Tuesday, May 26, 2015

What you may not know: Week of May 26

It's an abbreviated holiday week for the Appleton Common Council, but we'll still be busy with a partial slate of committees. Here are some of the items we'll be discussing:

Finance, Tuesday, 4:30 p.m.

Our first meeting of the week will likely draw a fair amount of attention, as the Finance Committee is expected to make a recommendation regarding a resolution calling for a referendum on the proposal to build a new Appleton Public Library.

The resolution is identical in language to one the council rejected in November: In fact, a council rule had to be changed to allow this resolution to be submitted again so soon. If it passes, voters would be asked the following question: "Should at least $30 million be spent by the taxpayers of the City of Appleton to construct a new municipal library?"

Council rejected this call for a referendum last fall at least partially because that question, as written, has some issues. The resubmittal of the resolution also creates some new problems:

  • Vague answer. If this question appears on the ballot and the voters choose to vote "no," we'll never know why. There are a large number of moving parts in this project, including but not limited to the site, the cost, perceptions related to need for the facility, etc. A simple "no" vote without any further information gathered would make it very difficult for us to move forward in any coherent way. 
  • Timing. The resolution calls for a referendum to be placed on the ballot at our next scheduled election in April of 2016. That's nearly a full year the project would have to spend in limbo while we wait to see what the voters think.
  • Fairness to involved parties. The city has been involved in discussions to purchase the two properties likely to hold a future library for some time now, and both sides have a strong interest in bringing this matter to a close so they know what their future holds. Adding another wrinkle to this process would leave both of the existing property owners hanging with an uncertain future for another year.
  • Expense. In a related note, sending this project to referendum would likely increase its final cost. Ongoing work to keep the project positioned to move forward if approved would have to continue, and rising municipal interest rates would likely increase the cost of the final result. 
For those reasons and others I've previously discussed, I think going to referendum represents a bad decision. 

Municipal Services, Tuesday, 6:30 p.m.

In each of my last two posts I've mentioned several proposed changes to the way the city enforces downtown parking, including ending parking enforcement at 6 p.m., reducing the cost of meters north of Washington Street and extending the time limit on those meters. Approval of those three changes has been delayed briefly and the committee will discuss the matter again this week 

The changes are still likely to pass eventually, but the delay was needed to address some questions about how these changes will impact the parking lot in front of the library. That discussion is expected to happen tonight and the full council should see this item again next week.

Appleton Redevelopment Authority and Community and Economic Development Committee, Wednesday, 4 and 5 p.m.

Finally, this week the efforts to build an exhibition center in downtown Appleton may take another step forward as both the Redevelopment Authority and Community and Economic Development Committees will be asked to recommend approval of a new contract with the consulting firm helping us with the project, Hinshaw and Culbertson.

The new contract calls for $160,000 for our consultants to work on building the coalition of neighboring communities necessary for the room tax to fund the project, working with the eventual lender on the borrowing element, negotiating the management agreement for the facility between the city and the hotel's new owners and creating governance policies for the ARA. In addition, the city could spend another $80,000 on closing costs and bond issuance, although those payments would come from the proceeds from the borrowing.

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.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

What you may not know: Week of May 18

My apologies for the late post: I just got back in from four days out of town on Monday night. Nonetheless, the Appleton Common Council will meet for its regularly-scheduled session on Wednesday at 7, and here are some of the agenda items I'll be watching:

Parking changes

Last week the Municipal Services Committee voted 5-0 to recommend approval of parking changes for 2015 calling for Monday-Saturday enforcement to end at 6 p.m. (previously 9 p.m.), meters north of Washington Street to be reduced from $.75 to $.20 per hour and those meters to have their maximum time extended from two to 12 hours.

Last week I mentioned some unanswered questions about unintended consequences of these changes, but those questions have been answered to my satisfaction and I think we're ready to proceed here. I think the only challenge remaining will be finding a way to implement these changes in a timely fashion with minimal confusion.

Highview Park Tennis Courts

An effort to bring tennis courts to Highview Park hit a non-insignificant snag recently when we opened the construction bids for the project. $105,500 remained available out of the $120,000 budgeted for this item, but the city received just one bid for the remaining work and the contractor was asking for $136,390. Once $5000 for contingencies is added, the amount of money that may be required is $141,390, which is 34% over budget.

Unfortunately, receiving a single bid for a summer construction project is not unusual: It's the busy season for many area contractors and that causes many of them to pick and choose projects, especially when dealing with smaller or specialized items. The bigger challenge for me is the large budget overrun. I voted against awarding this contract at the Finance Committee last week and will continue to push for the city to try again at a later date.

