Monday, April 21, 2014

What you may not know: Week of April 21

The second year of my two-year term (hopefully my first of many) on Appleton's city council officially began last week, when we held our organizational meeting, swore in two new members and the new council met for the first time. With a new year comes new committee assignments, and this year I'll be serving on:

  • The Finance Committee
  • The Safety and Licensing Committee
  • The Transit Commission (my second year here)
In addition, I was fortunate to be elected by my peers to represent the council on the City Plan Commission. I'm sad to be leaving the Utilities and Parks & Rec committees after just one year, but I'm excited for these new opportunities and will likely stay involved with my former assignments.

Now that our new committees have been assigned, we have a full week of meetings ahead of us. Here are some of the highlights:

City Plan Commission, Monday, 4 pm

My first meeting as a member of this commission will be a big one, as we're expected to make a decision on a zoning issue within the 13th district.

All three action items on the agenda (an amendment to the city's Comprehensive Land Use Map, a zoning change and a special use permit) pertain to one property on Ballard Road, just north of the intersection with Milestone Drive. The city has received a proposal to allow a "Community Living Arrangement" serving 50 persons on the site.

Via a document on the City of Milwaukee's site, here's a quick summary of what kind of state-permitted facilities are considered Community Living Arrangements:

  • Residential Care Center – a facility where 4 or more children reside and are provided with care and maintenance for no more than 75 days in any consecutive 12 month period by persons other than a relative or guardian 
  • Group Home or Group Foster Home – a facility where 5 to 8 foster children reside and are provided with care and maintenance by persons other than a relative or guardian 
  • Community Based Residential Facility - a facility where 5 or more adults not related to the operator reside and are provided with care, treatment or services above the level of room and board but less than nursing care.
In addition to the plan amendment, zoning change and special use permit, a facility built on this space (or anywhere else in the 13th district) will require an exception to a city rule stating that "The total capacity of all CLA’s within any aldermanic district may not exceed 1% of the total population of that aldermanic district.” 

As of the 2010 census, the population of District 13 was 4,796 people. 1% of that population is roughly 48 persons, and the district already exceeds that capacity in CLAs with three Grand Horizons facilities on Cherryvale Avenue that could hold a combined 66 residents. If this facility is approved, it will put the district at more than 200% of the proposed limit.

I'm eager to hear more about this proposal on Monday night before making a final decision on it.

Municipal Services, Tuesday, 5:30 pm

A day later, an information item on the Municipal Services Committee agenda deals with an intersection just up the street. For several months now city staff have been studying traffic patterns at the intersection of Ballard Road and Ashbury Drive (the southwest corner of North High School) following an accident last year where a pedestrian was struck while trying to cross the street.

On Tuesday night our traffic engineers will present their findings and a recommendation to add a stop light at the intersection. The possibility has been looked into before, but this is the first time where we've found a signal to be warranted. In addition, our study found that conditions will continue to worsen without a signal in coming years.

However, we're still pretty early in this process. Since the 2014 budget is already completed, funding for a potential change to the intersection is likely to appear in the 2015 budget.

Parks and Recreation, Wednesday, 6 pm

Back in March I wrote about an ongoing situation at the Gardens of the Fox Cities, where the independent group that had been operating the facility elected to cease operations earlier this year. Control and maintenance of the Gardens returned to the city at that point, and we've been working for a while to determine what happens next.

On Wednesday night staff is recommending the Parks and Recreation Committee recommend approval of a rental policy for the facility for this year. Renting out the facility for meetings, parties and events will hopefully allow us to recoup some of the money we're investing in keeping the grounds maintained. It's a policy we'll likely revisit in a year, but it's a step forward in the continued operation of this popular attraction.

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, April 15, 2014

What you may not know: Week of April 15

My apologies for the late post: It's been a remarkably busy week or so. Without further delay, here's what I'm watching this week:

Library Board, Tuesday, 4:30 pm

After years of study and careful consideration, on Tuesday afternoon the ten members of the Library Board are expected to make a decision today that will shape the future of the facility. After consideration of over a dozen sites across the city, the board has received a recommendation calling for a new library to be constructed on "site 3C," a pair of parcels of E Lawrence Street currently occupied by Trinity Lutheran Church and Fox Banquets & Rivertyme Catering.

