Monday, March 23, 2015

What you may not know: Week of March 23

The Appleton Common Council has our final committee week this week before the April 7 spring elections, and it'll be a busy one with several notable items appearing on agendas:

City Plan Commission, Monday, 4 pm

Our first meeting of the week will be of interest to many residents of the 13th district, as the City Plan Commission will be asked to consider a request to rezone 22 acres of currently vacant property near the corner of Lightning Drive and Evergreen Drive for proposed multifamily and commercial development.

The properties up for rezoning are currently approved for commercial or agricultural use, but have been vacant for some time. The proposal calls for the portion of the property near Evergreen to be zoned commercial for future use and the back portion of the space to be zoned "R3," which would allow multifamily development to occur there.

Over the course of the last week I've heard from several of this property's neighbors with questions and concerns about how this rezoning could impact the value and quality of life at their homes or offices. I was unable to attend, but I know the developers held an informational meeting on Thursday night to address some of those concerns.

I still have more to learn before I'm prepared to vote in favor of or in opposition to this particular rezoning, but from past experience I can say the decision on properties like this usually hinges around some variation of the following three questions:

  1. Is there reason to believe that proceeding with the rezoning will have a negative impact on the value, function or safety of the surrounding properties, and do we have any level of certainty that those concerns are real and substantial?
  2. For the opponents of a project: If the proposed rezoning is not an appropriate use of this space, then what should go there instead?
  3. For the prospective developer: What steps can you take or have you already taken to ensure your proposed development won't have a negative impact on its neighbors?
Regardless of the recommendation of the Plan Commission, this project will need to wait for a period of public notice to pass before coming before the full council in late April or early May.

Utilities, Tuesday, 4:30 pm

The Utilities Committee will meet as scheduled on Tuesday of this week and the primary news from their gathering will likely be an information item, as they're expected to discuss a discrepancy between the budgeted amount and a preliminary estimate for the cost of a proposed new water tower on the city's northeast side.

The tower would hold one million gallons of water and would replace the function of the current Oneida Street tower, which is nearing the end of its useful life. For 2015 we've budgeted $2.9 million to construct the facility, and a recent round of estimates suggest the cost will be closer to $3.4 million. 

No official action will be taken on this matter at this meeting, but at some point the committee and council will have to decide to either proceed with this project at a higher cost or pursue other options.

Finance, Wednesday, 4:30 pm

We're close to closing the books on the 2014 fiscal year, and the Finance Committee will take a step in that direction on Wednesday when we're asked to consider carryover requests for unspent funds in the budget.

Each year we approve the following year's budget in November and it includes a wide variety of projects we expect to complete in the year ahead, but for a variety of reasons sometimes we're unable to finish everything we planned to do. The remaining unspent funds are applied in the following way:
  1. Any unspent funds already committed to a contract for their budgeted use are spent as budgeted.
  2. Council has the opportunity to approve extending projects without an approved contract into another year.
  3. A large portion of the money left over after steps 1 and 2 is applied to debt service, which is a part of the reason the city is routinely able to pay off our debts early.
  4. Some of the money left over after steps 1 and 2 is available to be used on items flagged for "special consideration."
This year the most notable carryover request is almost certainly the money budgeted in 2014 for the land purchase for the exhibition center. In addition, this year we have slightly more than $500,000 requested under Step 4 above. The lion's share of that money is flagged for pay increases earned by employees under the city's pay-for-performance salary model, but there are some other projects here worth noting:
  • Over $48,000 for the IT department for a software license upgrade and email and council recording upgrades.
  • $30,000 for the purchase of additional body cameras for the Police Department.
  • $10,000 for upgrades to the Department of Public Works' conference room.
  • $5000 for an additional Aquos board for use at City Hall.
  • $5000 for additional training for new staff members in the City Attorney's office, where two of the four attorney positions have turned over in the last year.
In addition to all of those committee items and more, there are also two very significant community events on tap this week:

On Monday at 6:30 the League of Women Voters will host a forum on proposed developments downtown at the library. Panelists at the forum include representatives from the city, Appleton Downtown Incorporated and the YMCA who will come together to discuss the proposed new library, exhibition center and improvements to the YMCA. The event is scheduled to last 90 minutes and will be divided between comments from the panelists and a question-and-answer session.

