Tuesday, October 28, 2014

What you may not know: Week of October 27

October is a five-Wednesday month, so this would typically be an off week for the Appleton Common Council. Due to one postponement and a couple of special meetings, however, it's one of our busiest weeks of the year. Here's what's on my calendar:

Fox Cities Transit Commission, Wednesday, 3 pm

The Transit Commission will meet in special session on Wednesday to approve Valley Transit's 2015 budget, which includes a fare increase for most fixed route riders for the first time since 2009. The most notable fare changes are as follows:

  • The regular cash fare will rise from $1.80 to $2.00 per trip.
  • A ten-ride ticket will go up from $15 to $17.
  • 30-day passes will go up from $56 to $60.
  • For the first time a 30-day freedom pass will be offered for children and priced at $22.
  • A youth fare will also be created at $.75, eliminating the need for children to pay the full cash fare.
Raising prices for services that many low-income users depend on is never an easy decision, but after five years of flat fares it's time to make a small increase. The rule of thumb for transit is that fares cover somewhere between 15-20% of the total operating cost, and Valley Transit has been operating at the low end of that spectrum for multiple years now. 

Incidentally, moving the cash fare from $1.80 to $2 could also have a noticeable impact on the buses' on-time performance as it will significantly reduce passengers' need to get change cards for $.20. Improving on-time performance is a major goal for the service going forward.

Finance Committee, Wednesday, 4:30 pm

The Finance Committee was unable to meet at its normally scheduled time last week, so we'll meet on Wednesday to take on a very significant agenda. The headline from the meeting is likely to be the committee recommendation on a resolution calling for a referendum on the proposed new Appleton Public Library.

The current proposal for the library calls for the city to borrow $30 million over a three-year span to finance the site acquisition, site preparation and construction of a new facility, a figure that would be repaid over 22 years (each individual borrow would be repaid over 20 years). That averages out to less than $1.4 million in principal repayment per year, plus our historically-low municipal interest rate, spread over the entire city tax base. An additional $7 million is expected to come from private sources.

The need for the library to expand to a new, larger, updated facility is clearly laid out in the very first bullet point on this APL150 FAQ page. Library usage and circulation has nearly tripled since the current facility opened in 1981, and the use of technology has gone from an afterthought to a primary service. Given that need, the decision on whether or not to go to referendum hinges on three questions:
  1. Do we feel that the estimated property tax impact of this project is significant enough to require public confirmation? 
  2. If we elect not to build a new library at this time, will there ever be a better opportunity?
  3. Would a decision to delay this project until a referendum can be held (likely February or April of 2015) have an unwarranted negative impact on both the project and our partners in making it happen?
In my opinion, the answers to those questions are likely no, no and yes. We're still working on the specific numbers for property tax impact, but it appears likely the annual payments will be relatively low and spread out over both an extended period of time and the entirety of our tax base, so individual property tax changes will be small. 

Furthermore, our relatively low municipal debt (easily the smallest per capita of any community in our size group statewide) and track record for solid financial practices put us in a position to receive a very favorable interest rate for this project. Municipal bond interest rates are already at a near rock-bottom level, and we'll be among the most desirable in that group. Simply put, if we wait on this project it's likely to get significantly more expensive down the road.

Finally, delaying this project would create a significant issue for everyone involved. Both current owners of the properties likely to be used for this project, the church and Michiel's, have been operating with this potential development hanging over their head for some time now. Opting to go to referendum would leave them to face that uncertainty for six more months. That's particularly challenging when it comes to businesses based on events, who would be unable to book for the future but would have to attempt to continue to operate. Delays could also have a strong negative impact on the city's ability to hire contractors and architects mid-year to keep the project on schedule for completion and avoid costly overruns.

It's never easy to say an issue shouldn't go before the voters and I know this decision won't be popular with everyone, but I think it's time to move forward with this project.