As you might expect, this recommendation is the result of years of work. I've been fortunate to be a small part of that work as part of the library's Community Conversation focus groups and tours of other community libraries, both new and reconstructed. Any space will bring its challenges and this one is no exception, but I'm confident in the process that led us to this potential choice.

I'm looking forward to the conversation today and hopefully a vote that will allow the plans to move forward.

Organizational Meeting, Wednesday, 7 pm

Later tonight the Appleton Common Council will meet informally to swear in our two new members and start a conversation on the council rules going forward. We do this once annually and, while it's probably not a big deal to most observers, the review of our rules is very important to maintaining a functioning council and improving our processes going forward.

Following the informal gathering, council will reconvene at 6 pm Wednesday to vote on potential rule changes and propose amendments to the rules. It's a tedious process at times but it's a great reminder of our expectations from each other and our constituents.

Common Council, Wednesday, 7 pm (or shortly after the Organizational Meeting)

Once we get past all of that, the council does have some city business to take up at our scheduled full council meeting. One of the items on our agenda is one I discussed last week: an amendment to our 2014 Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) allocations.

The city received slightly more money than expected from the federal government to fund this program, leaving slightly more than $25,000 extra available to be allocated to applicants. Because of limits on how this money can be spent, $3,280 was available for groups labeled as "public service," with the remainder available to be split between three applicants whose focus was housing.

After some debate the committee voted 4-1 to allocate an addition $7,306.66 each to the Housing Partnership of the Fox Cities, Greater Fox Cities Habitat for Humanity and Appleton Housing Authority, and to give $3,280 (the maximum available) to NAMI to help fill part of the gap between their original request and previous award. The council will get the opportunity to amend or approve this decision.

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.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

What you may not know: Week of April 6

This is kind of an unusual week for the Appleton Common Council. As you likely know, we had elections last week and two new members were elected to the council (not counting Polly Dalton, who we appointed a few weeks earlier). Those new members won't be sworn in until Tuesday, April 15, though.

In the meantime, though, we still have committee meetings scheduled for this week with our old committee alignment, and we have some remarkably significant items on the agendas. Here are some of the things I'm watching:

Community and Economic Development, Monday, 5 pm

Frequent readers of this space will certainly be aware of Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), a federally-funded program to help enhance the quality of life of low-to-moderate income residents. Back in February I wrote about nearly $125,000 in grant awards proposed for this year. That was based on an estimate that the city would receive $500,000 in grants overall.

Back in March the city received notice that our grant award is actually slightly higher, at $525,200. That leaves us an extra $25,200 to allocate, and that's the task that will be given to the Community and Economic Development Committee on Monday.

The committee has the authority to distribute this money to any approved project they wish, but I suspect they'll focus on five organizations who received less than their full funding request in the original allocations: Harbor House, NAMI, Step Industries, Housing Partnership of the Fox Cities and Greater Fox Cities Habitat for Humanity.

Municipal Services Committee, Tuesday, 5:30 pm

Parking meters downtown are one of the longstanding issues facing the city, as council members frequently hear from residents who do not approve of having to pay to park near city buildings and other amenities. We might take the first step towards eliminating those meters on Tuesday.

Last week at council Alderperson Kathy Plank proposed a resolution that calls for the city to analyze removing meters downtown and replacing them with license plate reader technology. My understanding is that the technology exists to purchase a vehicle that would scan license plates downtown all day and enforce two hour maximums on downtown spots.

There are a ton of questions to be answered here, including the following:

  • Removing the meters will cause a loss of revenue for the city's parking utility. Are we willing to lose that money, and if not, how can we replace it?
  • Does having a vehicle that drives around scanning license plates all day create a surveillance issue? How will the data on which vehicles are parked downtown be maintained, and who will have access to it?
In the meantime, though, before that conversation can fully happen council needs to approve this resolution asking staff to analyze the alternatives. I hope we'll do so, because only good things can come from that conversation.

Finance, Wednesday, 4:30 pm

Along with downtown parking, special assessments for road and sewer construction projects are also one of the most controversial issues the council faces. Last week Alderperson Plank also proposed a resolution calling for a review of that practice and a look into the possibility that special assessments could be replaced with money from the city's general fund.

