Monday, July 20, 2015

What you may not know: Week of July 20

I'm anticipating a quiet committee week for the Appleton Common Council, with the Human Resources, Finance and Community & Economic Development Committees and Transit Commission all canceling their regularly-scheduled meetings. There are still a couple of items of interest, however:

Parks and Recreation, Monday, 6 pm

As you may have seen in the Post Crescent over the weekend, the issue of alcohol use in city parks is becoming a concern and may need to be addressed. Chief Todd Thomas of the Appleton Police Department sent a letter to Parks and Rec committee chair Joe Martin and I (as chair of the Safety & Licensing Committee) late last week to express his concerns.

The concern, in a nutshell, is this: alcohol-related complaints at our downtown parks have skyrocketed this year, with groups congregating to drink during the day and at times harassing other park users. This issue takes up a lot of our police officers' time, has led to some events being removed from the parks and creates the impression that our downtown parks are unsafe.

This issue was at least partially exacerbated by a 2014 change to the city's park ordinances which expanded the hours (moving the start time from noon to 10 am) during which one can legally consume alcohol in the parks. That change stemmed from a five-month review of park ordinances, which included several extensive debates on allowing dogs in parks (a change we eventually opted not to make). In the interest of full disclosure, I was a member of the Parks and Recreation Committee when we made that change. It was largely an afterthought to a long debate on dogs, and I don't remember hearing much in favor of or against it.

Over the coming weeks I suspect we'll hear several possibilities to address this issue, including narrowing the drinking hours in parks or eliminating alcohol in parks without a permit. It's still too early for me to predict how this will go or advocate for a certain outcome. This item is information-only and no action is expected to be taken this week.

Utilities, Tuesday, 5:30 pm

Managing stormwater runoff and the associated flooding issues are one of the elements of running a city that I think a lot of people don't think about. There's a very difficult balance to maintain between spending too much on stormwater infrastructure and allowing flooding to occur, and every project we take on to reduce flooding comes at a not-insignificant financial cost.

Over the last several years the city has been working on a project to better identify properties with large amounts of impervious surfaces and use the actual square footage of that impervious space as the basis for their stormwater charges. That's a time-consuming process and it's being done in multiple phases, with the most recent implementation happening for multifamily properties.

Last week the council heard from several residents of multifamily properties upset over their new stormwater charges, and as a result Alderman Ed Baranowski submitted a resolution calling for a review of this process and its implementation.

The existing process was largely debated and put into place before my time on council, and was the subject of much discussion at that time. I suspect I'll get an opportunity to learn a lot more about it in the coming weeks.

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, July 14, 2015

What you may not know: Week of July 13

I hope everyone is doing all right following Sunday and Monday's bouts with severe weather, and my thoughts go out this morning to those with damage remaining to repair and clean up. In the meantime, however, the Appleton Common Council will meet for its regularly-scheduled session on Wednesday, and here are some of the items I'll be watching:

City government structure

Last week the Human Resources Committee voted 2-2 to recommend denial of a resolution calling for city staff to research alternatives to Appleton's longstanding Mayoral structure, including the possible hiring of a City Manager or Administrator. This week that debate will move on to council.

I do appreciate one amendment made at committee, calling for a City Manager position to be considered in addition to a City Administrator if this resolution passes. If we're going to look at options, I think we'll be best served by considering all of our options.

However, I'm still not intending to support this resolution. As I wrote last week, any change to our existing structure will come at a significant annual cost and I'd prefer to see that money used elsewhere.

Parking ramp changes

We're continuing to look at changes suggested in the city's recent downtown parking study, and have already voted to eliminate meter restrictions after 6 pm. Now we'll shift our attention to parking ramps, where the first step in a significant change could occur on Wednesday.

This week the council will be asked to vote to approve a contract with Walker Parking Consultants for "professional services" related to transitioning the Green, Yellow and Red parking ramps (the ramps near the PAC, Library and Paper Valley Hotel) from a flat-fee, "pay as you enter" model to a "pay on exit" model that will charge users based on the time used.

The contract is for $46,500 and does not include the actual transition: This is the data collection and bidding preparation portion of the project, in addition to some oversight of the final contractor should we choose to proceed. No final decision on a transition to a new rate structure or the form of that rate structure will happen here.