Finance Committee (again), Saturday, 8 am

Last but certainly not least, the 2015 budget process takes a significant step forward on Saturday when the Finance Committee (with the remainder of the council also likely to be in attendance) meets for a full day to review and make our committee's recommendation on the full document. 

The library is, of course, likely to be one of the primary topics of discussion at this meeting but every department will be reviewed and amendments to the Mayor's proposals will be considered. It's a very long day but a necessary step in our efforts to do the most we can with the resources we have available.

After Saturday, the full budget will be presented and open for discussion at a public hearing before our November 5 council meeting and will be amended and adopted at our November 12 meeting.

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 13, 2014

What you may not know: MRAP edition

Apologies for missing a week last week: Our committee week agendas largely featured items that I didn't expect to have wide appeal, items I had discussed previously or items I knew I'd get a chance to discuss again later. I don't take weeks off from this blog often, but I didn't feel like I had much to share last week that would have been a valuable use of your time or mine.

As you might expect following a quiet committee week, we have a relatively quiet agenda for Wednesday night's regularly scheduled council meeting. I do have some new information to share, however, about an item we've discussed before:

MRAP Update

On September 17 two alderpersons submitted a resolution calling for the city to review several issues related to the Appleton Police Department's new Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle.

The original resolution called for four actions:
  1. A budgetary review of the costs involved in keeping, outfitting and preparing officers to use the MRAP vehicle.
  2. A staff review of options for returning, selling or disposing of the vehicle.
  3. A review of the process of acquiring such vehicles or military surplus items in the future.
  4. A review of processes involving active shooters that could be conducted without using "military vehicles."
At the Safety & Licensing Committee's first meeting to discuss this resolution, we removed items 2 and 4 after an extended debate. The remaining resolution was referred back to committee at our October 1 council meeting, and was discussed again at that level last Thursday. The committee's recommendation remains the same, but I think the second conversation on the issue was very illuminating.

First of all, at that second meeting we had our first opportunity to hear the police department's policy on when the MRAP could be used. You can hear it for yourself at approximately 37:30 in the meeting video, but I'll also do my best to transcribe it here:

The primary utilization of the rescue vehicle is:

A) As a rescue vehicle for the evacuation of officers and our citizens from an unsafe environment
B) To safely insert a team, SWAT or a team of patrol officers or deputies into an otherwise unsafe environment
C) The rescue vehicle may be staged in a nearby area on incidents where the uses listed above could be reasonably anticipated, and
D) Absent reasons identified above, the rescue vehicle is not intended for use in a crowd-control environment.

At this point I think it's important to note that altering tactical policies isn't something we as a council can do. Those decisions fall under the jurisdiction of the Police & Fire Commission, not the Common Council. However, I think having this opportunity to review that policy addressed some of the concerns regarding the MRAP vehicle. 

Two weeks ago I wrote, "I'm in favor of a strong policy regarding when it (the MRAP) can or cannot be used. I don't want to see the MRAP in parades or see it used for crowd control or non-emergency purposes, but if the unthinkable happens and we need it, I want our officers to have access to it." The policy detailed above satisfies my concerns.

I suspect we'll still hear some debate on this issue on Wednesday night and perhaps we'll get the opportunity to discuss more proposed amendments, but as things stand right now I'm comfortable with the situation in play.

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, September 30, 2014

What you may not know: Week of September 29

Apologies for the belated post, but the Appleton Common Council will meet on Wednesday at 7 pm and the agenda includes three items we've discussed in this space before. Here are the updates:

Painted sign resolution

At last week's City Plan Commission we voted 7-0 to recommend approval of a staff recommendation to modify the city's ordinances regarding signs painted on the sides of buildings. The changes proposed would allow a percentage of a building on commercial property to feature a painted sign.

We've been through this discussion multiple times now and it represents a pretty significant challenge: We either need to allow all painted signs below a certain set of dimensions, allow no painted signs, or allow some signs and try to establish how we're going to define what is and is not allowed. The Commission recommended the first of those three options, and I think that's the right decision.