Then on Wednesday the League will also host a candidate forum for the six contested aldermanic races in the upcoming spring election. I wasn't asked to participate in this event as I don't have a declared opponent for this spring, but I likely will attend to hear the 12 incumbents and candidates' thoughts on the issues facing the city. The forum begins at 6:30 pm and is expected to last until 8.

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, March 16, 2015

What you may not know: Week of March 16

The Appleton Common Council will meet on Wednesday at 7 pm in our regularly scheduled session, and our agenda includes some items we've discussed before:

Industrial Park land sale

Last Monday the Community and Economic Development Committee voted unanimously to recommend approval of a request to sell two lots in the Northeast Industrial Park for $35,000 per acre, which is $5,000 per acre below our asking price for these properties. Council just approved the new asking price a few months ago, but we're now being asked to accept less in response to a need for on-site stormwater management in this area.

I remain concerned regarding any decision to sell below our asking price due to a precedent set by doing so. If we're going to do this, we should probably lower the asking price across the board in acknowledgement of the fact that we're willing to accept less.

Midway Road safety improvements

Last Tuesday the Municipal Services Committee voted 5-0 to recommend approval of four changes to the ordinance enforcement and infrastructure along Midway Road, as laid out in last week's update. Assuming those changes also pass council on Wednesday, the improvements will likely appear in the 2016 budget.

College Avenue sign request

At that same meeting the committee decided to hold a request to approve a street occupancy permit for a new sign outside Bazil's Pub which would have extended over eight feet into the right-of-way. It's my understanding that this request will be withdrawn and a new proposal will be brought forward.

Wednesday's meeting also includes a closed session to discuss real estate negotiations regarding the proposed future site of the Appleton Public Library. I can't discuss what has happened or will happen in closed sessions, but here's a quick update on where we are in that process:

  • The Library Board and the Council approved a budget calling for the city to proceed towards building a new library on the "bluff" site. The money budgeted for 2015 calls for the purchase and clearing of the properties and some architectural work.
  • As part of negotiations to purchase the properties, the city paid for appraisals of both entities. Both the church and the banquet hall also had the right to request their own appraisals at city expense. That window has since closed.
  • If we purchase the properties, the city is required to assist in relocating the existing owners. We had to submit a relocation plan for state approval, and as of last Wednesday we hadn't heard back on that.
If you have further questions about the library process or would like to learn more about other potentially upcoming downtown projects like the YMCA renovation or exhibition center, the League of Women Voters is hosting a forum you may want to attend on Monday, March 23.

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, March 9, 2015

What you may not know: Week of March 9

It's a committee week for the Appleton Common Council, and here are some of the items I'll be keeping an eye on:

Community and Economic Development Committee, Monday, 5 pm

This committee has been in the spotlight for some time now as they and the council as a whole have worked their way through a decision regarding the proposed Fox Cities Exhibition Center. If you haven't been following the news, on Wednesday the council voted (10-4 with one abstention) to approve an offer to the county to purchase the proposed site with contingencies including the following:

  • An agreement between the city and the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel regarding management of the facility.
  • Agreement between all participating communities to raise their respective room taxes to finance the construction.
  • The Appleton Redevelopment Authority securing financing based on the room tax revenue.
Under the current agreement, all three of those items must be met by November 30 so the transaction can close.

Two of my colleagues and I had previously submitted a resolution calling for the city to disengage from that process, but with last week's vote to proceed we've decided to withdraw that item. Debating stopping the process just five days after council voted to proceed seems like a poor use of our time at this point.

With that item off the table, the lone action item at this meeting is a request to approve the sale of two lots in the Northeast Industrial Park, located at the corner of Capitol and Zuehlke Drives. Romenesko Developments, Inc. has offered the city $35,000 per acre for the two parcels, which is below our recently-approved asking price of $40,000. The reason for their lower offer is some increased expense in construction due to necessary stormwater mitigation. I'll be interested to see how the committee elects to handle this request.

Municipal Services Committee, Tuesday, 5:30 pm

The Municipal Services Committee will see a pair of items of interest this week, including a sign request in a very visible location on College Avenue downtown.

