Tuesday, October 28, 2014

What you may not know: Week of October 27

October is a five-Wednesday month, so this would typically be an off week for the Appleton Common Council. Due to one postponement and a couple of special meetings, however, it's one of our busiest weeks of the year. Here's what's on my calendar:

Fox Cities Transit Commission, Wednesday, 3 pm

The Transit Commission will meet in special session on Wednesday to approve Valley Transit's 2015 budget, which includes a fare increase for most fixed route riders for the first time since 2009. The most notable fare changes are as follows:

  • The regular cash fare will rise from $1.80 to $2.00 per trip.
  • A ten-ride ticket will go up from $15 to $17.
  • 30-day passes will go up from $56 to $60.
  • For the first time a 30-day freedom pass will be offered for children and priced at $22.
  • A youth fare will also be created at $.75, eliminating the need for children to pay the full cash fare.
Raising prices for services that many low-income users depend on is never an easy decision, but after five years of flat fares it's time to make a small increase. The rule of thumb for transit is that fares cover somewhere between 15-20% of the total operating cost, and Valley Transit has been operating at the low end of that spectrum for multiple years now. 

Incidentally, moving the cash fare from $1.80 to $2 could also have a noticeable impact on the buses' on-time performance as it will significantly reduce passengers' need to get change cards for $.20. Improving on-time performance is a major goal for the service going forward.

Finance Committee, Wednesday, 4:30 pm

The Finance Committee was unable to meet at its normally scheduled time last week, so we'll meet on Wednesday to take on a very significant agenda. The headline from the meeting is likely to be the committee recommendation on a resolution calling for a referendum on the proposed new Appleton Public Library.

The current proposal for the library calls for the city to borrow $30 million over a three-year span to finance the site acquisition, site preparation and construction of a new facility, a figure that would be repaid over 22 years (each individual borrow would be repaid over 20 years). That averages out to less than $1.4 million in principal repayment per year, plus our historically-low municipal interest rate, spread over the entire city tax base. An additional $7 million is expected to come from private sources.

The need for the library to expand to a new, larger, updated facility is clearly laid out in the very first bullet point on this APL150 FAQ page. Library usage and circulation has nearly tripled since the current facility opened in 1981, and the use of technology has gone from an afterthought to a primary service. Given that need, the decision on whether or not to go to referendum hinges on three questions:
  1. Do we feel that the estimated property tax impact of this project is significant enough to require public confirmation? 
  2. If we elect not to build a new library at this time, will there ever be a better opportunity?
  3. Would a decision to delay this project until a referendum can be held (likely February or April of 2015) have an unwarranted negative impact on both the project and our partners in making it happen?
In my opinion, the answers to those questions are likely no, no and yes. We're still working on the specific numbers for property tax impact, but it appears likely the annual payments will be relatively low and spread out over both an extended period of time and the entirety of our tax base, so individual property tax changes will be small. 

Furthermore, our relatively low municipal debt (easily the smallest per capita of any community in our size group statewide) and track record for solid financial practices put us in a position to receive a very favorable interest rate for this project. Municipal bond interest rates are already at a near rock-bottom level, and we'll be among the most desirable in that group. Simply put, if we wait on this project it's likely to get significantly more expensive down the road.

Finally, delaying this project would create a significant issue for everyone involved. Both current owners of the properties likely to be used for this project, the church and Michiel's, have been operating with this potential development hanging over their head for some time now. Opting to go to referendum would leave them to face that uncertainty for six more months. That's particularly challenging when it comes to businesses based on events, who would be unable to book for the future but would have to attempt to continue to operate. Delays could also have a strong negative impact on the city's ability to hire contractors and architects mid-year to keep the project on schedule for completion and avoid costly overruns.

It's never easy to say an issue shouldn't go before the voters and I know this decision won't be popular with everyone, but I think it's time to move forward with this project.

Finance Committee (again), Saturday, 8 am

Last but certainly not least, the 2015 budget process takes a significant step forward on Saturday when the Finance Committee (with the remainder of the council also likely to be in attendance) meets for a full day to review and make our committee's recommendation on the full document. 

The library is, of course, likely to be one of the primary topics of discussion at this meeting but every department will be reviewed and amendments to the Mayor's proposals will be considered. It's a very long day but a necessary step in our efforts to do the most we can with the resources we have available.

After Saturday, the full budget will be presented and open for discussion at a public hearing before our November 5 council meeting and will be amended and adopted at our November 12 meeting.

You can see agendas for all of this week's meetings and the full schedule at the city's Legistar page.

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 13, 2014

What you may not know: MRAP edition

Apologies for missing a week last week: Our committee week agendas largely featured items that I didn't expect to have wide appeal, items I had discussed previously or items I knew I'd get a chance to discuss again later. I don't take weeks off from this blog often, but I didn't feel like I had much to share last week that would have been a valuable use of your time or mine.

As you might expect following a quiet committee week, we have a relatively quiet agenda for Wednesday night's regularly scheduled council meeting. I do have some new information to share, however, about an item we've discussed before:

MRAP Update

On September 17 two alderpersons submitted a resolution calling for the city to review several issues related to the Appleton Police Department's new Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle.

The original resolution called for four actions:
  1. A budgetary review of the costs involved in keeping, outfitting and preparing officers to use the MRAP vehicle.
  2. A staff review of options for returning, selling or disposing of the vehicle.
  3. A review of the process of acquiring such vehicles or military surplus items in the future.
  4. A review of processes involving active shooters that could be conducted without using "military vehicles."
At the Safety & Licensing Committee's first meeting to discuss this resolution, we removed items 2 and 4 after an extended debate. The remaining resolution was referred back to committee at our October 1 council meeting, and was discussed again at that level last Thursday. The committee's recommendation remains the same, but I think the second conversation on the issue was very illuminating.

First of all, at that second meeting we had our first opportunity to hear the police department's policy on when the MRAP could be used. You can hear it for yourself at approximately 37:30 in the meeting video, but I'll also do my best to transcribe it here:

The primary utilization of the rescue vehicle is:

A) As a rescue vehicle for the evacuation of officers and our citizens from an unsafe environment
B) To safely insert a team, SWAT or a team of patrol officers or deputies into an otherwise unsafe environment
C) The rescue vehicle may be staged in a nearby area on incidents where the uses listed above could be reasonably anticipated, and
D) Absent reasons identified above, the rescue vehicle is not intended for use in a crowd-control environment.

At this point I think it's important to note that altering tactical policies isn't something we as a council can do. Those decisions fall under the jurisdiction of the Police & Fire Commission, not the Common Council. However, I think having this opportunity to review that policy addressed some of the concerns regarding the MRAP vehicle. 

Two weeks ago I wrote, "I'm in favor of a strong policy regarding when it (the MRAP) can or cannot be used. I don't want to see the MRAP in parades or see it used for crowd control or non-emergency purposes, but if the unthinkable happens and we need it, I want our officers to have access to it." The policy detailed above satisfies my concerns.

I suspect we'll still hear some debate on this issue on Wednesday night and perhaps we'll get the opportunity to discuss more proposed amendments, but as things stand right now I'm comfortable with the situation in play.

You can see agendas for all of this week's meetings and the full schedule at the city's Legistar page.

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.