Monday, January 28, 2013

What You May Not Know: Week Of January 28

It's a five Wednesday month, which means this is a quiet week for the council. The council meets on first and third Wednesdays and typically has committee meetings on the second and fourth weeks, so weeks like this one create a gap in the schedule.

The only thing I'm watching for this week will be the results of tonight's Community and Economic Development Committee meeting, scheduled for 5 pm. The committee's lone agenda item is approval of award recommendations for $63,000 worth of Community Development Block Grants. This money was set aside in the budget to be distributed among non-government organizations who work on public service and special needs housing.

The committee received six applications for a total requested amount of $144,000, and the current recommendation is that the money they have be distributed as follows:
  • Emergency Shelter of the Fox Valley requested $15,000, will receive $10,000.
  • Habitat for Humanity requested $48,000, will receive $15,000.
  • Housing Partnership of the Fox Cities requested $26,000, will receive $13,000.
  • Bethesda Thrift Shop and Ability Training Center requested $30,000, will receive $0.
  • FISC Self Sufficiency Program requested $10,000, will receive $10,000.
  • Harbor House Domestic Abuse Shelter requested $15,000, will receive $15,000.
The mayor, two alderpersons and three private citizens formed the advisory board that arrived at these numbers. The committee could opt to change them, as could the common council.

This week's full schedule and meeting agendas can be found here.

Keeping you informed on issues that may impact you around the city is one of my primary goals as a candidate for and a potential member of Appleton's City Council. There's a lot going on and a lot of information out there, but I'm happy to do everything I can to make these decisions and the discussions around them as accessible as possible to as many people as are interested. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

What You May Not Know: Week Of January 21

Ten committees, boards and commissions meet this week, headlined by Monday's 6 pm Human Resources Committee meeting.

After months of consideration and holding the matter at back-to-back meetings, it's likely the HR Committee will finally reach a recommendation on the non-union Compensation and Classification plan from Carlson Consulting. The matter has been held to this point largely because of some unanswered questions about the numbers in Carlson's report and some questions about the math used to reach the final result.

Unfortunately, after attending two committee meetings to discuss this project, Carlson has decided they've met their contractual obligations and will not be attending tonight's meeting to further explain any of their findings. As such, this committee and the council will have to decide to either accept or reject this plan as it is, without any further explanation.

When it comes to an issue as important as employee compensation, I feel like this committee and the council have every right to expect and even demand confirmation that every possible step was taken to ensure that these numbers are accurate and the methodology used to reach them is sound. Given that it doesn't appear likely that they'll receive that assurance, if I had a vote on this committee I'd vote to reject this plan.

Other highlights from this week:

Human Resources, Monday, 6 PM

In addition to the issue above, the HR committee will also discuss (again) the possibility of a 0% raise in aldermanic salaries for 2014 and a resolution making Martin Luther King Day a paid holiday for city employees.

Utilities, Tuesday, 6 PM

The Appleton Water Utility is installing new "smart meters" around the city that use radio frequency transmitters, and the city is recommending that users not be allowed to opt out of having a "smart meter" and radio transmitter installed. The committee will discuss this matter on Tuesday.

Finance, Wednesday, 5 PM

One of three information items on the committee's agenda is a resolution proposed by Aldermen Croatt and Clemons to review the property taxpayers' interest rate on financing of special assessment projects. This interest rate for five-year financing was reduced from 9% to 6% back in 2012. Croatt and Clemons propose tying the rate to "a key measured financial interest rate."

In my opinion tying the interest rate to something to allow it to rise and fall along with other interest rates is the right decision, but I'm concerned by the resolution's language identifying these loans as "unsecured." That will likely lead to these rates being compared to some very high interest loans.

One of the stated goals of this process is for the city to "not compete with private-sector financial institutions" and that's a noble goal, but on the other side there's a problem with setting these rates too high. The city's financing will primarily be used by people with no other options. We're talking about people with fixed incomes, people who are already facing significant debt or people whose houses aren't worth as much as they used to be. These people are going to have a hard time finding a financial institution willing to give them money to pay for these street projects, so many of them will be forced to accept a higher interest rate from the city. These people are in enough trouble without the city dealing them another blow.

