Monday, September 9, 2013

What you may not know: Week of September 9

It's an abbreviated week for the Appleton Common Council, as several of our standing committees will not meet. There are still some pretty significant items on the calendar, though:

Utilities, Tuesday, 4:30 pm

The Utilities Committee has just one action item on its agenda this week, but it's a big one: A proposal to overhaul the way we charge multi-family properties for stormwater runoff.

The city currently uses a mathematical formula to assess stormwater charges based on ERU (equivalent runoff units). Properties are assessed based on whether they're accessed from the regular street right-of-way or a private road and the number of units in the facility.

Technology has given us a fairer way to determine the amount of impervious space in a facility, though, and this proposal calls for aerial photography to be used to assess properties based on their actual footprint. Being able to better determine a property's stormwater impact and charge accordingly is good news for the ratepayers all around.

However, early numbers suggest this adjustment is going to come with a cost. As part of the explanation of the new plan we've been presented with the previous and new stormwater bills for eight multi-family properties, and their bill went up an average of 35%. In some cases that's as much as $65 per unit per year.

Furthermore, that increase comes at a time when Appleton's stormwater rates are already higher than our neighboring communities. Our rate represents a strong commitment to providing quality stormwater service, but our current price position makes it hard to accept further increases. The city's ERU rate went up from $125 to $155 this summer and is scheduled to make another increase of size to be determined in 2016.

After studying all the materials I'm convinced that moving to the new aerial photography adjustment system is the correct decision, but we need more study to determine its impact. The eight properties we've been given as examples show a cause for concern regarding potential cost increases, so I'd like to see a larger sample to determine if that's an accurate representation of what we're going to see across the board.

Once we've got a better understanding there, then we need to take a look at the impact of a cost increase. Considering that we've already raised the ERU rate in 2013, we're scheduled to do so again in 2016 and we're already higher than our neighbors, we need to be careful to make sure we're not going beyond what's reasonable.

Municipal Services, Tuesday, 5:30 pm

We'll move straight from that conversation into another big one, as the reconstruction of Glendale Avenue is up for debate Tuesday night at Municipal Services. I wrote about this issue last week, before it came before the full council.

Last Wednesday at council we passed two amendments that I think allow this street to remain a safe passage for pedestrians and bicyclists but also greatly reduce the negative impact on the businesses on the street. First, we changed the plan to move the proposed on-street parking from the north to the south side of the street, so the small businesses on that side of the street can have better access for their customers (Amendment passed 10-5). Second, we voted (8-7) to remove the proposed sidewalk from the south side of the street.

Here's what I wrote about these two amendments a week ago, and I stand by it: I think moving the parking from the north to the south side of the street and installing sidewalk on the north side allows us to maximize bicycle and pedestrian safety on this street while also minimizing the inconvenience to small business owners in this neighborhood. It's not a perfect scenario for anyone, but it's the closest thing to a fair compromise I think we're going to find.

After those two amendments passed (and a third failed), the amended action item was referred back to the Municipal Services Committee for further discussion.

With the exception of a few minutes when things got a bit out of hand, I think we had a great conversation last week about finding a way to construct a safe, usable street while also minimizing negative impact on our small businesses. I hope we'll continue to keep both of those priorities in mind in future conversations.

Finance, Wednesday, 4:30 pm

Last week the full council reconsidered a previous vote and approved a resolution proposed by Alderman Jirschele that calls for the city to retain a consultant to help negotiate terms for the proposed Fox Cities Exhibition Center project. The resolution passed but now faces another hurdle, as a budget adjustment to allocate $25,000 for the hiring of this consultant requires Finance Committee approval and a 2/3 council vote.

The cash on hand here will come from within the Community and Economic Development Department, where enough vacant salary dollars exist to cover the expenditure.

This has been a tough issue for me for weeks, because I'm something of an Exhibition Center skeptic. I'm not sold on the notion that the city's commitment to this project is a good use of tax dollars, and I'm concerned about our ability to find any mutually beneficial middle ground with a very widespread group of stakeholders with varying interests. However, I voted for this resolution both the first time and again under reconsideration because if we intend to pursue this at all, it's my opinion that we need to have someone with experience in this field watching out for our interests.

I hope that Alderman Hill won't mind me quoting him here, but I think he more or less summed up my thinking on this matter at Council last Wednesday when he said the following (starting at 2:18:00 or so in the video):

Engaging in this deal, we're swimming with some pretty big fish. I don't want to call them sharks, but these are businesspeople who are going to take every advantage there is to take. This $25,000 is going to be used to hire our own big fish to see to the interests of Appleton and the taxpayers of Appleton, to protect us. If we're going to go ahead with this, to me this is a small price to pay. We need to protect ourselves.

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.

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