I'm strongly in favor of a full review of the special assessment policy, because a lot of expensive work is done this way and I'd like to know if there are viable alternatives to the current system, where property owners pay large one-time charges for work done on or near their property. I anticipate that one of the arguments against a change, though, will be that using special assessments allows us to complete more projects. Because of levy limits, we don't have the option of raising property taxes to offset the loss of special assessment dollars. 

Again, this resolution isn't a change to the policy, just a request for city staff to analyze it. I'm hopeful we'll pass this resolution and give this practice thorough scrutiny later this year.

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.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

What you may not know: Week of March 31

Before I get started with this week's council update, I wanted to take a moment to remind everyone that our 2014 city and school elections will be held on Tuesday, April 1. Here in Appleton we have four candidates vying for three spots on the school board and three contested races for spots on the Common Council. Polls will be open from 7 am-8 pm on Tuesday, and you can find your voting location by typing in your address at my.appleton.org and clicking on the "voting" tab.

After that, the Appleton Common Council will meet on Wednesday and the three items on my radar are things I also discussed last week. Here are the updates on them:

Bike lanes on Fremont Street

After nearly an hour of debate last Tuesday (the third time they've debated this issue) the Municipal Services Committee voted 4-1 to reaffirm their decision to install bike lanes on Fremont Street this summer, which will require the removal of some on-street parking. The issue will come before the council again this week, and will likely receive a final vote.

The real challenge of the bike lane debate is that we're frequently pushed to seek "compromise" when the only available alternatives are really not all that viable. In this case, we've heard arguments in favor of creating a "sharo" on the street, a shared lane for bike and vehicle traffic. I'm not sure how that's significantly safer than doing nothing at all. We've also heard arguments for closing a lane of traffic on each side of Calumet Street to make room for bike lanes there. Calumet Street is one of the city's busiest arterial streets, so removing traffic lanes could create major backup issues.

I anticipate that on Wednesday we as a council will again be accused of "not listening" to concerns of neighbors and others that do not want to see bike lanes on Fremont Street or other parts of the city. That couldn't be further from the truth. By the time this issue is taken up on Wednesday we'll have heard debate on this issue on five separate occasions. Public comment has been taken into account in each and every one of those meetings, concerns have been addressed where possible and further steps have been considered.

At the end of the day, we as a council need to make a decision. No matter what we do hear, not everyone will be happy with it. But please allow me to assure you that the concerns addressed by both sides were not ignored.

Carryover budgets

Last week the Finance Committee voted unanimously to approve dozens of requests to carry unspent dollars from the 2013 budget over to 2014. A significant share of these dollars will be used to complete projects that were budgeted for last year but could not be completed before the end of the year for various reasons. However, 22 of these items are "special considerations," additions to the budget using leftover unspent funds.

A large number of those 22 items are requests for "pay for performance" salary adjustments. These are pay raises specifically granted to employees who received exceptionally high scores in their evaluations for 2013. There are also projects in here like $150,000 for storm sewer relocation and reconstruction under the Banta Bowl, $99,000 for replacement of computers, hardware, software and phones and $36,500 for the installation of indented parking on a couple of blocks of Mason Street.  All told, the "special consideration" portion of the carryover requests is $672,548.

As I mentioned above, this passed Finance unanimously last Wednesday. It's probably unlikely to be dramatically altered on the floor at council.

Farm Markets

Two weeks ago the council referred a request to hold a Wednesday Farm Market in the grassy area behind the City Center back to the Safety and Licensing Committee, where it was scheduled to be heard again last Thursday. Unfortunately, that meeting had to be cancelled, so Safety and Licensing will hold a special meeting before council at 6 pm on Wednesday to take up this item and the others on their agenda.

The conversation, best as I can tell, is still about finding the best place to hold this market. Once we settle on that I think the large majority of us will all be happy to have another event to help make local food more available and draw more people downtown in the process.