Two weeks ago the committee recommended approval (on a 3-2 vote) of a request to allow a new sign to be installed at Bazil's Pub, extending off the front of the building and overhanging the street right of way. The sign is a roughly 9-foot-tall beer bottle with "Bazil's Pub" written on the side, and the image has made some of my colleagues uneasy.

This item was referred back to committee at last week's council meeting, and I'll be interested to see if any committee members have changed their mind since voting on this matter the last time.

In addition, on Tuesday night this committee will also approve five changes to traffic and pedestrian patterns along Midway Road to address vision and safety issues along this busy thoroughfare. In brief, the immediate recommendations are:
  • Resuming enforcement of the city's existing vision corner ordinance in this area to allow pedestrians and motorists the maximum possible visibility with the current layout.
  • Installing raised pedestrian islands at Midway's intersections with Hemlock/Southfield and Kernan (estimated cost $150-200,000)
  • Prohibiting left turns and pedestrian crossings at Midway's intersections with Woodcrest Drive and Barker Lane.
  • Installing a crosswalk with warning lights at the intersection of Midway and Whip-Poor-Will Ln. This carries a price tag of around $30,000.
The memo we received on this project didn't specify a likely timeframe for these improvements, but I'm operating under the assumption that any approved recommendations would be included in the city's 2016 budget.

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, March 2, 2015

What you may not know: Week of March 2

The Appleton Common Council will hold its regularly scheduled meeting on Wednesday at 7 and there's very little new business to discuss, so today's post will feature updates on the three items we discussed last week:

Expo center

Last Monday the Community and Economic Development Committee met for well over five hours to discuss in great detail many of the questions surrounding the proposed Fox Cities Exhibition Center. You can see a list of the questions and answers here. All told, the most notable decision made on Monday was a move by the committee to bring the land purchase agreement, which has been held since late January, back onto the council agenda for this Wednesday's meeting. In light of that decision, the resolution calling for a halt to the project has been put on hold by the committee.

Last Monday's extended meeting clarified a lot of the issues surrounding the expo center project, but unfortunately it did not alleviate my concerns about moving forward. I've written about my concerns multiple times and won't re-hash them at length here, but I still think the risks involved city ownership and the possibility that operating this facility could become a line item in the budget are being understated, and I remain concerned regarding the challenges of crafting a management agreement that won't need to be revisited and potentially weakened if or when the Radisson Paper Valley is eventually sold.

At this point I think we've probably had all the conversation we need to have on this topic. I'm glad we're finally going to get an opportunity to vote on whether or not we should proceed.

Ballard/Ashbury traffic control

Last week the Municipal Services Committee voted 5-0 to approve ordinance changes related to the installation of a new traffic signal at the intersection of Ballard Road and Ashbury Dr, the corner to the southwest of North High School. This item should pass council this Wednesday and everything continues to be on pace for the work to take place this summer.

Northland Avenue stormwater pond

Last Wednesday the Finance Committee voted unanimously to approve the purchase of a piece of property just outside the city in Grand Chute to use for a stormwater detention pond as part of our project to improve flooding issues near the northwest corner of the city. The assessed value of the property to be purchased is $202,000.

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, February 23, 2015

What you may not know: Week of February 23

The Appleton Common Council has a full slate of committee meetings this week, but most of the headlines will probably happen on Monday:

Community and Economic Development, Monday, 6 pm

If you've been following the news recently then you may be aware of some of the latest developments regarding the proposed Exhibition Center project. If you haven't, here's a quick recap:

  • Back in November of 2013 the council approved a 2014 budget that called for the project to continue and budgeted for a land purchase and necessary utility work around the proposed facility.
  • On January 7, 2015 council was asked to approve an agreement to purchase the property from the county. That motion failed on a 6-8 vote with one abstention.
  • At our next meeting on January 21, council voted to reconsider that item but did not take another vote. Instead, the item was referred to the Community and Economic Development Committee and has been held there for over a month since.
That process will take a step forward (or backward, I suppose) tonight when the committee meets in extended session in an attempt to answer any outstanding questions regarding the project, I anticipate an extended discussion on this topic, as there are a lot of moving parts to cover.

