Monday, October 26, 2015

What you may not know: Week of October 26

The Appleton Common Council has a busy round of committees scheduled this week but all of those meetings will be conducted under the looming shadow of the 2016 budget, which we are currently reviewing. If you've liked my Facebook page you may already know that I finished my reading of the 660-page budget on Friday night and have submitted 74 questions to directors regarding items that appear within.

The budget is a great place to read about, discuss and perhaps amend city priorities, but it also represents a tremendous opportunity to learn about things we do as a city. In addition to a few attempts to make adjustments, every year I come away with a deeper understanding of how city government works and why we do some things the way we do.

If you'd like to learn more about the budget and how the process works, I have two opportunities for you this week:
  • First, on Monday at 6:30 I'll be participating in an Our Town Hall event titled "Demystifying the City of Appleton Budget" at the History Museum at the Castle. Follow this link for more details on the event, which should be a great opportunity to talk to an interested group about the process and some of the discussions we'll be having in the weeks ago.
  • Then, if you're really ready to dig in, the Finance Committee will be reviewing the budget for a full day on Saturday, starting at 8 am, and the meeting is open to the public. It's a long day and it's not anyone's favorite way to spend a fall Saturday, but it is an excellent opportunity to go department-by-department through the budget, get a lot of questions answered and start a conversation about where adjustments may need to be made.
Even without the budget review, it would be a pretty busy committee week as our regularly-scheduled meetings include the following:

Parks & Recreation, Monday, 6 pm

We've been discussing issues being caused by problem drinking in several city parks for quite some time now. Several months ago staff was directed to produce a system that would require a permit to bring alcohol into the parks, which is what nearly all of our neighboring municipalities do. That recommendation was sent back to committee on October 7 and held at their last meeting on October 12, so the Parks & Recreation committee will have it on their agenda again this week.

I know several of my colleagues have a strong interest in finding another way to resolve this issue without requiring permits, and I'm curious to see what they'll come up with. I think there's some consensus around council that something has to be done to address this matter, as excessive, extended drinking in the parks is creating an air of unsafety around some facilities.

Special Common Council meeting, Wednesday, 7 pm

And now, please allow me to introduce the elephant in the room.

We're starting to get very close to deadlines for decisions related to the proposed exhibition center, and in an effort to respect the time-sensitive nature of this work council will meet in special session on Wednesday to again discuss and potentially vote on multiple agreements that could open the door for the facility's construction.

All of these items were also a part of last Wednesday's council agenda, but some very significant eleventh-hour changes to the proposals made it impossible for council to conduct any kind of proper review of the agreements in play before voting at that meeting. All told, 102 pages of new documents were handed out during the meeting, making moot several of the documents many of us had spent a great deal of time preparing to discuss.

One of the changes between the documents we thought we were showing up to discuss and the actual current draft of the agreement is very significant. It calls for a much larger expansion of the room tax to fund two projects instead of one. The first, of course, is the proposed exhibition center. The second, which would receive a small share of room tax dollars immediately and a significantly larger share once the Performing Arts Center's borrowing expires in 2017, is an amateur sports facility.

Wednesday was the first time most, if not all members of council had heard about any significant possibility of lumping a sports facility into this project. On Wednesday we were given several suggestions of what this expenditure might look like, but at present there is no real consensus on what the actual project will be, where it will be constructed, when it will be launched or completed or what its projected impact will be on either the tourism marketplace in the valley or the community infrastructure that would support it.

Previous drafts of the proposed room tax agreement called for a 3.5% increase across nine municipalities to pay for the exhibition center's construction, with the rate going back down 2% when the Performing Arts Center is paid off in 2017. The new proposal calls for the tax across all municipalities to go up to 10%, the maximum allowed by the state, and remain there for at least the duration of the exhibition center's debt.

This represents a remarkable late shift in plans, with the deadline to close on the exhibition center's property about a month away. Tying these two projects together creates a bizarre partnership: The exhibition center has been discussed and debated for many years now and we know a great deal of details on it. The sports facility has been a part of the proposal for less than a week and requires funding despite having nearly none of the salient details fleshed out. To approve one, we must approve both. And there's really not much time to seek any further details.

When we're talking about a commitment this big, we have to be more responsible than this.

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 19, 2015

What you may not know: Week of October 19

First of all, my apologies for missing last week's update while I was returning from a wedding out of town. It ended up being something of a moot point, as most of the week's major action items were held and I'll have a chance to tell you about them again when they come back up for committee discussion.

In the meantime, the full council meets on Wednesday and we still have some pretty big items to discuss:

Appointment of a new City Clerk

The city has been without a city clerk and employing an interim deputy clerk since July 23, but the search to fill the former role appears to be drawing to a close. On Wednesday council will be asked to approve the hiring of Kami Scofield, who would start on November 16.

I haven't met Ms. Scofield but her qualifications are significant: She has spent the last four years as the City Clerk in Verona, is certified by the Wisconsin Certified Municipal Clerks Association, belongs to both the Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association and International Institute of Municipal Clerks and has a bachelor's degree in Public Administration from UW-Stevens Point.