Lions Park repurposing

At a joint meeting last week the Utilities and Parks & Recreation Committees both voted unanimously to recommend approval of a two-year delay on a proposed stormwater project at Lions Park on the city's south side. An area near the park experienced significant flooding twice in a decade during what's known as "100-year" rain events during the 2000's, leading the city to take some steps and consider more to mitigate stormwater risk in this area.

Current and recently concluded projects at Appleton East High School are expected to reduce potential flooding by better than 40%, and it appears we're going to stop there for a while and allow the Stormwater Utility to focus on other projects.

This one will almost certainly come up again at some point in the future, but the committees that voted to recommend a two-delay include nine of the 15 council members. As such, their recommendation should pass easily at council.

Military surplus vehicles

Last week the Safety & Licensing Committee voted 4-1 to approve an amended version of a resolution submitted by two alderpersons calling for the city to review the process and expenses involved with acquiring and training officers to use military surplus vehicles like the city's Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle we recently received through the federal 1033 program.

The original resolution called for four actions:

  1. A budgetary review of the costs involved in keeping, outfitting and preparing officers to use the MRAP vehicle.
  2. A staff review of options for returning, selling or disposing of the vehicle.
  3. A review of the process of acquiring such vehicles or military surplus items in the future.
  4. A review of processes involving active shooters that could be conducted without using "military vehicles."
The amended version of the resolution recommended items #1 and 3 for approval but removed items #2 and 4 from the discussion. I voted in favor of that amendment and the resolution as amended.

There's a tough balance to find here between people who are concerned regarding the "militarization" of the police and the desire to have the best tools available to be used in emergency situations. I think having the vehicle (which the city shares with Outagamie County, by the way) will help to keep our officers and civilians safe in the hopefully rare event that it's needed. If anything, I'm in favor of a strong policy regarding when it can or cannot be used. I don't want to see the MRAP in parades or see it used for crowd control or non-emergency purposes, but if the unthinkable happens and we need it, I want our officers to have access to 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, September 22, 2014

What you may not know: Week of September 22

It's a busy committee week for the Appleton Common Council, with three items on our agendas that are certain to draw some attention:

City Plan Commission, Monday, 4 pm

Back in July five alderpersons submitted a resolution calling for the city to review its policy on painted signs and murals. The review was prompted by at least one painted sign within the city that is not in compliance with our current ordinances and will have to be removed unless some action is taken.

Council eventually approved the resolution calling for a review, and on August 25 the City Plan Commission received a first draft of a staff proposal to modify the ordinance. The commission opted to refer the matter to staff again for further clarification, and today we'll get our first chance to review their new draft.

Allowing painted signs like the one on the Wilmar building seems like a no-brainer, but allowing painted signs at all opens the door for a variety of interesting "gray area" situations. If we allow some painted signs then we have to either decide to allow all signs or establish criteria for how the city will decide what signs aren't allowed. So we run the risk of either allowing art some people may find offensive or having to define what is or isn't art. Both possibilities come with some challenges, so I suspect we'll have an interesting conversation.

Joint meeting of the Utilities and Parks and Recreation Committees, Wednesday, 5:30 pm

A big part of the city's long-term stormwater plan will be up for debate Wednesday night when two committees come together to discuss the future of Lions Park.

As you may know, the city is engaged in a multi-year, multi-phase effort to reduce flooding and stormwater issues near Theodore Street on the city's southeast side. A pair of "100-year" flooding events in a relatively short period of time led to major issues in this neighborhood and sparked some movement to eliminate or alleviate the risk in the future.

The city is currently wrapping up one phase of that project, which involved installation of underground stormwater tanks under the parking lot at East High School. The next phase could involve the repurposing of Lions Park into a "dry pond," and it could happen as soon as 2020.

The current and completed projects at East would alleviate roughly 41% of the flooding experienced in a 100-year event in the areas mentioned above. Repurposing Lions Park as a dry pond would remove another 43% of the issue, but using it for that purpose would eliminate much of the facility's current use. The park currently contains a baseball field and playground equipment, and retaining the baseball field at a redesigned facility likely would not be feasible. The dry pond would not have water in it except during flooding events, however, so some recreational uses like a soccer field or volleyball courts could be added for dry times. In addition, the repurposed park could be a candidate to have an ice rink installed during the winter.