Keeping you informed on issues that may impact you around the city is one of my primary goals as a candidate for and a potential member of Appleton's City Council. There's a lot going on and a lot of information out there, but I'm happy to do everything I can to make these decisions and the discussions around them as accessible as possible to as many people as are interested. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

A Step Towards More Openness And Other Highlights From 1/16

One of the more interesting developments from Wednesday's City Council meeting caught me by surprise but could become a great step towards improving the way the council operates.

To really understand what happened and why it's important, we need to take a step back a couple of hours. At 6 pm Wednesday night the Board of Public Works met in Committee Room 6D met at City Hall to discuss (among other things) two pretty notable items of business:
  • A resolution proposed by Aldermen Clemons and Croatt asking the city finance department to once again review the interest rate for deferred payments on special assessments. The resolution passed the committee 11-0.
  • Approval of three contracts relating to work to construct underground stormwater storage under the parking lot at East High School. The three items, tied together, passed by a 9-2 vote.
If you've ever been in Committee Room 6D, you know it's not a large space. The eleven members of the committee plus 14 observers created an overflow crowd that led to people standing around the table on two sides (sorry if I was breathing on you, Alderman Baranowski) and other Aldermen literally standing on their tiptoes to see around each other from outside the door. The meeting was technically open, but access was definitely limited.

With that said, this meeting adjourned at 6:54 pm and all six action items passed immediately went onto the agenda of the full council, at a meeting scheduled to begin six minutes later.

This is problematic for several reasons:
  • Having items like this placed on the council agenda on very short notice makes it nearly impossible for the members of the council who aren't on this committee to review what happened and be prepared to cast an informed vote when the issue comes before the full body.
  • Having items go from being committee agenda fodder to passed by the full council in a single evening has a significant negative impact on the public's ability to participate in the process.
  • Admittedly least importantly, updating the council agenda to add these late items delayed the start of the full council meeting significantly.
Unfortunately, this is relatively common procedure for the council. There's been at least one committee meeting in the 6 pm hour before each of the last three common council meetings. This will happen again next week as at least one committee (Municipal Services) is scheduled to meet before the Wednesday, January 23 meeting.

Thankfully, near the end of Wednesday's meeting Alderman Christoph Wahl submitted the following resolution:
“Be it resolved, that the Common Council may not consider or adopt reports of Committees, Boards or Commissions until same reports have been properly posted for 48 hours or an emergency has been declared.”
Having this rule in place would eliminate most of the problems listed above, so I hope the council will enact it as soon as possible. The resolution was handed over to the City Attorney's office for review, and I'll keep you posted regarding where it goes from there.

Updating you on the notes I mentioned last week:
  • Phase 1 of the Stormwater Abatement Plan for East High School (with likely ramifications for Lions Park) required a two-thirds majority and narrowly received it, passing by an 11-5 margin.
  • The proposed zoning change allowing the Hardees at 441 and Ballard Rd to be torn down and replaced by a restaurant/gas station passed 16-0.
  • The council voted 15-1 to allow the purchase of 25,250 new recycling carts at a cost of $1,237,502.50.
  • A proposed 0% pay raise for aldermen has been referred back to the Human Resources Committee.
  • The proposal to install sidewalks all the way around Vosters Park as shown in "Plan B" of the previous proposals passed 16-0.
Keeping you informed on issues that may impact you around the city is one of my primary goals as a candidate for and a potential member of Appleton's City Council. There's a lot going on and a lot of information out there, but I'm happy to do everything I can to make these decisions and the discussions around them as accessible as possible to as many people as are interested. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

What You May Not Know: Week Of January 14

The Appleton City Council meets on Wednesday night for the first time in four weeks to discuss agenda items including the following:

Stormwater Abatement Plan

This week's most controversial topic is likely to be the potential approval of Phase 1 of a plan to attempt to reduce flooding on the south side of the city. The first step in the plan is installing underground storage tanks for storm water under the parking lot at Appleton East High School, and (pending approval by the Finance Committee on Wednesday) that's what the council will discuss and likely bring to a vote Wednesday night.

