Sunday, November 24, 2013

What you may not know: Week of November 24 - Regional Transit Authorities and You

The Appleton Common Council has an abbreviated committee meeting schedule this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday and Tuesday's Christmas Parade. You can see agendas for the four committees that are meeting here, if you're interested.

If you've read Sunday's edition of the Post Crescent, though, you know that I've been busy with another issue. Last week Alderman Jeff Jirschele and I co-sponsored a resolution calling for the city to support state legislation allowing a referendum to determine if a new sales tax could be used to fund a regional transit authority (RTA).

This new source of funding could go a long way to stabilize the long term future of Valley Transit, which provides safe and reliable transportation to passengers and businesses across the Fox Valley. Before that can happen, though, we need the state to give us permission to ask.

Any proposed new sales tax (the law calls for up to .5%, but Valley Transit is only likely to ask for .1 or .2) would have to pass a referendum before being enacted. And the referendum can't happen without the state legislature passing a bill that would allow us to do so. This legislation has been proposed multiple times but has never passed in both houses. This year it's Senate Bill 259 and Assembly Bill 349, but neither body has held a hearing on it.

I think it's important when discussing this legislation to remember what it is and what it isn't. The proposed bill won't create a new sales tax, or any tax at all. What it will do is allow a referendum that will allow the voters to decide if a supplemental sales tax is needed. All we're asking for here is permission to let democracy run its course.

The unfortunate reality of the moment is that future planning for Valley Transit has been impacted by uncertainty in long term funding. I'm a strong believer that creating a Regional Transit Authority to stabilize the organization would be a good thing for this community going forward, at a very minimal cost (a .1% increase in sales tax would be one cent for every $10 spent).

However, if a new sales tax isn't going to happen, knowing that would also help us plan for the future. Eliminating this possibility will likely have a negative impact on the future of public transit in the valley, but at least then we would know that we'll have to make some tough choices going forward and be in a position to brace ourselves for that impact.

Allowing the voters to choose which direction we go here is the epitome of democracy. I hope the state legislature can come together and agree to let residents of the Fox Valley decide how to proceed.

Monday, November 18, 2013

What you may not know: Week of November 18

The Appleton Common Council meets on Wednesday for the first time since adopting the 2014 budget. This should be a relatively quiet week, but we do have some items of interest on the agenda:

Police, Fire Contracts

The top story this week is likely to be the ratification of new collective bargaining agreements with union-represented members of both the Police and Fire Departments. This is the first time the city has negotiated with either group since Act 10 was enacted.

Despite the changes in bargaining laws, however, our current tentative agreement with both unions came together very quickly. The speed at which all of this came together is encouraging to me: It suggests everyone feels like they're getting a good deal here.

Both new contracts are for four years, so assuming they're ratified on Wednesday we won't need to negotiate the next deal until 1/1/2017.

Community Development Block Grants

Many of you may recall that we had extended debate earlier this year about awarding funds from the 2013 Community Development Block Grants, a federal program intended to help meet needs of low-to-moderate income neighborhoods.

While the city's allocation from the federal government isn't finalized yet, we're expecting to have $500,000 in grants for 2014 and staff has started the process of preparing to distribute those funds. Here's what's scheduled to come before council on Wednesday night:

  • $175,000 earmarked for the Housing Rehabilitation Loan Program
  • $60,000 for the Appleton Housing Authority
  • $40,000 for the Neighborhood Program
  • $37,000 for administrative costs for the Community and Economic Development Department.
  • $10,000 for administrative costs for the Finance Department
  • $53,100 for the Parks and Rec Department for a pair of projects at Arbutus Park, to make electrical upgrades and renovate a pedestrian stairway.
Assuming all of those items are approved and the city receives $500k as projected, $124,900 will remain in the pool and be available to non-governmental community partners. 

I was pretty vocal in the debate on how to allocate CDBG money earlier this year, because I think these funds represent a remarkable opportunity to make a major difference in our community and it's important we do everything we can to maximize their impact. 

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, November 5, 2013

What you may not know: Budget Update

The Appleton Common Council meets on Wednesday night, and we'll be getting started a little early because our plans for the evening include a public hearing on the proposed 2014 city budget. Plan on joining us at 6 pm (or a little earlier if you'd like to sign up to speak) if you'd like to learn more about our plans for the year ahead.

Last week I asked you to weigh in on several budget topics that were discussed at the Finance Committee's all-day meeting on Saturday. Here's an update on where those issues stand:

Regional Partnership

The budget calls for $72,000 ($1 per capita) to be contributed to the Fox Cities Regional Partnership, an organization committed to helping businesses locate and expand in the region. At Budget Saturday an amendment was proposed to strip this money from the budget, but it failed and the item remains in the budget.

