383.50, up from $21,085.
  • Homeless Connections requested $20,000 and will now receive $16,758.50, up from $15,460.
  • LEAVEN requested $20,000 and will now receive $16,758.50, up from $15,460.
  • NAMI had previously requested $23,400 and was awarded $15,460, but has since rescinded their request.

This process is challenging because we receive so many worthwhile proposals for what to do with the money we have available, and we very rarely have the resources available to fund any of the Public Service requests in full. However, we remain grateful to the applicant organizations for their work in our community and do our best to distribute the funds available in an equitable fashion.

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. Good governance happens in the open, and I remain committed to raising awareness on the issues coming before us.

Monday, July 18, 2016

What you may not know: Week of July 18

The Appleton Common Council will hold its regularly scheduled full council meeting on Wednesday at 7 pm. Both of this week's most notable (in my opinion) action items were discussed in last week's update, so I hope you won't mind that all I have this week is a brief update on their status:

  • On Monday the Parks and Recreation Committee voted 3-0 to recommend denial of a resolution calling for the city to allow leashed dogs in parks. I remain in favor of this change and I'm proud to be joined by over 700 petition signers, the Fox Cities Convention and Visitor's Bureau and Appleton Downtown Incorporated in supporting a change to our dated, fear-driven policies.
  • On Tuesday the Municipal Services Committee voted 4-0 to recommend approval of a request calling for the yield signs at the corner of Alexander and Lindbergh St (the northeast corner of Huntley Elementary School) to be changed to stop signs. This should pass council without debate or incident.
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. Good governance happens in the open, and I remain committed to raising awareness on the issues coming before us.

Monday, July 11, 2016

What you may not know: Week of July 11

Good morning, folks. I hope everyone had a safe and happy Fourth of July holiday. I spent mine up north visiting family. Now that I'm back, here's what on the agendas for our regularly-scheduled committee week:

Parks & Recreation, Monday, 6 pm:

One of the most contentious issues we've ever faced during my time on council returns to the spotlight this week, as the Parks & Recreation Committee will again be asked to consider a resolution to allow leashed dogs in Appleton city parks. Some of you will likely remember that this issue came up back in 2013, and was the subject of some pretty heated discussion at that time. To date, that discussion is the only time I've ever had to reply to a constituent email with the following:
Dear (redacted),
Thank you for your email. Please allow me to assure you that I do not have marbles in my brain.
I could go on for days on this issue (and over the coming months I'll likely get that opportunity), but for now I'll attempt to keep things brief by narrowing my argument down to a few bullet points:

  • There is plenty of precedent both within the Fox Valley (Neenah, for example) and beyond for allowing dogs in parks. The communities that have done so do not appear to be experiencing major issues with sanitation or safety as a result.
  • There's strong reason to believe our existing ordinance banning dogs in parks isn't actually keeping irresponsible pet owners out of parks. 
  • Furthermore, that irresponsible group represents a very small percentage of all pet owners and is not an acceptable reason to penalize all dog owners.
  • Encountering a leashed dog in a park, where you can give it a wide berth if you so choose, is actually less likely to cause an issue than encountering the same dog on a city sidewalk.
  • Having safe and controlled spaces to take a dog during training is a critically important part of the effort to have an obedient, well-socialized animal.
  • Having an unleashed, free-for-all dog park is not the same thing and does not offer the same training or socialization opportunities as having your leashed dog in a park.
  • We have anecdotal evidence to suggest that our policies on dogs in parks have caused dog owners to choose to visit or live elsewhere. 
I'm sure this issue is going to be contentious again in the weeks and perhaps months to come. At the end of the day, though, this is the simple reality for me: I'm not convinced that our current fear-driven policy is actually keeping anyone safer, but I do believe it's keeping a significant number of responsible people from enjoying our parks and making our community a less attractive place to visit and live.

Three years ago I asked council to please consider adopting a similar set of policies to what is currently established in state parks. The state rules include the following:
  • Pets must be on a leash (no longer than eight feet) and under control at all times. Pet owners who fail to control a pet or whose pet is creating a public nuisance may be asked to leave the park or issued citations.
  • Loose pets may be seized and treated as stray animals.
  • Pet owners are responsible for removal and disposal of waste products (just like they are on any other property).
  • Pets are not allowed inside buildings, in playgrounds, or places where food is being prepared.
I think this is a realistic framework for a compromise that would still leave our parks as a safe, usable space for all of the current users but also remove unnecessary restriction on our responsible pet owners.


Municipal Services Committee, Tuesday, 6:30 pm

A long project will take an important step forward on Tuesday night when the Municipal Services Committee has their first chance to see the results of our ongoing Downtown Mobility Study presented by AECOM and Toole Design Group. I have not yet seen the presentation but I'm eager to hear their findings and I hope we'll find recommendations within that we can implement to make our downtown safer and more accessible for all users.

Additionally, on Tuesday the committee will be asked to consider a recommendation to replace the current yield signs with stop signs at the corner of Alexander and Lindbergh streets. That's the northeast corner of the Huntley Elementary School grounds. Due to a technical issue I'm currently unable to open the attachment to read the rationale for this change, but I suspect this move will make this intersection a little safer for the pedestrians that cross the road here each school day.

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. Good governance happens in the open, and I remain committed to raising awareness on the issues coming before us.

Monday, June 20, 2016

What you may not know: Week of June 20

The first day of summer is also the first day of a busy committee week for the Appleton Common Council. While most of this week's discussions are unlikely to be controversial, I wanted to highlight a few discussions that I thought might shed some light on some of our processes:

Finance Committee, Tuesday, 4:30 pm

The Finance Committee has a relatively brief agenda for our Tuesday meeting, but one of the action items calls for the city to reject bids and postpone scheduled work on a stormwater lift station in Arbutus Park.