The problem is, though, that committing to Phase 1 of the plan basically requires the city to also commit to Phase 2, major alterations or perhaps a closing of Lions Park on the south side to make way for potential stormwater retention. There are alternatives available but they're more expensive and likely to be less effective. Closing Lions Park would likely require the city to replace those facilities with a new park...and from there things start to snowball. Furthermore, studies have not yet been done to quantify the impact of potentially losing the existing park.

Proposed Zoning Change

The owners of the Hardees at Ballard Road and Highway 41 are seeking permission to rezone their property to allow the current fast food restaurant to be torn down and replaced by a gas station/restaurant.

Recycling Container Purchase

The Municipal Services Committee voted 4-1 last week to recommend the approval of the purchase of 25,250 recycling carts at a total cost of about $1.24 million.

No Alderman Pay Raise

The Human Resources Committee voted 3-1 in favor of a 0% pay raise for members of the city council for the 2014-16 term. This would be the eighth time in nine years aldermen have received no raise, with the only exception being a 3% change in 2009.

Vosters Park Sidewalks

Finally, the Parks and Rec committee's lone action item this week is the plan to install sidewalks in Vosters Park this summer. I talked about this extensively in last week's post and did some work in an effort to see how the neighborhood felt about it, but unfortunately the majority of people who responded to me were disregarded. The committee voted unanimously to recommend sidewalk plan B, which includes a new path along Benvalley Drive to complete a ring around the park. Just four of the 18 neighbors who expressed an opinion to me on the issue were in favor of this plan.

On Sunday I met with neighbor Thomas Werth in the park to discuss the potential impact of this plan, and we estimated that as many as six large trees will have to be removed to allow the sidewalk to be installed between the wooded area in the park and Benvalley Drive.

The full council agenda is available here. Per usual, the council will meet at 7 pm or following the conclusion of the Finance Committee meeting scheduled for 6:45.

Keeping you informed on issues that may impact you around the city is one of my primary goals as a candidate for and a potential member of Appleton's City Council. There's a lot going on and a lot of information out there, but I'm happy to do everything I can to make these decisions and the discussions around them as accessible as possible to as many people as are interested.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Residency Requirements And You

As I was reading this week's City Notes in the Post Crescent, an issue caught my eye. The city is having a hard time filling its vacant information technology director position because of a requirement that city department leaders have to be residents of the city of Appleton.

In the story, Mayor Hanna says "We have candidates that live in the area, but can’t justify selling their house and moving half a mile into the city limits. There’s a lot at stake for the city." This is an issue that's flared up before and the city council recently voted to keep the requirement based on the notion that department heads are somehow more better equipped to work for the city when "they have more skin in the game."

I think the notion that department heads' performance is somehow impacted by where they live is kind of silly. We're talking about high profile, highly qualified professionals here applying for heavily scrutinized jobs. The kind of person who would slack off on the job just because they're not an Appleton taxpayer probably isn't likely to be a candidate for these positions in the first place.

Furthermore, this search is costing the city by the day. The new Parks and Recreation website (which is great, by the way) was built out-of-house because it was too big of a project for the city's existing staff to handle. The city has also already spent over $4000 flying in candidates to interview for this position without finding someone to fill the job.

To a point I can understand the city's motive to try to find a talented person who lives in the city instead of bringing in someone from outside. But making an exception to the rule to hire a candidate who lives in a neighboring community seems like common sense. It'd be a shame for the city to miss out on the best candidate for the job just because they don't want to have to sell their house and move.

From my perspective it sounds like the city is missing out on qualified candidates because they live just outside the city. If that's the case, then I think their priorities are strongly misplaced here. This is a policy I'll be in favor of changing if I'm elected.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

What You May Not Know: Week of January 7

The city council is back after two weeks off for the holidays, and has a full slate of committee meetings this week.

Human Resources

The big news this week is expected to come from the Human Resources Committee, which will meet on Monday at 6 pm to discuss a compensation and classification plan for non-union employees. If approved by this committee and the full council the new plan would go into effect retroactive to January 1.

This request was discussed but ultimately held by the committee at their December 10 meeting because too many questions remained unanswered. It's the result of a study involving 400 city employees, and recommends consolidating the city's current 67 pay ranges down to 19. It would also involve redefining the way the city current evaluates its employees and implementing a "pay for performance" system.

