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.


Thursday, January 8, 2015

A quick note on Wednesday's exhibition center vote

Constituents and friends,

I wanted to take a moment today to discuss a vote I made at last night's Appleton Common Council meeting. As is typically the case, some of you will approve of my decision and some of you will not.

If you've been following the news, you may know that I was one of eight alderpersons who voted to deny a request to purchase the county property south of the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel, the projected site of the proposed exhibition center. This vote leaves the future of this longtime city project in question.

If you've been reading my alderman blog you may already know some of my concerns regarding this project:

- 2014's shift from a privately-owned model to a city-owned model removed this project from the city tax base and left the city holding all the risk in the event things didn't work out for any of a variety of possible reasons.
- The county's asking price for the potential exhibition center property far exceeded its value, and the deal also included the city making significant concessions in the area to replace the county's parking. This is roughly the equivalent of the city buying your house by paying you twice its value, AND building you a new house.

I still believe that an exhibition center would be a tremendous economic addition to our downtown, under the right circumstances. I supported this project in the 2014 budget before seeing the shift in ownership model and the county's demands for the property. At this point, however, I cannot support a project that benefits multiple entities but piles all the risk on just one.

Emails and other messages I've received today suggest that the city is relatively evenly split on whether or not this was the right decision. I hope that those of you who feel I voted the wrong way will at least understand my rationale for doing so.

Monday, January 5, 2015

What you may not know: Week of January 5

I hope everyone had a safe and happy holiday season, and the transition back to work today is going smoothly for all of you who had the chance to take a break during that time. The Appleton Common Council is back to work this week with our first scheduled council meeting of 2015, along with a few committees, boards and commissions that have been rescheduled after being postponed over the last couple of weeks.

City Plan Commission, Monday, 4 pm

The first of those rescheduled meetings will happen today when the City Plan Commission meets in special session to again consider a proposal to redevelop an abandoned industrial building in the Flats  (the former A-C Compressor building at 218 E South Island St) into residential space.

I discussed this item briefly before it came before the commission on November 24, noting that it's always a good thing when we're seeing interest in redeveloping unused spaces. At that time I also mentioned some related infrastructure challenges, however, and we're still seeing that. Here are some of my concerns:

  • First of all, the current use of much of the active property in this area is industrial, including the Neenah Paper facility adjacent to this space. That facility is active 24 hours daily and draws a significant amount of heavy truck traffic to South Island Street, which would be the only entrance and exit for this planned development. 
  • The way the existing building was constructed also creates some challenges, as it was built almost right up to the lot line on every side and redevelopment would require exceptions to our zoning code regarding setbacks. Most troubling for me is a two-foot setback from South Island Street on portions of the south side of the property. That's not even enough space to construct a full width sidewalk to keep pedestrians off the road.
  • That problem is exacerbated by limited available parking. Zoning code would require 114 parking spaces be made available to serve this development's 60 units, but space only allows 101. The assumption has been that some of this building's occupants will use transit or bike, but I'll note again that doing so will require them to walk or bike down a street with significant truck traffic and limited availability of sidewalks.
  • Because the building nearly butts up against the lot line on multiple sides, there's not much green space available here. Zoning code requires new development to be 35% green space, and this property would have just 18%.
  • As you might imagine given the lack of setbacks, green space and parking, this project's density on a per-unit level is nearly double what we would typically allow. Our zoning ordinance requires 3000 square feet per unit for multi-family housing, while this development would have just 1396, or less than half of that.
We have the authority to grant exceptions to our zoning code, but when we're being asked for this many exceptions I think we need to take a step back and ask ourselves if we should. While I recognize the benefits of redevelopment for the city, I think it only works if the resulting properties are safe and the residents living there will have an acceptable quality of life. I'm not convinced either of those baseline criteria are met here. There are space, noise and pedestrian safety concerns that make it very hard for me to approve this in good conscience.

The commission's decision will appear as a recommendation when this item appears before the full council on Wednesday. It will likely be overshadowed, however, by another long-awaited decision:

Exhibition Center

On Wednesday, for the third time, council will be asked to vote on a purchase agreement between the city and Outagamie County to purchase the property for a proposed Exhibition Center south of the Radisson Paper Valley. This item was held once to make minor modifications to the agreement and was held two weeks ago due to confusion regarding the posting of the updated agreement, but is likely to be acted upon this week.

The land purchase agreement is the first of several steps that would need to fall into place for this project to become a reality. The purchase would only take place if the city can reach an agreement with the hotel on a lease for the facility and neighboring communities agree to raise their respective room taxes to help pay for its construction. As such, a vote to approve on Wednesday isn't a guarantee that this project will proceed.

However, both this purchase agreement and the project as a whole are problematic for me. The purchase agreement calls for us to significantly overpay for this property as compared to its assessed value and make concessions to the county that will cost us parking revenue going forward. Furthermore, the fact that the city will eventually hold ownership over the completed facility leaves the taxpayers holding all of the risk should something go wrong. 

