Monday, November 23, 2015

What you may not know: Taking a week off

Hey folks,

This week would be a committee week for the Appleton Common Council but, between the Thanksgiving holiday and Tuesday's Christmas parade, nearly all of this week's meetings have been cancelled or postponed. As such, I'm taking the opportunity to take a week off to spend time with family. I'll see you back here next week.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours,

Monday, November 9, 2015

What you mat not know: Week of November 9

One of the busiest weeks of the council year is upon us, as we have a normal committee week in addition to Wednesday's final adoption of the 2016 city budget. Here are the highlights, in chronological order:

Human Resources, Monday, 5 pm

I wrote about this last week, so I hope you'll excuse me for being brief. Council salaries have to be set two years in advance so no member of the body is setting their own salary: They'll all face re-election once before the new salary takes effect. In 2014 council voted to raise the salary 2% in 2016, from $5805 to $5921.

No inflation adjustment was necessary for 2017, so two weeks ago the HR committee voted to hold salaries flat for another year. At council, however, I supported an amendment to switch to a 5% increase in an effort to begin to address the fact that low salaries combined with our evening work schedule may prevent many qualified candidates from seeking this office. That amendment failed, but the item was referred back to committee for further discussion.

Raising salaries for elected officials is never popular (last year it resulted in one of the screamiest voicemails I've ever received), but the reality is our failure to adjust our position's pay against inflation for long periods of time has allowed it to become so low that it's a barrier to entry for qualified candidates who may need to take evenings off of work or find childcare to be able to participate. A 5% increase (from $5921 to $6217) won't solve that problem, but it is a step in the right direction.

Municipal Services, Tuesday, 6:30 pm

The effort to reconstruct a portion of County Highway JJ and resolve some safety issues along the north side of North High School will take a step forward this week when the Municipal Services Committee holds a public hearing to discuss the proposed design.

I haven't seen the actual plan yet, but it's my understanding that it contains:

  • A new raised median with a fence on JJ between Ballard and Lightning, eliminating left turns on and off of the street throughout that area and preventing students from running across the street instead of using the crosswalk.
  • A roundabout at the corner of JJ and Lightning that will allow vehicles that had to turn right onto JJ to turn around.
No official action will be taken at this meeting: The committee will be asked to approve a final design at a later date.

Budget adoption, Wednesday, 6 pm

Finally, the council will meet in special session on Wednesday to wrap up deliberations on the city's 2016 budget, make any final amendments and approve the final document. This event concludes more than a month of review, special meetings and public hearings.

I've developed something of a reputation for being heavily involved in the budget process, pre-submitting 74 questions for our all-day budget meeting and proposing several amendments during final adoption each of the last two years. This year, however, I find I have no changes to propose.

This decision didn't come from a lack of effort or concern. Here are some of the items that remain on my radar:
  • The primary headline from this budget season has been the decision on how to proceed with the Erb Pool project, as that facility is scheduled to close following its 2016 season. Two weeks ago the Finance Committee amended the plan to call for a total of $9.25 million to be spent replacing the 50 meter pool (and the proposed "splash pad" replacement) with a 25-meter pool and other amenities to be determined later. Two of my colleagues have proposed amendments to expand the project by either $750,000 or $1.25 million in an effort to keep a 50-meter pool at the facility. I support these amendments: If we're going to build a new pool, I'd like to see us preserve some of the unique features that make Erb a notable community asset.
  • There has been some discussion of the possibility of adding a full-time recreation programmer position to the Parks & Recreation department to help address rapidly increasing demand for our programs and services. I support adding this position, partially funded by the increase in Recreation revenues, and look forward to discussion on two amendments calling for it.
  • Finally, I remain concerned by some of the financial details in the city's relationship with Reid Golf Course. The city continues to pay $8500 per year in rent to the golf course for winter programs despite the fact that the course owes about $160,000 to the general fund on a 24-year, interest free loan. I proposed an amendment last year to address this issue but it did not receive any support. I did not propose the amendment this year, but would still like to see the situation improved.
You can see agendas for all of this week's meetings and the full schedule at the city's Legistar page.

Keeping you informed on issues that may impact you around the city is one of my primary goals as an alderman. Good governance happens in the open, and I remain committed to raising awareness on the issues coming before us.

