Tuesday, October 29, 2013

WANTED: Your thoughts on the city's 2014 budget

With the exception of a couple of rescheduled meetings, the City of Appleton's Common Council is off this week. This gives us all some time to prepare for our annual review of the city budget, which officially starts with a day-long meeting on Saturday.

I've spent most of the last month working through the 2014 budget, my first as an alderman, asking questions and considering possible changes. I'd be missing an opportunity, though, if I didn't also ask for your opinion.

Below please find a poll containing questions about seven items that are being considered or may be considered as part of the 2014 budget. If the poll isn't working correctly below, you can also follow this link to take it via Google Drive.

Thanks in advance for taking the time to share your opinion.

Monday, October 21, 2013

What you may not know: Week of October 21

The city of Appleton's standing committees will meet this week for the last time before the 2014 budget process begins in November. Here are some highlights from this week's agenda:

Human Resources, Monday, 6 pm

We'll start this week with the latest news on labor negotiations. The contract between the City of Appleton and the union-represented members of the Police Department expires at the end of the year, and last week we heard at council that there's a tentative agreement in place for a new contract.

At this point I haven't heard the details of the new agreement, but it's possible Monday's HR meeting will be my first opportunity to learn about it. At present it's not on the agenda, though, so I'm not sure. If I find out for sure that the contract will not be discussed, I'll update this post.

UPDATE: I've since been informed that this tentative agreement will not come before the council until it's been ratified by the union. As such, the HR committee won't discuss it until November 11 at the earliest.

Municipal Services, Tuesday, 5:30 pm

Two weeks ago this committee discussed some minor modifications to the city's Snow and Ice Removal policy and recommended the policy for approval from the full council, but at council Alderman Smith referred the issue back to the committee for further consideration.

A question Alderman Smith has asked before and may ask again on Tuesday has to do with the window property owners are given to clear snow following a storm. Currently they get 36 hours from the end of the precipitation to have their sidewalks cleared, but the clock is reset if it snows again during those 36 hours.

I think 36 hours is a fair amount of time to allow people to plan for snow removal, and will not support any effort to reduce it. Sometimes circumstances come up or snow falls at an inconvenient time and our property owners need that window to either find time to clear the snow themselves or make arrangements for someone else to do it. I understand that clear sidewalks increase safety, but I think we also need to be understanding of the fact that sometimes life gets in the way.

Finance, Wednesday, 4:30 pm

One of the items on this week's Finance Committee agenda was also discussed at Parks and Recreation two weeks ago. The city budgeted this year for a project to improve the restroom facilities at Memorial Park, with slightly more than $150,000 set aside to produce a building that is expected to eliminate the need for the city to rent portable toilets at the park.

Unfortunately, bids for the project came in well over our expectations and the lowest estimate was $253,375. The project turned out to be more expensive than expected largely because utility lines will need to be extended nearly 500 feet to reach this facility and a 110 foot asphalt path will have to be added to make it ADA accessible.

Over $250,000 for a bathroom project is, of course, a tough dollar figure to swallow. With that said, doing this project right the first time will reduce maintenance costs, lower the need for additional improvements going forward and allow the city to stop paying to rent portable toilets for events in the park.

Assuming this proposal passes the Finance Committee this week and the full council in November, the restrooms are expected to be constructed by spring of 2014.

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, October 15, 2013

What you may not know: Week of October 14

Before I start, I wanted to take a moment tonight to thank the Appleton Police Department. As I write this they're currently involved in a standoff outside a home on the south side, and have been for several hours. A gunman locked himself inside his home with two children earlier today and while the children have since been released, the situation is ongoing. This comes just days after the PD was also involved in an incident on the north side where they arrested a man who was repeatedly ramming cars.

We shouldn't need it, but this week's events have been a remarkable reminder of the dangers our officers can face while working to keep us safe. I'm monitoring reports from the scene of tonight's events and hoping for the best possible outcome: A quiet, safe resolution.

It feels secondary at this point, but the Appleton Common Council will also meet on Wednesday night, coming together early for a brief organizational meeting at 6 before our usual session at 7. This week's big topics are the same ones I wrote about last week, and all five passed committees by unanimous votes last week so they're likely to pass the full council without major incident.

You can read more about the items in last week's post, but here are the basics:

  • A proposed stormwater project in the West Wisconsin neighborhood passed Utilities by unanimous vote last week. It's a potentially costly project (over $13 million) but would also greatly reduce flooding issues in that section of town.
  • A new design plan for the section of Glendale Avenue between Ballard and Roemer Rd, calling for the addition of bike lanes and sidewalk on the north side of the street, also passed unanimously at Municipal Services. 
  • Finally, a new mutual aid agreement for police departments across the Fox Valley was approved by the Safety & Licensing Committee. The new agreement updates several existing agreements and adds coverage from Neenah and Menasha.
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 7, 2013

What you may not know: Week of October 7

It's a busy committee week for the Appleton Common Council, and here are some of the highlights:

Utilities, Tuesday, 4:30 pm

I've written on multiple occasions over the last few weeks about a major proposed "dry pond" project to alleviate flooding issues in the West Wisconsin Avenue neighborhood. The proposal was referred back to committee last Wednesday, so on Tuesday the Utilities Committee will discuss it again.

