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.

Monday, February 2, 2015

What you may not know: Week of February 2

On Wednesday night the Appleton Common Council will come together for our first scheduled meeting in the month of February, and it should be a light one. Among the items likely to pass are the following:

  • A staff request to vacate a small portion of Douglas Street between Badger and Commercial when Badger Avenue is reconstructed this year.
  • A request to approve a "composite" (steel and concrete) conceptual design for the new water tower on the city's northeast side.
  • A request to allow alcoholic beverages to be sold at Reid Golf Course starting at 9 am, as opposed to 10 am in previous years.
  • The second annual request to hold a car show in the downtown parking ramp near the Performing Arts Center on July 25.
  • A rezoning request to allow continued development in the Emerald Valley subdivision (north of Highway JJ and west of French Road).
In addition, as I said last week, council is likely to consider and reject a resolution calling for the city to look into finding ways to reimburse property owners affected by special assessments in recent years. As I've written previously, there simply does not appear to be an effective way to compensate those who have paid in the past without major budgetary impact and without simply moving the line between who has paid and who has not.

Finally, one issue that may come up this week is not on the agenda yet. Over the last few days council has been under heavy pressure to reconsider our recent vote to put a roundabout on E. John St near Richmond Elementary. That item passed on a 10-4 vote at our last meeting, but reconsideration could bring it back for further deliberation. Here's how that process works:
  • Any alderperson who voted on the prevailing side of an action (in this case, someone who voted yes) or was absent from a council meeting can request council reconsider the item. A majority of council members present at the meeting have to vote to approve that reconsideration.
  • In an alderperson knows in advance they're planning to ask for reconsideration, they can notify the clerk's office and get it added to the agenda. This allows council to debate and vote on the item again immediately.
  • If the item is not on the council agenda, then open meetings laws prevent us from debating it because no public notice was given that a debate may take place. In that case, an item can still be reconsidered but would have to be returned to its original committee of jurisdiction.
As of this writing, no alderperson has requested the roundabout be added to the agenda. As such, the last bullet point remains in effect. I voted "no" the first time this project came up, so I'm not eligible to request reconsideration.

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, January 26, 2015

What you may not know: Week of January 26

The Appleton Common Council will wrap up the month of January with a full slate of committee meetings, and two of the more notable items up for discussion are things we've discussed before:

Community and Economic Development Committee, Monday, 5 pm

The proposed Fox Cities Exhibition Center project is alive again this week and will be discussed on Monday, If you've fallen behind on the news, here are the events that led us to this point:

  • Staff's request to approve the purchase of the Outagamie County property behind the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel was held at both of the council's meetings in December before finally being rejected on a 6-8 vote at our January 7 meeting, putting the entire project in jeopardy.
  • Last Wednesday Council voted 11-3 (I was one of the nays) to reconsider that vote, reopening the item for discussion.
  • Before any final vote could be taken, however, the item was referred to the Community and Economic Development Committee, where it's my understanding the chair intends to hold it indefinitely. 
I've written previously about my problems with this project, but now I'm also concerned by the way in which we're proceeding. Continuing to pursue this project is an expensive endeavor, with attorneys, consultants and a lot of staff time being used as a part of this effort. I think it's irresponsible for us to continue down that path and continue to run up that bill without getting an actual up-or-down vote from the council to proceed. It's my hope that we'll bring this issue before the full council for a vote soon, to eliminate the risk that we're continuing to spend money chasing a project that will not be approved.

Finance Committee, Wednesday, 4:30 pm

Elsewhere in items we're seeing again, on Wednesday the Finance Committee will again discuss a resolution calling for the city to find a way to compensate property owners who have recently paid special assessments in light of the city's recently-adopted policy eliminating those charges for street reconstruction. I wrote about this item in my update two weeks ago, but the item was held at committee when neither of the resolution's authors were able to appear to make their case.

My position on this matter has not changed: I don't think any concerns about the fairness of changing policies will be alleviated by moving the line between the group who paid and the group who will not. Furthermore, any financial impact of doing so would be very difficult to take on without raising property taxes or eliminating city services.

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, January 20, 2015

What you may not know: Week of January 19

The Appleton Common Council will meet in regular session on Wednesday and one item we've discussed previously will likely dominate the conversation: We've received word that one member of council will ask the body to reconsider our vote from two weeks ago on a request to purchase land from the county to construct a proposed exhibition center downtown.