Monday, November 2, 2015

What you may not know: Week of November 2

A busy budget season for the City of Appleton Common Council continues this week. We did make one significant change to the budget at our day-long review session on Saturday, adding $6.25 million to the budget for the Erb Pool project to allow for the project to continue with an actual pool, as opposed to the splash pad concept that had been proposed.

The newly recommended dollar figure is likely enough to pursue something similar to either option 1A or 1B on this page, which both include 25-meter pools in addition to other amenities. The current pool at Erb Park is 50 meters, and the option calling for a new 50-meter pool would could roughly an additional million dollars.

If you'd like to weigh in on this topic or any of the other items in the 2016 budget, we will hold a public hearing on Wednesday night at 6 pm before our regularly scheduled council meeting. No official action on the budget will be taken this week. Any final amendments and the official adoption of the budget will happen on Wednesday, November 11.

Now, on to this week's agendas.

Appleton Redevelopment Authority, Wednesday, 3 pm

Efforts to redevelop the former site of the Foremost Dairy plant on the Fox River will take another step forward on Wednesday when the Appleton Redevelopment Authority will meet in special session to see presentations from two of the five developers who responded to a recent request for proposals (RFP) for the property.

This is the city's second attempt to redevelop this property. The first fell through earlier this year due to a financing issue, but that process helped us learn a fair amount about concerns regarding this property's maximum occupancy, access issues and neighborhood concerns. I'm hopeful that some of the lessons learned the first time around will help us come out with a strong result the second time.

After that and the previously mentioned public hearing on the 2016 budget, we'll hold our regularly-scheduled council meeting. Here are some highlights from the agenda:

Alcohol in parks

A discussion that started in July of this year will carry on into November on Wednesday night as council will be asked to consider the Parks & Recreation committee's recommendation regarding a proposed permitting process for allowing alcohol in parks.

Throughout this process it has been clear that something needs to be done to address problems arising from groups of people drinking to excess all day long in some city parks, but we've also heard concerns about inconveniences caused to responsible park users by any new ordinance. The committee had previously recommended adopting a permit-only policy for alcohol in parks, and last week they amended that recommendation to allow both one-time and one-year permits.

As I've mentioned previously, Appleton very nearly stands alone as a Fox Valley community allowing alcohol in parks without a permit. This recommendation puts us in a position to be more consistent with our neighboring communities while still allowing those who wish to drink responsibly in our parks an opportunity to do so.

Aldermanic salaries

On the same day last week the Human Resources committee voted 4-1 to recommend alderpersons receive no salary increase for the council year beginning in 2017. Alderpersons are currently scheduled to receive a 2% raise in April of 2016, raising our salary from $5,805 annually to $5,921.

There are a pair of issues to consider here, and I'll admit I'm still struggling to weigh one against the other. The first is a relatively simple goal to help our salaries keep pace with inflation. The 2% increase in 2016 reflected a Bureau of Labor Statistics-estimated 2% rate of inflation between midyear 2013 and 2014. This year the BLS says the rate of inflation was flat from September 2014-present, so no increase was needed for that purpose.

Beyond that, however, there's a larger issue related to accessibility of this office that represents a significant factor. While the workload related to being an alderperson varies from week to week and season to season, the simple action of attending assigned meetings occupies somewhere between 3-6 evenings every two weeks. Most alderpersons would make more money if they spent those evenings working somewhere for minimum wage or tending bar than they do serving the public. And, of course, attending meetings isn't the only responsibility of this position.

It's an honor to be elected to serve in this role and many of us would do it for free, but the combination of evening hours and low compensation make this position one that many qualified people either cannot afford to take or would prefer not to pursue. As a city, we lose out every time a good candidate for one of these jobs is disqualified or disinterested. Simply raising the salary by a percentage point here and there to keep up with inflation won't solve this issue.

Exhibition Center

Finally, this week we're likely to cast another key vote in the decision making process regarding the proposed exhibition center. The item on the table at this meeting is a proposed management agreement between the city and the new owners of the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel.

I haven't had a chance to review these documents yet, but I understand the changes are minimal from the item that was on our agenda two weeks ago. While many of my initial concerns regarding this project have been resolved, I still voted against two of the three room tax-related action items last week due to concerns over lack of details in one of the ordinance's late additions: a funding mechanism for to-be-determined sports facility projects.

To the best of my knowledge the approval of this agreement and our neighboring communities' willingness to approve the room tax agreement are the last two hurdles between this project and a required November closing date.