At the heart of this issue we really have two questions:

  • First, how do we estimate flooding risk? This project is designed to greatly reduce flooding in what's commonly referred to as a "100 year event." That implies that there's a roughly 1% chance of flooding like this happening in any given year, but those long odds offer little comfort to residents who saw their streets and properties flood twice in a decade. Our ability to predict weather patterns in the long term is always shaky at best, and it's not safe to assume the next 100 years will be the same as the last 100.
  • Second, if we accept there is a risk (or even a growing risk), how much ratepayer* money are we willing to spend to address it? This project carries an estimated price tag of over $13 million, which is about $1.3 million per foot of flooding reduction in a "100 year event." Obviously we'd like to do everything we can to protect these properties, but how much is too much to spend doing so? 
* - It's worth making the distinction that stormwater projects are paid for using stormwater fees, not tax dollars. At the end of the day it's still your money, but it's not coming out of your property taxes.

I've approved this project as a member of the Utilities Committee in the past, but I'm still looking forward to a spirited conversation this week about why we as a council should or shouldn't continue to do so. The result of this process may go a long way to determine how and how often we pursue additional flood relief in the future.

Municipal Services, Tuesday, 5:30 pm

Immediately after Tuesday's Utilities meeting we'll have a Municipal Services meeting that may be the start of a final resolution for reconstruction work on Glendale Avenue east of Ballard.

I've also written about this project numerous times, so I'll do my best to recap briefly:
  • Glendale Avenue in this area is in rough shape, and gets pretty frequent heavy truck traffic because of its location in the industrial park and the kind of businesses that operate here. The city is planning to reconstruct the street in 2015.
  • City staff's initial proposal called for the addition of bike lanes on this segment of Glendale, plus sidewalk on both sides of the street.
  • This plan is challenging for several businesses on the street but perhaps none more so than the businesses along the south end, whose buildings are constructed near the street and who would lose much of their parking under the original plan.
We've spent months discussing this and trying to find compromise. Over a month ago at council I proposed and we passed amendments that moved the parking from the north to the south side of the street and removed the sidewalk from the south side, softening some of the impacts of this reconstruction while continuing to provide a safe passage for bikes and pedestrians. 

A month ago, though, the Municipal Services Committee decided further study was needed on this matter and elected to refer the plan to staff for a month. Since then staff has developed a new proposal that I think is the best we've seen to date and reflects a better compromise than anything else we've developed. It's been sent out to neighboring businesses, who will get their first chance to comment publicly on it this week.

So now we're back to action. The original amended proposal comes before the committee Tuesday night and they'll have the option of approving it, amending it to the new proposal or changing it in another way. I hope they'll accept staff's new proposal (which, by the way, came from an idea from Alderman Dannecker) and move forward.

I have to say, the way this whole plan has unfolded has really increased my level of faith in the process. Our final result reflects a true effort to compromise to get what's best for everyone and I think it's something we can all be happy with.

Safety and Licensing, Thursday, 5 pm

Finally, on Thursday night the Safety and Licensing Committee will meet to discuss a proposal that could have a significant impact on law enforcement in the Fox Cities. 

Communities across the area are voting this month to approve a new mutual aid pact that will allow officers to report as needed in neighboring communities from Neenah to Kaukauna. The goals, uses and limitations of the program are clearly stated, but it's a challenge to find a balance between responding to cases where help is clearly needed and potentially weakening the coverage of an already lightly staffed police department by allowing them to be called outside the city.

I anticipate this pact will pass council without much difficulty, but there's a conversation we need to have about the challenges of helping our neighbors without overly taxing our own resources.

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, October 1, 2013

What you may not know: Week of September 30

The first Wednesday in October means the first full meeting of Appleton's Common Council. Here are some items we'll discuss at 7 pm Wednesday night:

Block Grants

The first two items in this week's post are both updates on issues we talked about last week. First, last Monday the Community and Economic Development Committee debated several possibilities for $37,133 in leftover Community Development Block Grant funds. CDBG is a program designed to help low-to-moderate income populations in our community.

After considering five requests for funding, the committee elected to divide the money as follows:

  • $10,000 for Harbor House Domestic Abuse Programs
  • $10,000 for the Emergency Shelter of the Fox Valley
  • $17,133 for Sustainable Fox Valley for a program to improve the playground at Columbus Elementary School.
The remaining requests came from Compassionate Home Health Care, Inc. and the city's Parks and Rec department. All five of these causes represent great opportunities to help our community, and I'm excited for the opportunity to find great ways to use this money to benefit low-to-moderate income people.

Stormwater projects

The Utilities Committee voted unanimously last week to approve a "dry pond" project in the northwest corner of the city that will greatly reduce flooding during major storm events in the W. Wisconsin Avenue neighborhood on the city's northwest side. 

This proposal is the result of years of study, much of which predates my time on the council. We've considered well more than a dozen options to reduce flooding in this area and arrived at alternative 10C, which would call for a pair of dry ponds to be constructed: One on currently vacant land north of the city limits in Grand Chute and one along Birchwood Avenue on the city's west edge, which would require the purchase and demolition of four homes.

The proposal we're recommending for approval (I'm on the Utilities Committee that recommended it) is expensive, with a total cost expected to exceed $13 million. However, it also represents both the greatest reduction of flooding among the 16 possibilities considered and the most efficient reduction of flooding (dollars per foot of flood reduction).

The decision to spend this money and to demolish homes is never made lightly, but in this case I think it's the right thing to do to reduce the risk of flooding in a neighborhood that has experienced major issues twice in the last decade.

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.