First, a quick note on how reconsideration works. Any member of the council who was absent from a council meeting or voted on the prevailing side of an item (voting no in this case) is allowed to request council take the item up again. That request requires a majority vote from the council before the item can be debated again.

With that said, I voted no on the exhibition center project two weeks ago and I intend to do so again if we take it up on Wednesday night. I've written about my concerns regarding this project in the past, but here is a quick list of my four reasons for voting no. They're ranked in order of importance:
  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.
Several of my colleagues and I have been under pretty heavy pressure to take this up again and change our minds. I'm not interested in doing so.

Finally, here are a pair of updates on the items I discussed in last week's update:

  • The Municipal Services Committee voted unanimously on Tuesday to recommend approval of a redesign for E. John St that features, among other things, a roundabout at the corner of John and E South River streets that would cut into the property at Mead Pool. That item will come before the council on Wednesday and is likely to be approved.
  • Neither of the authors of a resolution calling for the city to look into compensating recent special assessment properties were able to attend Wednesday's Finance Committee meeting, so as a courtesy their item was held. It will be back on the agenda when we meet again on Wednesday, January 28.
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, January 12, 2015

What you may not know: Week of January 12

It's time for another committee week for the Appleton Common Council, and these are some of the items on my radar:

Municipal Services, Tuesday, 5:30 pm

E. John Street is one of the city's busiest thoroughfares, and it's due for reconstruction in the coming years. On Tuesday night the Municipal Services Committee will get its first opportunity to review the street's proposed redesign, which has been divided into six segments:

  • From Banta Court to E. South River Street, the road will be 46 feet wide with a dedicated left turn lane and bike lanes on both sides.
  • At the intersection of John Street and E. South River Street, a single-lane roundabout will be constructed.
  • From E. South River to Telulah Ave, the road will be 43 feet wide with bike lanes on both sides and restricted parking.
  • From Telulah to Emmers Drive, the road will be 42 feet wide with bike lanes on both sides and restricted parking on one side.
  • From Emmers Drive to Fidelis Street, the road will be 43 feet wide with bike lanes on both sides and restricted on-street parking.
  • Finally, from Fidelis to Mathias Street the road will be 37 feet wide with bike lanes on both sides and restricted on-street parking.
The second item listed above could pose a bit of a challenge, as the proposed roundabout would require more space than the current intersection. The Department of Public Works is proposing taking the extra needed space from the Mead Pool property, but that creates some short and long-term concerns for the pool.

The Parks and Recreation Department has asked for alternatives to be considered before taking space away from the pool, and I hope we'll hear about some of the other possibilities on Tuesday night.

Finance, Wednesday, 4:30 pm

Special assessment reform and Appleton's new wheel tax are back on the agenda this week at the Finance Committee, thanks to a resolution submitted by Alderpersons Croatt and Jirschele. They're calling for a study looking into ways the city can financially or otherwise assist property owners who have recently paid for special assessments, now that some assessments have been eliminated.

This is a good idea in concept, but it creates a variety of concerns:
  • First and foremost, any concerns over the fairness of changing the rules regarding assessments aren't really addressed here. When council changed the special assessment policy we drew a line in time and changed the rule from that point forward. This meant that some people paid for street reconstruction and others would not, based on the time the work was performed. That's less than ideal but unavoidable in my opinion: Making the right decision now doesn't allow us to un-make past decisions. Changing the rules for people who paid a special assessment last year, or three years ago or five years ago won't change that problem, it just moves the line.
  • Second, I'll be interested to see how the authors intend to define the groups who should receive some form of benefit and those who will not. The wheel tax was designed to cover the cost of street reconstruction and eliminate special assessments for those properties, but one could make an argument that residents of streets that recently underwent new street construction should also be included in any benefit.
  • Finally, there's the question of how the city would pay for any changes. I doubt anyone wants us to raise property taxes across the board or borrow more money to pay for special assessment relief for a select group. As such, it's unclear how we could offer any kind of benefit without having to cut another city service to find available resources.
I'll listen to discussion on this one with an open mind but I'm not inclined to support any proposal that fails to address the fairness issue, creates a new fairness issue or causes significant budgetary impact.

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.