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, March 25, 2014

What you may not know: Week of March 24

It's a relatively light committee week for the Appleton Common Council, with three cancelled meetings on Monday and another on Wednesday. There are still a few items worth watching, though. Here's what's on my radar:

Municipal Services, Tuesday, 5:30 pm

Last week at our full council meeting the issue of Fremont Street bike lanes was referred back to committee, and a vote to block that refer-back failed by one vote. So on Tuesday the committee will again hear arguments for and against the installation of bike lanes on this street, which would require the removal of some on-street parking.

Last week I posted a list of frequently-asked questions regarding bike lanes, and I think many of the ongoing concerns on this issue are addressed there. With that said, we'll get another opportunity to hear spirited debate on this issue on Tuesday.

Finance, Wednesday, 4:30 pm

Part of our annual budgeting process is a review of money budgeted but not spent in the previous year for a variety of reasons. Causes of this issue include projects expected to happen last year that weren't completed, salary dollars budgeted for positions that were vacant for some or all of the year, items that came in under budget and the like. On Wednesday the Finance Committee will consider several "carryover" requests that would allow a portion of 2013's unspent dollars to be used on projects this year.

The proposals the committee will consider are divided into two groups: The first is dollars budgeted for projects that were not completed in 2013 but will be completed in 2014 with the carryover funds. The second group is called "special considerations," and contains extra tasks that could be funded with remaining unspent dollars.

The large ticket items in that second group include:

  • $150,000 for storm sewer relocation and reconstruction as part of Lawrence's planned upgrades to the Banta Bowl.
  • Three items worth a combined $99,000 for replacement of computers, computer hardware, software and phones.
  • $36,500 for the installation of indented parking on the 900 and 1000 blocks of Mason Street to replace some parking removed when bike lanes were installed last year.


Safety and Licensing, Thursday, 5 pm

UPDATE: This meeting has been postponed, and the action items will be discussed in a special meeting before council on April 2.

Two weeks ago the Safety and Licensing Committee received and voted to unanimously approve an application from Appleton Downtown, Incorporated to host a weekly Wednesday farmers market this summer on the grassy area behind the city center where the apartment building was torn down last year. However, at council last Wednesday the issue was referred back and the committee will discuss it again on Thursday.

Last week I heard a concern that holding a market may tear up the grass in this area, which was just planted last year. At the same time, the market could be more visible if held in the new Houdini Plaza.

I am strongly in favor of providing more opportunities for people to get local food here in the city, so I'll support this farm market both as an alderman and a customer regardless of where it ends up being located. However, I do think there's an interesting conversation to be had about ideal locations for 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.

Monday, March 17, 2014

What you may not know: Week of March 17

The Appleton Common Council will hold its regularly scheduled meeting on Wednesday night at 7 pm, and it could be an interesting night with the following items on the agenda:

Bike lanes

Last Tuesday the Municipal Services committee voted 4-1 to approve a plan calling for bike lanes to be installed on Fremont Street from Oneida Street to Telulah Avenue, which combined with a "bike route" east of Telulah would form a pretty significant east-west passage in the city's developing bike lane network.

As has typically been the case, installation of bike lanes has been a hot topic because it requires the removal of some on-street parking in front of homes on this route. The committee heard from residents of this street and others for multiple hours last Tuesday, and may of the concerns expressed will sound familiar to anyone who followed last spring's debate on bike lanes on Mason Street.

If you haven't been following the debate, here are some frequently asked questions about bike lanes:

  • Do they really make a difference? Adding a stripe of paint to concrete may not seem to add a lot of safety for bicyclists, but statistics show it does. Raising driver awareness of the possibility that a bicycle may be nearby has a significant impact on driver behavior.
  • Why do bike lanes have to be installed on busy streets/my street? Major streets are often the best place for bicycles to operate because they have controlled intersections when they cross other busy streets. Take the intersection of Fremont and Lawe Streets, for example. It's a four-way stop. It's much safer for a bicycle to cross Lawe Street there than it would be if the bike route was a block north on Harrison Street or a block south on Maple Street.
  • I don't see anyone riding a bicycle on this street now, so why do we need bike lanes? The bike lane plan isn't just an accommodation for current bicyclists, it's also an effort to make potential bicyclists feel more confident using our streets. Bicyclists may not feel safe using busy streets now, but by adding infrastructure the hope is that we can open the door for more people who may be interested to start taking opportunities to bike.
  • What's the difference between a "bike lane" and a "bike route?" Bike lanes are an actual stripe on the pavement marking an established space for bicycles to use. A bike route is a street that has been identified as a street for bicyclists to use, but has not been striped. Bike routes are ideal for streets with lower traffic, but don't add much for safety on a higher-traffic street. In this case the Fremont bike lane will become an unstriped bike route east of Telulah Avenue, where traffic on Fremont becomes much less.
Fox River House