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, October 26, 2015

What you may not know: Week of October 26

The Appleton Common Council has a busy round of committees scheduled this week but all of those meetings will be conducted under the looming shadow of the 2016 budget, which we are currently reviewing. If you've liked my Facebook page you may already know that I finished my reading of the 660-page budget on Friday night and have submitted 74 questions to directors regarding items that appear within.

The budget is a great place to read about, discuss and perhaps amend city priorities, but it also represents a tremendous opportunity to learn about things we do as a city. In addition to a few attempts to make adjustments, every year I come away with a deeper understanding of how city government works and why we do some things the way we do.

If you'd like to learn more about the budget and how the process works, I have two opportunities for you this week:
  • First, on Monday at 6:30 I'll be participating in an Our Town Hall event titled "Demystifying the City of Appleton Budget" at the History Museum at the Castle. Follow this link for more details on the event, which should be a great opportunity to talk to an interested group about the process and some of the discussions we'll be having in the weeks ago.
  • Then, if you're really ready to dig in, the Finance Committee will be reviewing the budget for a full day on Saturday, starting at 8 am, and the meeting is open to the public. It's a long day and it's not anyone's favorite way to spend a fall Saturday, but it is an excellent opportunity to go department-by-department through the budget, get a lot of questions answered and start a conversation about where adjustments may need to be made.
Even without the budget review, it would be a pretty busy committee week as our regularly-scheduled meetings include the following:

Parks & Recreation, Monday, 6 pm

We've been discussing issues being caused by problem drinking in several city parks for quite some time now. Several months ago staff was directed to produce a system that would require a permit to bring alcohol into the parks, which is what nearly all of our neighboring municipalities do. That recommendation was sent back to committee on October 7 and held at their last meeting on October 12, so the Parks & Recreation committee will have it on their agenda again this week.

I know several of my colleagues have a strong interest in finding another way to resolve this issue without requiring permits, and I'm curious to see what they'll come up with. I think there's some consensus around council that something has to be done to address this matter, as excessive, extended drinking in the parks is creating an air of unsafety around some facilities.

Special Common Council meeting, Wednesday, 7 pm

And now, please allow me to introduce the elephant in the room.

We're starting to get very close to deadlines for decisions related to the proposed exhibition center, and in an effort to respect the time-sensitive nature of this work council will meet in special session on Wednesday to again discuss and potentially vote on multiple agreements that could open the door for the facility's construction.

All of these items were also a part of last Wednesday's council agenda, but some very significant eleventh-hour changes to the proposals made it impossible for council to conduct any kind of proper review of the agreements in play before voting at that meeting. All told, 102 pages of new documents were handed out during the meeting, making moot several of the documents many of us had spent a great deal of time preparing to discuss.

One of the changes between the documents we thought we were showing up to discuss and the actual current draft of the agreement is very significant. It calls for a much larger expansion of the room tax to fund two projects instead of one. The first, of course, is the proposed exhibition center. The second, which would receive a small share of room tax dollars immediately and a significantly larger share once the Performing Arts Center's borrowing expires in 2017, is an amateur sports facility.

Wednesday was the first time most, if not all members of council had heard about any significant possibility of lumping a sports facility into this project. On Wednesday we were given several suggestions of what this expenditure might look like, but at present there is no real consensus on what the actual project will be, where it will be constructed, when it will be launched or completed or what its projected impact will be on either the tourism marketplace in the valley or the community infrastructure that would support it.

Previous drafts of the proposed room tax agreement called for a 3.5% increase across nine municipalities to pay for the exhibition center's construction, with the rate going back down 2% when the Performing Arts Center is paid off in 2017. The new proposal calls for the tax across all municipalities to go up to 10%, the maximum allowed by the state, and remain there for at least the duration of the exhibition center's debt.

This represents a remarkable late shift in plans, with the deadline to close on the exhibition center's property about a month away. Tying these two projects together creates a bizarre partnership: The exhibition center has been discussed and debated for many years now and we know a great deal of details on it. The sports facility has been a part of the proposal for less than a week and requires funding despite having nearly none of the salient details fleshed out. To approve one, we must approve both. And there's really not much time to seek any further details.

When we're talking about a commitment this big, we have to be more responsible than this.

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, October 19, 2015

What you may not know: Week of October 19

First of all, my apologies for missing last week's update while I was returning from a wedding out of town. It ended up being something of a moot point, as most of the week's major action items were held and I'll have a chance to tell you about them again when they come back up for committee discussion.