Licensing changes

One of the primary tasks facing the city's Safety & Licensing Committee is the evaluation of applicants for operator's (bartender's), taxi, commercial solicitation and street vendor licenses, but that process could see a significant change following Wednesday's council meeting.

The Police Department conducts background checks on all applicants for licenses and, under the current policy, flags some cases where they have concerns for consideration of denial. Anyone with a felony on their record, recent convictions that could be considered related or other concerns may receive that designation and their specific case will be looked over by the committee. Frequently we concur with their recommendation, but the process is important to ensure everyone gets a fair shake and an opportunity to tell their side of the story.

Last Wednesday S&L voted 3-2 to recommend changes to the policy granting the Police Department the authority to deny licenses outright, with applicants that have been flagged for denial only appearing before the committee if they announce their intention to appeal that decision.

I was one of the dissenting votes on that item last week, and remain concerned that this change will lead to the city denying licenses we would have granted in the past. I think the current system works and provides due process to all applicants, not just those who "opt in." I'm hopeful we'll stick with the current procedure.

Elected official salaries

Finally, in last week's post I mentioned that the Human Resources Committee was meeting to discuss the mayoral and city attorney salaries for those positions' 2016-20 terms. Both of those items were held and will be brought back to council at a later date.

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, May 11, 2015

What you may not know: Week of May 10

The Appleton Common Council has a full slate of committee meetings planned this week in our first two-week cycle under our new schedule. Here are some of the agenda items I'll be watching:

Human Resources, Monday, 5 pm

Two of the city's highest-profile elected positions, mayor and city attorney, are up for re-election in April of 2016. One of the things that needs to happen before then will start this week, as the HR committee is expected to make recommendations on both positions' salaries for the next four years.

The starting point for discussion on the mayor will likely be the $94,686 he's receiving in 2015. That figure has gone up between 1 and 3.5 percent in ten of the last eleven years, climbing over $18,000 since 2003.

Appleton's somewhat unique municipal management structure complicates matters here, as many cities of comparable sizes either do not have full-time mayors or have a full-time mayor but also employ a city manager/administrator. Appleton's mayoral salary is significantly lower than what most comparable city managers or administrators are making, as Eau Claire, Fond Du Lac, Janesville, Kenosha and Oshkosh all pay theirs between $132,000 and $147,000 annually.

Mayoral salaries, however, tell a different story. Appleton pays its mayor significantly more than they make in Green Bay ($82,500), La Crosse ($77,200) and Wausau ($74,850). It's hard to compare apples to apples here, though, without knowing exactly how those mayors' job responsibilities compare to our own.

Earlier I mentioned that Appleton's mayoral salary has gone up over $18,000 in the last 12 years, but it's also worth noting that recent changes have been more modest, rising just $3,686 in the last four years. I'm looking forward to the discussion on how we should proceed here.

Meanwhile, our city attorney makes slightly more than $110,000 per year, a figure slightly below the average of 12 somewhat comparable municipalities polled for comparison purposes. Both of these offices will be assigned salaries for their next four-year term, commencing following the April 2016 election and running through April of 2020.

Parks and Recreation, Monday, 6 pm

No official action is likely to be taken, but a major northside park will take another step towards potential improvements on Monday when the Parks and Recreation Committee reviews a proposed updated master plan for Memorial Park.

A fair amount has changed at Memorial Park in recent years, including the construction of the Miracle League field and two stormwater ponds and the decision to return the Gardens of the Fox Cities to city control. More changes are on the horizon for the years to come, so this is a good time for the city to take a step back and look at the entire park at once. I attended an open house to discuss this plan several weeks ago and was impressed by the consideration of several options to better utilize the park's available space and work to improve its functionality going forward. I'm looking forward to seeing the resulting recommendations.

Municipal Services Committee, Tuesday, 6:30 pm

The Municipal Services Committee has 16 action items on their agenda for their now later-than-usual meeting, including approvals of proposed designs for six future street reconstruction projects. The day's big news, however, is likely to be some very significant changes to downtown parking enforcement starting in summer of 2015. These recommendations are some of the first responses to our recent parking study.

On Tuesday the committee will make recommendations regarding requests for the following changes:

  • All on-street meter hours of operation will change from 9a-9p Monday-Saturday to 9a-6p, creating 18 new hours of free parking weekly.
  • All meters north of Washington Street will change their parking limit from two hours to 12 hours and their rates from $.75/hour to $.20/hour.
I suspect these proposed changes will be popular, but I have some ongoing questions about potential unintended consequences as it relates to parking availability. I'll be curious to see where this debate goes.

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.