This meeting was initially scheduled to be information-only, but that was a concern for me and at least two other alderpersons, Polly Dalton and Greg Dannecker. The process of moving forward with this project requires a lot of staff and consultant time, neither of which are inexpensive. The longer we delay decisions on this item, the more money we're going to spend on a project that may not have final support from this council.

As such, Alderpersons Dannecker, Dalton and I submitted a resolution on Wednesday calling for the city to disengage from the project. That resolution also appears on tonight's agenda. I've written previously about my reasons not to support this effort, but I'll recap them here:
  1. City ownership and the risks of this project becoming a general fund liability in part or in whole if any of a variety of things go wrong.
  2. The uncertain ownership situation of the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel, the amount of leverage we would be giving to an unknown partner and the possibility that we will negotiate a lease but be forced to renegotiate and weaken it under pressure from a new partner.
  3. The fact that the projected impact of this project diminished significantly between the first and second feasibility study, the uncertain nature of industry trends and economic projections, and the significant possibility that the convention increase we're expecting will be overstated or negligible.
  4. The county's excessive asking price for the property, both in financial terms and as related to the parking concessions being requested.
I think an exhibition center built under the right circumstances could be a great thing for downtown Appleton. I don't feel our current direction reflects the right circumstances, though, and I cannot support it while it involves the city taking on this much of the risk.

Municipal Services, Tuesday, 5:30 pm

Moving on, on Tuesday night the Municipal Services Committee will likely take the next step forward towards approving a new traffic signal at the intersection of Ballard Road and Ashbury Drive near North High School. That project was approved as part of the 2015 budget, and now the committee will be asked to recommend approval of related traffic ordinance changes.

There are three adjustments requested, with two containing the decision to remove the stop signs and add traffic signals. The third would create a no parking, stopping or standing zone that extends 810 feet east of Ballard on Ashbury. I've asked for clarification on this, but by my estimation that would extend from Ballard to roughly the back of the high school's parking lots.

I don't expect this item to be controversial, but I wanted to share it as a reminder that traffic lights are expected to go in at this intersection during this construction season.

Finance, Wednesday, 4:30 pm

While much attention has been directed towards the exhibition center efforts and other projects downtown, on Wednesday the Finance Committee will be asked to recommend approval for another significant land acquisition on Northland Avenue.

The parcel of land up for purchase would be the future home of a retention pond as part of the West Wisconsin stormwater project, which also includes the construction of a pond near the intersection of Birchwood and Glendale Avenues. 

I'm still awaiting some of the details on this proposed purchase, but I've previously supported efforts to reduce stormwater issues in this portion of the city.

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, February 16, 2015

What you may not know: Week of February 16

The Appleton Common Council will meet in its regularly scheduled session on Wednesday, but before we get around to our normal business we have a special committee meeting to take care of:

Community & Economic Development Committee, Wednesday, 6:30 pm

The city recently received some good news from the federal government, as we were notified that our 2015 Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) allocation will be $523,813, up over $20,000 from our $500,000 projection. On Wednesday the Community and Economic Development Committee will be asked to make a recommendation for the expenditure of the additional funds.

The funds will likely be divided among organizations that did not receive the full amount requested when their original applications were considered earlier this year. Those groups include:

  • Habitat for Humanity, which requested $96,000 and received $70,000.
  • Rebuilding Together, which requested $25,000 and received $10,000.
  • Homeless Connections (formerly known as Emergency Shelter of the Fox Valley), which requested $15,000 and received $14,000.
  • Harbor House, which requested $25,000 and received $23,000.
  • STEP Industries, which requested $30,000 and received $20,000.
Additionally, due to a cap on the percentage of total allocations given to "public service activities," the final three organizations on the list above cannot be granted more than a combined $6,571 in addition to their existing allocations.

The committee's recommendation on Wednesday will start a process that includes a 30-day public comment period before final approval by the full council on April 1.