In the meantime, the full council meets on Wednesday and we still have some pretty big items to discuss:

Appointment of a new City Clerk

The city has been without a city clerk and employing an interim deputy clerk since July 23, but the search to fill the former role appears to be drawing to a close. On Wednesday council will be asked to approve the hiring of Kami Scofield, who would start on November 16.

I haven't met Ms. Scofield but her qualifications are significant: She has spent the last four years as the City Clerk in Verona, is certified by the Wisconsin Certified Municipal Clerks Association, belongs to both the Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association and International Institute of Municipal Clerks and has a bachelor's degree in Public Administration from UW-Stevens Point.

I look forward to getting an opportunity to meet Ms. Scofield and work with her in the future.

Special Assessment Policy

In my last update I mentioned a concern with the City of Appleton's 2016 special assessment policy regarding streets that need to be transitioned from "rural" to "urban" status. This transition typically happens in areas that have recently been annexed into the city in an effort to bring their infrastructure up to city standards.

There are two phases in that process: A "grade and gravel" phase where the street is prepared for permanent installation, and the actual installation of a permanent street. Last week the Finance Committee voted to amend the proposal to remove residents along these streets' responsibility for the grade and gravel portion, but continue to assess them for permanent street installation. In my opinion that's a step in the right direction, but it leaves a gap among property owners that have already paid for it and will also be billed for the final installation.

I remain concerned about how this policy impacts property owners in that gap, and will continue to work to address the issue.

Exhibition Center

Two weeks ago council opted to take no action on a proposed intergovernmental agreement to raise the room tax across the Fox Valley to finance the construction of a new exhibition center downtown, and this week that item is back on our agenda along with another important milestone: the management agreement between the city and the owners of the Radisson Paper Valley hotel.

I haven't had a chance to review these documents at this point, but I will between now and Wednesday because it's critically important that they, especially the management agreement, protect our interests and limit our risk in the event this project moves forward.

I'm pleased to note that some of my previous concerns regarding this project, especially the hotel's long-term ownership situation, have been resolved. I've written at length about some of the risks that need to be minimized, and I'm hopeful this document will address them.

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, October 5, 2015

What you may not know: Week of October 5

The last few weeks have been relatively quiet for the Appleton Common Council, but that all changes on Wednesday as the full body meets to consider a packed agenda. Here are some of the highlights:

Mayor salary

The process to determine a mayoral salary for the next four years (April 2016-2020) has taken on a life of its own over the last several months, with various debates, refer-backs and amendments, and took another turn two weeks ago when the Human Resources committee voted 3-1 to recommend a salary decrease of $10,000 for the city's chief executive.

It's my opinion that the logic used to reach this conclusion was quite poor. The comparables used to set this recommendation were all significantly smaller cities than Appleton, and if you try to use those comparables and then adjust for population, size of budget overseen or number of employees overseen, you end up with a dollar figure that suggests our mayor is actually due a very significant raise, not a pay cut.

I remain in support of the committee's previous recommendation, which called for the mayor's existing salary to be increased by 1.5% in each of the next four years. I think that's a reasonable, small adjustment to a salary that serves its purpose well at this point.

Alcohol in parks

On the same night two weeks ago the Parks & Rec committee voted 3-1 to recommend approval of a resolution calling for a change in the rules regarding alcohol in city parks. Under this proposal park users would need a permit to bring alcohol into the parks.

As I've mentioned previously, Appleton is one of just two communities in the Fox Valley that allow alcohol in parks, and that's created a significant issue in a few of our downtown parks with heavy daytime drinking leading to a wide variety of undesirable behaviors. It's unfortunate that this issue has forced us to consider such a sweeping change, but it appears likely that any smaller changes would simply push the issue into another park or another location.

Special Assessment Policy

At the Finance Committee last week I was the lone dissenting vote on a recommendation to approve the city's proposed 2016 Special Assessment Policy, which includes a clarification that I find problematic regarding streets transitioning from "rural" to "urban" status.

When the city enacted the wheel tax and eliminated special assessments for street reconstruction this year, we attempted to draw a line in the sand between streets being reconstructed and permanent streets being constructed for the first time to replace temporary streets in new subdivisions. The clarification mentioned above addresses a third type of street that fits neither of those classifications: a "rural" street that needs to be improved after being annexed into the city or due to expansion of the city. The item we're being asked to approve will allow for property owners to be assessed when their streets are upgraded. This impacts a fair number of locations across the north side of the city, including French Road.