On Wednesday morning the city's Board of Health will meet in special session to consider a noise variance request for the Fox River House, a bar located near downtown on S. Walnut Street. At least one neighbor has complained about the volume of noise produced when FRH has live bands outside on their patio.

As a result of the complaints, Fox River House has requested a variance from the city's noise ordinance allowing them to have outdoor music on the following dates:
  • Friday and Saturday nights from 7-11 pm from May 23-September 6.
  • Wednesday nights from 7-10 pm during the same timeframe.
  • Saturday, May 17, Thursday, August 7, Friday, September 26 and Saturday, September 27.
Since this issue came to light members of the council have received well over 100 emails from neighbors and customers in support of this noise variance. It's clear that FRH is offering a service that brings people to our downtown. Over the same period I've seen two emails from neighbors with concerns. I'm sure we'll hear more about this topic at Wednesday morning's meeting and again Wednesday night.

Compensation adjustments in the Utilities Department

Last week I wrote about an effort to respond to a salary issue in the utilities department which has led to the departure of several long time city employees. The matter appeared before both the Human Resources and Finance committees last week and both agreed to an adjustment that brings around 20 employees at the Water and Wastewater Treatment Plants back into a competitive pay scale. This comes at a cost, of course, but I think most involved are in agreement that the cost of losing these employees, their experience and expertise would be much greater.

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 10, 2014

What you may not know: Week of March 10

It's an active committee week for the Appleton Common Council. Here are some highlights:

Human Resources, Monday, 6 pm

The city recently wrapped up an extended review of salaries throughout city government, establishing pay grades and raise opportunities for hundreds of employees. The process was long and challenging, and unfortunately a pay freeze during the process created some short and long-term issues.

One of those issues came in the Utilities Department, where we're experiencing issues as several longtime employees have departed. The extremely complex nature of the water and wastewater treatment facilities mean it's very difficult to replace those employees and a lot of experience and expertise is lost with them.

At 6 tonight the HR committee will consider a one-time pay adjustment for some employees in this department that will hopefully stem the tide of departures. We're always cognizant of the cost of doing things like this, but I anticipate we'll decide that the cost of continuing to lose employees is greater.

Municipal Services, Tuesday, 5:30 pm

Frequent readers of this space will know that bike lanes have been one of the most often-debated topics we've faced in my year on the council. Another debate is coming as the Municipal Services Committee is expected to consider a plan this week to add lanes to Fremont Street (from St. Elizabeth Hospital to near East High School) and remove parking on portions of the street.

As a council we're not that far removed from the debate on Mason Street, and this one is similar in several ways. Fremont Street passes through a residential area, so removing or restricting on-street parking will cause some hardship for residents. We're also hearing a lot of the same questions we heard during that debate.

I anticipate we'll hear spirited debate again on the merits of creating bicycle infrastructure vs the value of on-street parking. Odds are this is merely the first chapter in an extended conversation.

Parks and Recreation, Wednesday, 6 pm

One of the more surprising developments of this year has been the sudden decision to close the Gardens of the Fox Cities at Memorial Park. While the facility is in a city park, operation of the grounds was done by an independent group that elected to cease operations.

That decision has left the city in a couple of difficult predicaments: First, there are some short-term adjustments that will need to be made to pay for ongoing maintenance of the facility. The grounds will still need some ongoing work to remain viable, and we're going to have to find some room in the budget to pay for that.

Beyond that, we have the bigger question of our long-term plan for the facility. Multiple groups have reached out to us about partnering to manage the Gardens going forward, so we should have plenty of opportunities to ensure this popular attraction continues to operate.

No decisions will be made on this matter on Wednesday, but we do have an information item on the agenda so we can all get on the same page regarding the situation and get informed about what happens next.

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.