Once that meeting wraps up, our normally-scheduled council agenda includes the following:

Huntley Playground Neighborhood Grant

At their regularly-scheduled meeting last week the Community & Economic Development Committee voted 5-0 to recommend approval of a $70,000 neighborhood grant to the Huntley Elementary PTO to help with their project to improve the playground outside the school. As I mentioned last week, the area around Huntley is a pretty significant distance from most of our city parks, turning the school's playground into a highly-used de facto neighborhood park.

This project represents an excellent opportunity for community collaboration to improve this space: The Huntley PTO has already raised over $20,000 from private donations towards this project, the city has an opportunity to contribute grant money from our Community Development Block Grant funds and the Appleton Area School District will fill in some of the remaining funding gaps in addition to overseeing the purchasing and installation of new equipment and performing the maintenance to keep it functional and universally accessible. 

This kind of project is exactly the reason why our Neighborhood Grant program was created, and I'm looking forward to seeing it succeed.

Concrete Paving

Finally, our 2015 construction projects will take a step forward Wednesday night when council votes to award our concrete paving contract for the year to Michiels Corporation. This vote will likely not be controversial but I wanted to mention it because it includes a bit of good news: The city budgeted over $5.65 million to spend on concrete paving in 2015, but this contract carries a maximum value of slightly less than $5.2 million, including 15% set aside for contingencies. That contract number was lowered a bit by the removal of three streets the council opted to delay paving this year, but still represents a pretty significant savings over our expected cost.

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, February 9, 2015

What you may not know: Week of February 9

A committee week kicks off this afternoon for the Appleton Common Council, and here are three items I'll be keeping an eye on:

City Plan Commission, Monday, 4 pm

Back in November I submitted a resolution calling for the city to review the zoning code related to gas station canopies, in light of a recent ruling from the Board of Zoning Appeals that implied a lack of clarity in the language. That resolution passed the council late last year and the resulting proposed changes will come before the City Plan Commission for action tonight.

In my opinion the changes effectively clarify the zoning code to reflect what the accepted understanding of the code has been for some time. Under the amended code, our definition of canopies include a specific example involving gas station canopies that should clear up some confusion. Our zoning code currently bans exterior lighting on canopies, and would continue to do so.

Community and Economic Development Committee, Monday, 5 pm

An item likely to have significant local interest in the 13th district is on the Community and Economic Development Committee's agenda for Monday, as they'll hear a request to use Neighborhood Grant money to expand the playground at Huntley Elementary School.

As the northeast side of the city has grown in recent years, so has enrollment at Huntley. The school has 30% more students than it did in 2006, and its existing playground equipment is inadequate to meet those needs. The PTO is working to raise $100,000 to make major additions to the facility, and has requested $70,000 of the city's available $120,000 in grant money to put towards this effort.

It's also worth noting that the school isn't the only user of this playground. The area around Huntley isn't served very well by our existing park system, with residents located a pretty significant distance from both Erb and Peabody Parks and having to cross Northland Avenue to get to Memorial Park. Our own Parks and Rec department uses the playground at Huntley for the neighborhood's summer recreation programming, and the YMCA also uses it for their before and after school programming in the area.

As such, I think the improved playground at Huntley represents a very real opportunity to add value to the community with our (largely federally funded) grant money. That's exactly what this program is for.

Municipal Services, Tuesday, 5:30 pm

By now you may have heard that a draft of the results from the city's long-awaited parking study is in, and it will appear as an information item when the Municipal Services Committee meets on Tuesday night. Any and all recommendations from this study will still have to be approved by the council before they can take effect, but the report calls for the following:

  • A partnership between the city and the YMCA to construct a new, larger parking ramp on the site of the current Soldiers Square ramp. The proposed ramp would be multi-use, with retail space on the ground level and possibly apartments above the ramp.
  • Changing the existing "pay to enter" parking ramp procedure to a system where users pay when departing and are charged based on the amount of time spent in the ramp.
  • Expanding the ability to accept credit cards at parking meters and make payments to meters using a mobile device.
  • Eliminating meter enforcement after 6 pm. The meters are currently enforced until 9 pm Monday-Saturday.
Again, it's worth repeating that we're still in the very early stages of making any changes to downtown parking and all 15 of the consultant's recommendations are just that: recommendations. However, this report and the conversations it generates will go a long way towards determining how we handle this issue 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. 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.