French Road was recently repaved but is technically still considered a "rural" road. I'm concerned about how this clarification to the policy could impact residents who were assessed for that repaving and could face another assessment when that street eventually has to be modernized.

Expo Center Room Tax Agreement

Finally, we've reached another decision point on the process of constructing an exhibition center in downtown Appleton. On Wednesday we'll be asked to approve a proposed intergovernmental agreement with the various municipalities that pay into the Fox Cities' room tax, calling for them to increase their rates to finance the bonds that would be needed to proceed with this project.

Getting this approved by all nine participating municipalities is one of the two major hurdles that need to be cleared to make this happen - the other is the management agreement between the city and the hotel. I'm more concerned about the latter: As I've previously said, I think this project could be a great thing for the city if done the right way and without significant risk. The management agreement is, to me, where the rubber hits the road on that issue.

I should also note that these agreements are coming directly to council in a bit of a break from our typical decision-making procedure. There is a critical timing element here, as this item needs to be heard and approved by nine member communities (some of which only hold one meeting per month) before the end of November. For that to be possible, we need to take it up early and quickly to leave time for others to take action.

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, September 21, 2015

What you may not know: Week of September 20

It's going to be a very busy committee week for the Appleton Common Council, with a collection of items we've mostly discussed before being the most notable:

Human Resources, Monday, 5 pm

The mayor of Appleton serves four-year terms, and will be up for election the next time in April of 2016. Back in March the Human Resources Committee was asked to make a recommendation on the mayoral salary for the next four years, and that action item has been held several times before eventually being approved, then referred back to committee last week.

The recommendation on the table calls for the mayor to receive 1.5% raises in each of the next four Aprils. This roughly amounts to a cost of living increase, and keeps the mayor's salary somewhat static when compared to the rate of inflation.

Months ago I discussed the challenge of finding fair comparable positions to use to set our mayor's salary, as our longstanding structure of a full-time mayor and no city manager or administrator is relatively rare. With that said, I think the mayor's current salary of $94,686 is fair compensation for his role and I support the current recommendation to make modest increases to it over the duration of the next term.

Parks & Recreation, Monday, 6 pm

Over the summer the Parks & Recreation and Safety & Licensing Committees spent a fair amount of time discussing the issue of alcohol in parks, as the Police Department has experienced a spike in issues related to our current policy of allowing park users to drink between 9 am and 9 pm. This policy is somewhat unique in the valley, as nearly all of our neighboring communities have either banned alcohol in parks altogether or require a permit to possess or consume alcohol in parks.

In August the Parks & Recreation Committee asked staff to provide more information on what the ordinance and procedure may look like if Appleton moved to a permit-only model, and on Monday they'll receive that information and be allowed to make a recommendation.

It's unfortunate to have to change a policy in all of our parks because of a relatively small group of people misbehaving in a relatively small number of our parks, but the reality is that our existing ordinances have allowed this to become an issue and have limited our police force's ability to resolve it.

Finance, Tuesday, 4:30 pm

The Finance Committee will be asked on Tuesday to make recommendations on several items, old and new:

  • First, the committee will again be asked to consider a proposed ordinance change that would allow alderpersons who cannot attend meetings to participate and sometimes vote on items. I approve of this item in concept but have been concerned with some of the specifics, including the determination of "good cause" for an alderperson to be absent, the lack of limits on times an alderperson can participate this way, and potential technical challenges involved in ensuring the remote participant can hear all debate and have their participation recorded.
  • The committee will also be asked to approve the city's special assessment policies for the 2016 budget year. I'm still working on evaluating and understanding the proposed changes for the year to come, and hope to have more on this item in future updates.
  • Finally, we'll also be asked to make a recommendation on a proposed change to a relatively new city ordinance dealing with licensing and permitting of businesses on properties that have fallen behind on their property taxes. An issue came to light this summer when a business renting space in a building was denied a license because their landlord had fallen behind on property taxes. The business owner had done nothing wrong but was forced to (at least temporarily) close due to this issue. Our legal department has proposed a change to the ordinance that would address this specific issue but retain much of the ordinance, which has otherwise been useful when dealing with delinquent properties.
Any committee recommendations on the above topics will appear before the full common council at their next scheduled meeting on Wednesday, October 7. 

You can see agendas for all of this week's meetings and the full schedule at the city's Legistar page.

Keeping you informed on issues that may impact you around the city is one of my primary goals as an alderman. 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.