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.

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