Cell phone tower reconsideration

Two weeks ago the Common Council voted to deny a request for a Special Use Permit for a proposed new cell phone tower along West Wisconsin Avenue, citing aesthetic concerns with the large structure. This week one council member who was absent from that meeting will ask for the item to be reconsidered.

Voting down a cell phone tower request creates a pretty significant legal challenge for the city. As part of the 2013 budget the State Legislature passed significant changes to the process of cell tower siting, greatly limiting municipalities' local control over new towers. Details about the changes are available here, and the fifth and sixth pages of that document include a list of actions municipalities cannot take regarding towers. The first item on the sixth page reads "Disapprove an application based solely on aesthetic concerns."

Given that information, this debate changes a bit. State statute overrules any decisions we may make locally, and as such we have two choices:

  1. Vote to approve the Special Use Permit and allow the tower to be constructed, or
  2. Vote to deny the Special Use Permit, likely face a lawsuit we have very little chance of winning, incur legal fees, and still end up allowing the tower to be constructed.
I certainly understand the concerns about the impact of this tower, but denying this request is a clear violation of state statute and won't prevent the new structure from eventually going up. As such, I hope we'll take the responsible step and reconsider this vote.

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, July 6, 2015

What you may not know: Week of July 6

Hopefully everyone had a great and safe holiday, and is ready for an interesting committee week for the Appleton Common Council. Here are some of the items I'll be watching:

Human Resources, Monday, 5 pm

The City of Appleton's governmental structure is back on the table for discussion this week as the HR Committee will have their first discussion on a resolution calling for the city to consider eliminating the current mayor-council system in place of a format including a city administrator position. The resolution in play doesn't call for a change outright, but calls for the possibility to be researched and for a recommendation to come before council by October 7.

This discussion isn't new, by any means: The possibility of a change was researched at length in 1990 when council opted to stick with the current structure.

From my perspective, this issue comes down to efficiency. Hiring a city administrator could cost the city over $130,000 annually, and we'll likely continue to have a mayor at a reduced role and salary. In 2015 the mayor is receiving $94,686, so that's a significant annual cost increase. It's possible the money we're considering spending here could fund an entire additional staff person or more in another city department.

The proponents of this plan likely have a lot of work to do to demonstrate that the city would experience enough improvement under a new system to justify the cost.

Finance, Tuesday, 4:30 pm

On Tuesday the Finance Committee will take up three items that may be of minor interest:

First, the committee will be asked to reject all bids for a tennis court project at Highview Park, pushing the construction back to 2016. We had budgeted money for this project in 2015 but the bids for construction came back well above our expectations during our initial bidding process this spring, and have come back high again following an attempt to re-bid the project this summer. Assuming council approves the request to reject all bids, we'll likely budget for this project again in 2016.

Second, as I've mentioned previously, council will be asked to consider a proposed ordinance regarding remote participation for members who cannot make it to our meetings. I'm in favor of this ordinance in concept but will likely recommend a change or two to its execution before I'll be comfortable supporting it.

Finally, I wanted to mention an action item dealing with debt management. On Tuesday the committee will be asked to recommend approval of a recommendation allowing $845,330 of the city's unassigned fund balance to be used to pay down long-term debt. That figure represents 75% of the city's balance surplus, meaning we can use it to pay down debt and still hold on to three months' worth of operating expenditures to be used in case of emergency.

I know I've mentioned previously that Appleton's long term debt per capita is easily lower than any other comparable community in the state of Wisconsin, and here's another example of why that's the case. Responsibly handling our fund balances and paying down debt early helps us keep costs down for our projects and ensure low interest rates for borrowing going forward.

Board of Health, Wednesday, 7 am

Finally, the Board of Health will be up bright and early on Wednesday for the latest addition to an ongoing conversation about urban beekeeping.

I've written at length about some of the possible regulations that could be considered if beekeeping was expanded to residential property, as proposed in Alderpersons Polly Dalton and Vered Meltzer's resolution. In addition, there's an extended story in today's Post Crescent discussing the possibility with comments from one Fox Cities beekeeper discussing the benefits of implementing a change.

If the Board opts to take action on this item on Wednesday, the resolution would appear before the full council on Wednesday, July 15.

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.