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, December 22, 2014

What you may not know: Week of December 22

As you might imagine, the holiday week is a quiet time for the Appleton Common Council and its committees. All of our regularly scheduled committees are taking the week off, although three have rescheduled their meetings and still have business to conduct before the full council meets again on January 7:

  • The Safety & Licensing Committee meeting scheduled for Thursday will instead be held at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, December 30. The full agenda has not been released but will include a review of the decision to temporarily remove one local company from the city's towing list.
  • The City Plan Commission meeting scheduled for Monday will instead take place at 4 p.m. on Monday, January 5. Action items will again include a request to re-zone the former site of the Woolen Mills for a planned residential development.
  • Finally, the Community & Economic Development Committee will hold a special meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, January 7, immediately before our regularly-scheduled full council meeting. Their agenda includes a request to approve the purchase of two lots in the Northeast Industrial Park.
And with that, this blog is off for a couple of weeks for the holidays. I'll be back on Monday, January 5 with a preview of that week's council activity. Until then, I wish you all a safe and happy holiday season.

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, December 8, 2014

What you may not know: Week of December 8

After a few quiet weeks, the Appleton Common Council has a busy committee week scheduled in what's likely to be our final full slate of 2014. Here's a preview of the agendas on tap:

Community and Economic Development Committee, Monday, 5 pm

It's time once again for council to look at requests for funding via the federally-backed Community Development Block Grant program, and the CEDC committee will take a big step in that process when they meet on Monday.

Our anticipated federal funding for the CDBG program for 2015 is $500,000, and of that $317,000 is divided among the city's Homeowner Rehabilitation Loan Program, Neighborhood Services Program, Fair Housing Services, the Appleton Housing Authority and administrative costs. That leaves $183,000 to be divided among non-governmental organizations that apply for funds as community partners.

A six-member panel recently met to review grant applications and produce a recommendation for the allocation of the remaining funds. Each member was asked to review the requests and produce their own recommendation, then the group came together to compare notes and combine their findings into one final allocation. Here are their results:
  • Greater Fox Cities Area Habitat for Humanity would receive $70,000 of the $96,000 they requested (73%) for rehabilitation of four properties.
  • Housing Partnership of the Fox Cities would receive $31,000 of their requested $31,200 (99%) to rehab and repair three units and the parking area at the Wire Works Apartments.
  • Harbor House would receive $23,000 of their requested $25,000 (92%) to help fund support counseling and advocacy staff positions.
  • STEP Industries would receive $20,000 of their requested $30,000 (67%) to help fund staff positions, support program participants and support other programs.
  • Fox Valley Warming Shelter would receive the $15,000 they requested (100%) to help fund staff positions.
  • Emergency Shelter of the Fox Valley would receive $14,000 of the $15,000 (93%) they requested to support a House Supervisor position and pay for utility costs.
  • Rebuilding Together Fox Valley would receive $10,000 of the $25,000 (40%) they requested for modifications to 12 households to increase accessibility, repair roofs or replace windows.
All told the panel was tasked with allocating $183,000 in funds over $237,200 in requests, and HUD regulations prohibit more than $75,000 from being spent on "public service activities." 

The committee will have the opportunity to amend or approve these recommendations before passing them along to council for final approval next week.

In addition, there is an information item on this agenda regarding the proposed Exhibition Center. Council elected to hold its action item regarding a land purchase for the project last Wednesday, and will take that item up again when we meet in our regularly scheduled session on Wednesday, December 17.

Finance Committee, Wednesday, 4:30 pm

Wednesday will be a busy day for the Finance Committee, which has a public appearance, seven action items and ten information items on a packed agenda. The action item I suspect many readers will find most interesting is also the first one on the agenda: A request to approve a contract with Vision Internet to redesign and rebuild the Appleton.org website.

The city's current website was built in 2009 and 2010 and is obselete in many ways. The current website is unable to offer many of the features users have come to expect from municipal websites, has been a challenge to upgrade over the years and needs to be built on a platform that allows us to do more with it internally. The staff recommendation in this case is to contract with Vision Internet, a company that has previously produced more than 600 municipal sites for other communities. The contract calls for $54,465 to be spent on the rebuild and budgets $5,535 for contingencies that may arise during the project.

It's very disappointing to have to spend money to replace a website just a few years after completing the previous one, but in the digital age our city website is one of the primary public faces of our community. This rebuild is necessary, but it also needs to come with a better plan to keep the site fresh moving forward so we're not doing this every five years in perpetuity.

Safety & Licensing Committee, Thursday, 5 pm

The Safety & Licensing Committee also has a busy agenda for Thursday, with 20 action items and several information items that could merit extended discussion.

One of those action items is a request to approve a stipulation negotiated to be added to the liquor license of La Michoacana Bar & Grill on College Avenue. This facility currently houses both the aforementioned restaurant in addition to Antro Nightclub, which made headlines recently due to a massive brawl in the establishment that led to a stabbing. This and multiple other incidents and concerns led to the city negotiating a deal with the business and property owners to allow the restaurant to continue to operate, if the nightclub operations immediately cease. The owners agreed to this arrangement to avoid a possible revocation of their liquor license for both businesses.

Another item on Thursday's agenda as an information item is a review of the Police Department's use of social media. This issue has been percolating now for quite some time: Here's a Post Crescent story where I was quoted on the matter back in early October.

There's absolutely no doubt that social media, when used correctly, can be a great tool to disseminate information and make our community safer. There's also a tremendous risk, however, that allowing and engaging in public debates in comments on Facebook leads to inappropriate content on the site and impacts suspects' right to a fair trial. The department's page is monitored for inappropriate activity, but performing that monitoring also occupies a fair amount of officers' valuable time.

We need to find a way to do better here. Social media is a tremendous resource that isn't going away anytime soon, but we need to be certain we're using it in an efficient way and not allowing others to abuse it.

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.