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.

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