This project currently falls outside of the five-year plan, and at this meeting members of the two committees will be asked to consider how they'd like to proceed. The committee could decide to go forward with the project and ask for it to happen in 2020, could recommend abandoning the project entirely or could back-burner it for now and allow the city to work on stormwater issues elsewhere.

Safety and Licensing, Thursday, 5 pm

Like many cities around the country, Appleton has recently taken possession of a mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) surplus military vehicle through the federal 1033 program. That program has come under fire in light of recent events in other communities, though, and last week at our full council meeting two alderpersons submitted a resolution calling for council to review our policy on accepting surplus items, review the expenses that come with maintaining and preparing officers to use the MRAP vehicle and look at possibly returning or disposing of it. Nick Penzenstadler of the Post Crescent has more on the resolution.

The decision to accept equipment like the MRAP is a challenging one. I'm certainly aware of concerns regarding the "militarization" of police forces around the country, but it would also be a tremendous shame if the city ever faced a situation where members of the public and/or our officers could have kept safer via the use of free equipment we elected to return.

I'm not sure where we'll end up coming down on this issue, but I think the opportunity to have the conversation is a good thing.

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 15, 2014

What you may not know: Week of September 15

It's a busy week for the Appleton Common Council and for me personally, so I hope you'll forgive me for skipping the chit-chat and moving straight to this week's items of interest:

Library Board, Tuesday, 4:30 pm

A possible new home for the Appleton Public Library has been in the news a lot lately and the project will take another step forward on Tuesday as we learn one more piece of the budgetary puzzle. As part of her regularly scheduled report, Friends Executive Director Jan Quinlan is expected to announce the results of their study to determine how much of a new facility's construction cost we can expect to receive through private donations. Once we have that number, we'll know the city's likely share.

$42 million has been a number frequently thrown around as the construction cost of a new library, but that figure is somewhat misleading as it includes the costs for spaces built to be used by the Outagamie Waupaca Library System (OWLS) and our own Parks and Recreation Department. The library's actual share of the construction cost is less at $36.6 million, and any private donations will continue to lower that figure.

As I said on the council floor several weeks ago, any library project will need to be a public-private partnership to succeed. I look forward to hearing what the Friends group has learned regarding the generosity of our community.

Common Council Workshop, Wednesday, 6 pm

Before Wednesday's scheduled council meeting we'll have a one-hour workshop to work through many of the details and updates regarding a proposal to construct an exhibition center downtown. This project has been on our radar screens for quite some time but may be nearing a final decision soon.

The exhibition center proposal has undergone a variety of changes over half a decade of consideration, the most notable being a decrease in the potential economic impact and the likely reality that the city will have to own the facility if it is constructed. The latter note is a sticking point for me, as owning the facility would remove it from the tax rolls and could leave in a position where a less-than-expected result would have to be subsidized with tax dollars.

I've heard a fair amount from constituents and business owners both strongly in favor of and opposed to this project moving forward. For now, I'm waiting to see the full picture before making a final decision.

Common Council, Wednesday, 7 pm

Finally, we have our regularly scheduled council meeting. In my opinion, the most notable items on our agenda this week are two I discussed in last week's update:

  • Last week the Human Resources Committee voted 4-1 to recommend approval of a 2% pay raise for members of the common council starting in April of 2016. Alderpersons have not received a raise since 2009 and currently make $5,805/year, so this raise amounts to about $116 per alderperson per year or about $1750 per year from the city budget. Two percent is equal to the increase in the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Price Index from July of 2013 to July of 2014, so this increase allows us to keep up with inflation after seven years of falling behind.
  • Also last week, the Parks and Recreation Committee voted 3-1 to approve a proposal to self-operate the clubhouse at Reid Golf Course for 2015. As I outlined last week, retaining some of the revenue that currently goes to a clubhouse contractor is the course's best opportunity to remain financially viable for the long term.
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 8, 2014