I spoke in favor of this item on Saturday for a pair of reasons:

  • First of all, I think the work the Partnership is doing is important in the effort to attract and retain employers in our community. I recently had an opportunity to attend a debrief with Site Selectors invited to Appleton by the Regional Partnership and learned a lot about the process of determining where to locate a business. I came away from the event increasingly determined that the region needs someone out in the marketplace drawing attention to our community's strengths, or we risk getting lost in the shuffle of communities looking to attract new businesses.
  • Second, an estimated 57% of the Partnership's fundraising has come from private sources. This allows us to partner with other government groups and get a much larger impact than we could by spending this money on our own. 
I'm always reluctant to hand tax dollars over to other entities, but in this case I think the work they're doing is important, and replacing the effort would cost us much more than $1 per capita.

Communications Specialist

The Mayor's proposal to add a Communications Specialist to his office drew a lot of conversation on Saturday as we received a copy of a proposed job description and discussed the possible role of this new hire. No amendments were proposed to remove this position from the budget, but one amendment did pass that removed over $7000 in funding from the position and set the prospective employee's start date back into February.

Longtime readers of this space and followers of my campaign know that I ran for this office with one primary goal: To improve the way city government communicates with all of us. I think this position is a key step in the right direction regarding that issue, so I support it and plan on speaking in favor of it at budget adoption.

Exhibition Center

An amendment was proposed to remove expenditures related to the Fox Cities Exhibition Center from the 2014 budget, but it failed. I expect the issue to come up again at budget adoption next week.

If the Exhibition Center is funded as currently proposed, the city would foot the bill for about $3.5 million to purchase the property from Outagamie County, build a pedestrian bridge to it and reconstruct some of the sewer and water facilities around the new building. The project depends on an agreement between the FCEC Board, the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel and local hoteliers, who would be asked to contribute to the project through an increase in the room tax.

This project is proposed as a potential major boost for our downtown businesses, and I don't doubt that the help would be much appreciated. The timing, however, creates a problem, and getting everyone to the table for a mutually beneficial agreement would be a Herculean task. 

This is a project I'd consider coming back to if more favorable conditions arise, but I just don't think now is the time for it. I'm planning on voting to remove the project from the budget at this point.

Business Park Property Repurchase

The 2014 budget currently calls for $200,000 to be allocated for repurchase of industrial park land in the city's Northeast Business Park. The properties that could be repurchased were purchased over 12 months ago but have not been built upon, and the city has the right to take them back for the original purchase price (plus any special assessments and minus any property taxes owed). 

The city currently owns a fair amount of vacant industrial park land (enough to lease some out for farming), and has sold just 1.44 acres of it in the last three years. As such, I'm reluctant to commit tax dollars to repurchasing more at this time. 

Southeast Regional Park

The 2014 budget currently calls for $400,000 to be spent to purchase approximately 40 acres of potential parkland that would be shared with the Town of Harrison. $200,000 of this project would be funded by the city's Park Open Space Fund, while the remainder could be financed by the Stormwater Utility if plans to purchase Lions Park for stormwater maintenance continue.

A park in this area has been a topic of conversation for years, as residents south of the river simply don't have the same park access that north side residents do. The issue was exacerbated by the possible repurposing of Lions Park, but will remain even if those plans are abandoned. The price tag for full development of this facility is a little troubling at $3.15 million over five years, but the need does exist and I'm hopeful this project will result in a park both Appleton and Harrison can be proud of.

Additional Police Officer

The Finance Committee opted not to make any amendments to the 2014 budget to make way for the addition of an officer to the Police Department, but that's likely to still happen. 

Per capita, Appleton's police force is very small. We've been fortunate over the years that it hasn't become a major issue but we need to find a way to address it before it does. On Saturday Mayor Hanna said the issue is more complicated than a single officer, that adding an officer to the force would be the first step in a multi-year effort to expand the force. 

It's hard to tell what future budgets will bring, but for this year we need to find a way to make that commitment. I'm looking for an opportunity to move some money and make this a priority, and I know I'm not the only alderperson doing so.

Disaster Recovery Plan

The Finance Committee did not make any amendments in an effort to return $65,000 to the budget for the IT department to create a disaster recovery plan. This issue did not draw any conversation on Saturday and it appears it'll have to wait a year.

Thanks, as always, to the dozens of you who took a moment to vote in my poll and share your thoughts on the 2014 budget. I've reviewed your votes and comments and will continue to keep them in mind as we put the finishing touches on our plans for the future.

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.