At the last meeting this committee also held a proposal for a 0% pay raise for aldermen in 2014. That item will be up for discussion again at this meeting.

Municipal Services

The Municipal Services Committee will meet on Tuesday at 4 pm, and their agenda includes a request to approve the purchase of 25,250 recycling containers at a cost of about $1.24 million. The containers would be purchased from Rehrig Pacific Company, who had the lowest of four bids.

The committee will also discuss a staff recommendation to increase the reimbursement for mailboxes hit by snow plows from $75 to $125.


The Utilities Committee will meet Tuesday at 6 pm, and their agenda includes a potential request for a $400,000 budget adjustment for the 2013 Stormwater borrowing package.  There has been a change in projected costs for a flood prevention project near East High School and some of the overrun can be covered with money left over from 2012, but $400,000 extra will need to be borrowed to cover the rest.

Parks and Recreation

The Parks and Rec committee will meet Wednesday at 6 pm, and the only action item on the agenda is relevant within the 13th district. As you may recall from a previous post this committee is currently holding a plan for installation of sidewalks in Vosters Park to allow time for clarification on the plan and community input.

The Department of Public Works has released these two drawings of the projected sidewalks in the park:

Plan A, with a slight curve in the sidewalks:
 Plan B, which features straighter walks and also an added walk along Benvalley Drive:
Plan A was presented to the committee at their December 12 meeting. Here's what Dean Gazza, Director of Parks, Recreation and Facilities Management, told me about the plan:

The reasons for curved sidewalks is to make the sidewalks a component of the park. We want people to use these walks as part of the park and to create character to beautiful park with a wooded area with boardwalks. Regular sidewalks are used to get people from A to B and generally do not engage a person’s interest. We want people to slow down and to utilize the large investment we made in developing this park. When walks are straight, they generally are not viewed as an amenity of the park, they are just viewed as another sidewalk. When the walks are curvy they become part of the park and serve as another feature for people to enjoy while using the park. The curves are intended to slow people down and make it feel more like a trail to provide more interest to the park.  
The curved sidewalks do not carry any additional cost for installation as compared to straight walks, but do require a little more work for snow removal. One of the points of contention at the 12/12 meeting was the possibility that installing these walks may require some trees to be removed, and the city appears to have heard that concern loud and clear.

Over the weekend I delivered letters to 30 residents of homes surrounding the park and invited them to weigh in on these two options at the meeting or before. Hopefully we'll get some insight from them before Wednesday. The committee will likely approve either one of these plans or a combination of the two at this week's meeting.

You can see this week's full schedule of committee meetings here. All items that pass through committee this week will move on to the next scheduled full council meeting on January 16.

Keeping you informed on issues that may impact you around the city is one of my primary goals as a candidate for and a potential member of Appleton's City Council. There's a lot going on and a lot of information out there, but I'm happy to do everything I can to make these decisions and the discussions around them as accessible as possible to as many people as are interested.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

I'm more than just a "sports blogger."

The race to represent District 13 took another interesting turn this week as I learned that another contender has entered the race. You can read more about it here, although I take issue with this paragraph:
Kyle Lobner, 29, a sports blogger, will seek to fill the north side District 13 seat, along with retired police administrative service manager Pamela Holdorf, 57.
I'm frustrated by this choice of words because I've worked for years to establish myself as more than just a "blogger." Fair or unfair, blogger is the blanket term people use to describe someone who writes on the internet and it typically carries a negative connotation. "Blogger" may describe anyone from a guy who's posted twice on a Wordpress site to people who run some of the largest websites on Earth.

I've been the managing editor of Brew Crew Ball for four years now. I manage a team of ten contributors (and we're adding more soon), produce daily, around the year coverage of the Milwaukee Brewers and am frequently called upon to serve as a Brewers expert on radio shows across the state and nation. Take a look at the site, if you haven't. It's not an amateur endeavor.

With that said, I'm looking forward to the challenge of running a contested race. The voters win when people are willing to compete for the right to represent them, and I think they've got two great candidates to choose from this year.