What you may not know: Week of September 8

The Appleton Common Council has a full schedule of committee meetings this week, highlighted by two items that have come up before:

Human Resources, Monday, 6 pm

A few weeks ago the Human Resources Committee elected to hold an item dealing with a potential future pay raise for the Appleton Common Council. The council cannot vote on its own pay raises, so any decision made on this issue will not take effect until April of 2016 when all alderpersons' current terms have elapsed.

When this topic was last discussed a month ago, I was one of multiple alderpersons suggesting that our system of determining future pay raises is flawed and needs improvement. Currently, we vote on a potential future pay raise every year and typically decide on a zero increase. Alderpersons received a 3% pay raise in 2003 and another 3% in 2009. By the time any action we take goes into effect in 2016 it will have been seven years since the last salary increase.

I've been called out a handful of times for speaking in favor of changing this system, so let me make this perfectly clear: This debate isn't about the money for me. Alderpersons currently make $5,805 per year, which is roughly what we'd make if we worked 15 hours/week at minimum wage. If we were to receive a 3% pay raise in 2016 and I'm still in office when it comes around, my pay raise from a 3% increase would be $174 per year. This issue is about more than (potentially) getting less than $200 two years from now.

What this is about, for me at least, is finding a sustainable way to manage this issue that will be less arbitrary than raising salary by an accepted percentage because "it's been a while." That's not a responsible financial practice. We can do better.

Parks and Recreation, Wednesday, 6 pm

Two weeks ago the Parks and Recreation Committee discussed for the first time a proposal to change the way the city operates Reid Golf Course. For years now the city has contracted out operation of the course, but staff has asked us to consider ending the contract and bringing the facility's management back in-house for the 2015 season.

Currently,  the golf course (an enterprise fund of the city) receives 100% of greens fees for rounds played at the course, but the contractor keeps all revenue from cart rentals, the practice range, pro shop and concessions. This arrangement is the only active one of its kind in the state and has left the course short on revenue and operating capital. The course currently owes over $1 million from past projects, is only paying the interest on those loans and cannot afford to make any further improvements.

For the course to continue to survive without having to be subsidized by property tax dollars the city needs to retain more revenue from its operations. This is likely to be a controversial decision among patrons of the course, but from an economic perspective it's clearly time to make a change.

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, September 2, 2014

What you may not know: Week of September 1

I hope everyone had a great holiday weekend and is back to work refreshed this week. The Appleton Common Council will get back to work on Wednesday with our regularly scheduled full council meeting. Here are some of the highlights:

Library

The council will come together a little early this week, meeting at 6 pm on Wednesday for a special workshop on the library. No official action will be taken on the library as part of this meeting, but it's another opportunity for my colleagues and I and members of the general public to hear more about the process that has led us to this point and the next steps ahead.

One of the challenges of this process at this point is educating members of the public who did not participate in the multiple years of meetings and studies that have led us to this juncture. Hopefully this presentation will give us another opportunity to help people understand why it's important we continue to work towards a new facility.

Wheel Tax

Once we get to the actual meeting, the big story is likely to be the council's vote on a Finance Committee recommendation to implement a $20/vehicle "wheel tax" to replace revenue lost when the city would eliminate its longstanding special assessment policy for street reconstruction. The wheel tax resolution was approved by a 4-1 vote at committee on August 13, was referred back to committee at our August 20 council meeting and was reaffirmed by a 4-1 vote at the committee level again on August 27.

I've written about the wheel tax proposal on several occasions, including devoting my entire post to answering frequently asked questions about it two weeks ago. It's not a perfect system but it's markedly better than the special assessment system it will replace if approved. And while I recognize that creating a new tax or fee is never popular, I hope everyone will recognize that the city is simply not in a position to give up special assessment revenue without replacing it in some way.

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.