The 2016 budget allocated $140,000 for the construction portion of a project to rehabilitate this facility, which raises up stormwater in this otherwise low-lying area to allow it to flow downhill into the storm sewers instead of backing up into the park. Unfortunately, our bidding process for this portion of the project was not as successful as we would have hoped: The city received just one bid on the project, and at $215,000 it's more than 50% above budget.

Decisions like this put us in a tough spot. Certainly, no one wants to go over budget on any project. However, this project was in our budget for this year because this work does need to be done. In this case, the staff recommendation is to reject all bids and put the project out for bids again in the fall. There's no guarantee that we'll receive more or better bids at that point, but that's what we're hoping for.

Municipal Services Committee, Tuesday, 6:30 pm

Later that same night the Municipal Services Committee will meet to discuss three items of significant potential long-term interest:

  • First, the committee will be asked to recommend approval of the city's "Complete Streets Policy," a set of guidelines to use when designing future street projects. This item would set the basic expectations for future road reconstruction around the city and identify what requests for variation would require an appeal.
  • Next, the committee will discuss next steps in the city's effort to become a Railroad Quiet Zone. There aren't a lot of details in with the agenda, but the information items calls for a discussion of "which option to pursue for property owner notification."
  • Finally, the committee also has an information item to provide an update on a previous resolution calling for the Public Works and Parks & Recreation Departments to create and share a new position to coordinate efforts to expand and improve bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure in the city. There's more to it than this, but the short version of this discussion is that a request to fund this proposed position has been sent to the mayor for his consideration as part of the 2017 budget.
Fox Cities Transit Commission, Wednesday, 3 pm

Of all the things I've had to deal with during my time on council, it's possible the funding mechanism for Valley Transit is the most complicated. The combination of federal and state funding that meets up with a local share split up among more than half a dozen municipalities (with contributions from three counties and various other organizations) creates a dizzying equation to attempt to follow.

This week we'll get another glimpse into that process as the Transit Commission will be asked to approve the acceptance of a pair of federal grants that will be combined with budgeted funds from previous years and a local share from the organization's depreciation fund to provide for the purchase of three new buses for the fleet.

The age, mileage and related reliability issues of the fleet is one of the greatest issues facing Valley Transit in its effort to remain viable for the long term. Three buses won't be enough to solve that, but it is a big step in the right direction and I'm glad to see forward progress on this front.

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. Good governance happens in the open, and I remain committed to raising awareness on the issues coming before us.

Monday, June 13, 2016

What you may not know: Week of June 13

First off, my apologies for letting this blog lapse a bit. Here are my three excuses:

  • First of all, I try not to "cry wolf" and attract your attention to this space on weeks when I don't have anything of significant interest to discuss. We've had some quiet weeks as a council lately, and on those weeks I don't waste your time or mine by writing and asking you to read unnecessary updates.
  • Second, on a personal note, things like the Memorial Day holiday and my wedding anniversary led to me being out of town on a couple of weekends/Mondays when I would normally have written.
Anyway, enough excuses. I'm back at my desk now and here are some of the items we'll be discussing at our regularly scheduled Common Council meeting on Wednesday:

Cell phone towers

Several weeks ago I wrote about a Special Use Permit request from Verizon asking the city for permission to construct a new cell phone tower on Kesting Court, near the intersection of Northland Avenue and Meade Street. The proposed tower is very near multiple single-family homes (it could be as close as ten feet from the lot line adjacent to one property), which has raised a great deal of concern.

I share the residents' concern regarding this tower's impact value on their property values and quality of life. With that said, as I noted when a similar issue came up last summer, a 2013 amendment to state statute greatly limits our actions here. Full details on the statute are available at that last link, but the short version is that the city is not allowed to treat cell towers any differently than we would any other commercial building and cannot reject towers based on aesthetic concerns.

A vote to deny this permit would be a clear and blatant violation of state statute. I wish that both Verizon and the state had put us in a better position, but as we stand right now we have no choice but to allow this project to move forward.

South Oneida streetscape design

As the South Oneida Street reconstruction approaches, we've reached some of the decision points regarding the aesthetics of one of the most-trafficked entrances to downtown. Last week the Municipal Services Committee was asked to consider the Department of Public Works' recommendations for street lights in this area, and recommended a plan for approval (on a 3-1 vote) with the following amendments:
  • Adding semi-decorative city-owned LED lights from Roeland Avenue to the Skyline Bridge (except for one block) at a cost of $80,000.
  • Adding the same semi-decorative, city-owned LED lights on the bridge and up to Prospect Avenue at a cost of $40,000.
  • Replacing light poles from Wilson Street to the bridge with black fiberglass poles at a cost of $159,000.
All three of those amendments received at least one dissenting vote, so there was some controversy around the decision to add almost $280,000 in expenses to this project. I anticipate this item will receive significant debate again on Wednesday with a wide array of opinions on the value of decorative and/or uniform light fixtures.

Employee Health Clinic

Back in March I mentioned a proposal calling for the city and the Appleton Area School District to come together to work with Thedacare to provide a new health clinic for our employees and their families. Opening our own health clinic is projected to save the city a good deal in health care costs while providing employees more convenient access to acute, primary, occupational health and preventive care. At that time council approved a contract with Thedacare to provide this service at a space to be determined.

Last week the Finance Committee voted unanimously to recommend approval of two items: An intergovernmental agreement between the city and the school district regarding cost sharing for this project and a lease for space for the clinic near Thedacare Regional Medical Center Appleton (formerly known as Appleton Medical Center). Neither item generated any major debate, so it looks like this project should move forward without issue.

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. Good governance happens in the open, and I remain committed to raising awareness on the issues coming before us.