I look forward to getting an opportunity to meet Ms. Scofield and work with her in the future.

Special Assessment Policy

In my last update I mentioned a concern with the City of Appleton's 2016 special assessment policy regarding streets that need to be transitioned from "rural" to "urban" status. This transition typically happens in areas that have recently been annexed into the city in an effort to bring their infrastructure up to city standards.

There are two phases in that process: A "grade and gravel" phase where the street is prepared for permanent installation, and the actual installation of a permanent street. Last week the Finance Committee voted to amend the proposal to remove residents along these streets' responsibility for the grade and gravel portion, but continue to assess them for permanent street installation. In my opinion that's a step in the right direction, but it leaves a gap among property owners that have already paid for it and will also be billed for the final installation.

I remain concerned about how this policy impacts property owners in that gap, and will continue to work to address the issue.

Exhibition Center

Two weeks ago council opted to take no action on a proposed intergovernmental agreement to raise the room tax across the Fox Valley to finance the construction of a new exhibition center downtown, and this week that item is back on our agenda along with another important milestone: the management agreement between the city and the owners of the Radisson Paper Valley hotel.

I haven't had a chance to review these documents at this point, but I will between now and Wednesday because it's critically important that they, especially the management agreement, protect our interests and limit our risk in the event this project moves forward.

I'm pleased to note that some of my previous concerns regarding this project, especially the hotel's long-term ownership situation, have been resolved. I've written at length about some of the risks that need to be minimized, and I'm hopeful this document will address them.

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 5, 2015

What you may not know: Week of October 5

The last few weeks have been relatively quiet for the Appleton Common Council, but that all changes on Wednesday as the full body meets to consider a packed agenda. Here are some of the highlights:

Mayor salary

The process to determine a mayoral salary for the next four years (April 2016-2020) has taken on a life of its own over the last several months, with various debates, refer-backs and amendments, and took another turn two weeks ago when the Human Resources committee voted 3-1 to recommend a salary decrease of $10,000 for the city's chief executive.

It's my opinion that the logic used to reach this conclusion was quite poor. The comparables used to set this recommendation were all significantly smaller cities than Appleton, and if you try to use those comparables and then adjust for population, size of budget overseen or number of employees overseen, you end up with a dollar figure that suggests our mayor is actually due a very significant raise, not a pay cut.

I remain in support of the committee's previous recommendation, which called for the mayor's existing salary to be increased by 1.5% in each of the next four years. I think that's a reasonable, small adjustment to a salary that serves its purpose well at this point.

Alcohol in parks

On the same night two weeks ago the Parks & Rec committee voted 3-1 to recommend approval of a resolution calling for a change in the rules regarding alcohol in city parks. Under this proposal park users would need a permit to bring alcohol into the parks.

As I've mentioned previously, Appleton is one of just two communities in the Fox Valley that allow alcohol in parks, and that's created a significant issue in a few of our downtown parks with heavy daytime drinking leading to a wide variety of undesirable behaviors. It's unfortunate that this issue has forced us to consider such a sweeping change, but it appears likely that any smaller changes would simply push the issue into another park or another location.

Special Assessment Policy

At the Finance Committee last week I was the lone dissenting vote on a recommendation to approve the city's proposed 2016 Special Assessment Policy, which includes a clarification that I find problematic regarding streets transitioning from "rural" to "urban" status.

When the city enacted the wheel tax and eliminated special assessments for street reconstruction this year, we attempted to draw a line in the sand between streets being reconstructed and permanent streets being constructed for the first time to replace temporary streets in new subdivisions. The clarification mentioned above addresses a third type of street that fits neither of those classifications: a "rural" street that needs to be improved after being annexed into the city or due to expansion of the city. The item we're being asked to approve will allow for property owners to be assessed when their streets are upgraded. This impacts a fair number of locations across the north side of the city, including French Road.

French Road was recently repaved but is technically still considered a "rural" road. I'm concerned about how this clarification to the policy could impact residents who were assessed for that repaving and could face another assessment when that street eventually has to be modernized.

Expo Center Room Tax Agreement

Finally, we've reached another decision point on the process of constructing an exhibition center in downtown Appleton. On Wednesday we'll be asked to approve a proposed intergovernmental agreement with the various municipalities that pay into the Fox Cities' room tax, calling for them to increase their rates to finance the bonds that would be needed to proceed with this project.

Getting this approved by all nine participating municipalities is one of the two major hurdles that need to be cleared to make this happen - the other is the management agreement between the city and the hotel. I'm more concerned about the latter: As I've previously said, I think this project could be a great thing for the city if done the right way and without significant risk. The management agreement is, to me, where the rubber hits the road on that issue.

I should also note that these agreements are coming directly to council in a bit of a break from our typical decision-making procedure. There is a critical timing element here, as this item needs to be heard and approved by nine member communities (some of which only hold one meeting per month) before the end of November. For that to be possible, we need to take it up early and quickly to leave time for others to take action.

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.