Monday, August 25, 2014

What you may not know: Week of August 25

It's a busy committee week for the Appleton Common Council and two of the week's highlights happen later today (Monday), so let's get right to it:

City Plan Commission, Monday, 4 pm

Several weeks ago the Plan Commission and the common council approved a resolution calling for the city to review its policy on painted signs and murals. Today at 4 pm the Plan Commission will get our first opportunity to discuss the proposed changes.

Looking through the memo and the proposed changes, a couple of noteworthy items stick out to me:

  1. Having the word "mural" defined as part of the ordinance and clearly stating that murals are not signs, and as such are not regulated under the city's painted sign policy could open the door for a variety of new art to pop up around the city.
  2. Separating painted signs and murals (and exempting "ghost signs," historic signs from businesses that have since closed) should allow us to regulate and permit where we need to without this becoming a major issue.
City staff deserves a lot of credit here for working with us to see how other communities handle this issue. I'm looking forward to moving forward with this.

Library Building & Equipment Committee, Monday, 4:30 pm

Unfortunately, two of this week's most newsworthy meetings are likely to overlap as the public gets their first opportunity to see the architectural concepts for a possible new library at 4:30 on Monday. The common council voted on Wednesday to approve a resolution of necessity allowing the city to negotiate with the owners of two properties, Fox Banquets and Trinity Lutheran Church, to potentially make way for a new facility to be constructed in that space.

There's still a lot that needs to happen before we're ready to construct a new facility, but I'm excited to see things moving forward after five years of work to reach this point. It's time for us to come together and build the greatest library this city has ever known.

Finance Committee, Wednesday, 4:30 pm

Finally, if you've been following the news around the city you likely already know what's coming before the Finance Committee this week. Two weeks ago we voted 4-1 to recommend approval for a resolution calling for the city to implement a $20 per vehicle "wheel tax" to replace revenue the city currently collects via special assessments for street reconstruction. The resolution was referred back to committee, however, and we'll discuss it again on Wednesday.

I've written about this idea at length multiple times now. In fact, I dedicated last week's entire post to it. I continue to hear from constituents and others around the city that are strongly in favor or strongly opposed to this proposal. At the end of the day, though, I think asking our vehicle owners to make small, annual contributions to the city's ongoing upkeep of roads is a significantly better option than hitting property owners with an enormous bill at the time of reconstruction. 

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.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Wheel Tax FAQ

As you likely know if you've been reading this blog, the City of Appleton's Finance Committee has been working for most of the summer on a reevaluation of the city's policy regarding special assessments. For as long as anyone can remember the city has been passing along a portion of the cost to property owners when a new street or utilities are installed or the street or utility infrastructure is repaired near their property.

Rising construction costs and other factors, however, have led to those assessments becoming increasingly significant and challenging for many property owners. It's not unheard of for a street/utility project to result in over $10,000 in assessments for some properties. Even with the city's five-year payment option, that's simply not a cost some property owners can afford to take on all at once.

On Wednesday the Appleton Common Council will debate one alternative: a proposed $20-per-vehicle "wheel tax." The tax would apply to all cars weighing less than 8,000 pounds and would raise an estimated $1.7 million in annual revenue for the city. Over the last ten years the city has spent an average of around $5 million per year on road repairs, and of that amount $1.3 million per year has been recovered via special assessments.

Over the last few months we've heard a lot of questions about the wheel tax. Below I've attempted to answer some of the more frequent questions I've received.

Why do we need a new tax to pay for street repairs?

As I mentioned above, special assessments have brought in about $1.3 million in annual revenue on average over the last ten years. For perspective, in 2014 the city's total property tax levy was slightly under $38 million, meaning that eliminating special assessments and absorbing this revenue loss with property tax dollars would reduce the general fund by about 3.4%. That's simply not a funding cut the city can afford to absorb without reducing other services.

There seems to be a perception out there that the city can just "cut the fat" and find this money in the budget, but in reality it's not quite that simple. We've already had to cut dozens of staff positions in response to reductions in state aid and levy limitations in recent years, and the impact is still being felt around the city. We also have (per capita) very small police and fire departments and other city departments operating under significant limitations. There simply isn't room in the budget or in our city operations at this point to take on a cut of this magnitude. If we can't pass a wheel tax, it appears pretty certain that we'll need to continue special assessments.

Why can't we just raise property taxes to pay for this?

By state statute, the city of Appleton and all municipalities have a cap on our property tax levy. Raising more than that levy limit requires the voters' approval through a referendum. As such, we simply don't have the ability to decide to raise property taxes to pay for this. If we elect to eliminate special assessments, we have to find another way to recoup this revenue.

Towns, villages, cities or counties are allowed, however, to create a wheel tax as long as all of the revenue collected is used for "transportation related purposes." That's a pretty broad umbrella, but the proposal recommended for approval by the Finance Committee narrows the allowed uses of Appleton's proposed tax to street reconstruction.

Why $20?

As mentioned above, our average over the last ten years has been about $1.3 million collected via special assessments. The actual number fluctuates pretty significantly year-to-year, though, depending on that year's projects and the adjoining properties' ability to be assessed. In addition, construction costs tend to go up from year-to-year, so using the last ten years' cost as a prediction for future expenses will probably underestimate our needs a bit.

A $20 wheel tax is expected to raise around $1.7 million annually, as I mentioned above. Some years that may be more than enough to cover the lost revenue from special assessments, but in those years the extra money will go into a segregated fund to help cover the difference on years where assessments would have exceeded our wheel tax revenue.

What happens if there's extra money?

I'm answering this one again because it's part of an important distinction we made at the last Finance Committee meeting: This money will only be used for street repairs, and if there's excess beyond what is needed to cover lost special assessment revenue it will go into a separate fund to be used to replace special assessment revenue in future years when the cost would have exceeded $1.7 million. This isn't just a "cash grab" or another tool to use to pump extra money into the general fund - it's going to be specifically segregated to be used for its stated purpose.

Why only cars and trucks under 8,000 pounds and not bicycles, motorcycles and heavier vehicles?

Certainly, cars aren't the only vehicles that benefit from having well-maintained roads. However, state statute specifically defines the vehicles we are allowed to charge this fee. The statute includes only vehicles with automobile or truck registration (eliminating bikes and any other two-wheeled vehicles) at 8,000 pounds or less (excluding heavier vehicles).

While I agree that other vehicles have an impact on the condition of our roads, especially heavier vehicles, the statute clearly says that we cannot apply a wheel tax to them.

Will this eliminate assessments on all streets?

No. Early in this process the Finance Committee and Common Council approved a policy that will continue to special assess property owners in new subdivisions when their first permanent street is installed. For most of the 13th district that has happened relatively recently or will happen soon. If you move into a property that doesn't have a permanent street, you will still be assessed for the city hiring someone to construct a street to you.

Under this proposal, however, once that permanent street is installed it becomes the city's sole responsibility to reconstruct it when the time comes. This would be similar to our city policy regarding sidewalks: Property owners pay for the initial construction of a sidewalk, but once it's in the city repairs or replaces it as needed.

What about people who recently paid for their streets?

I understand that this is going to be challenging to accept for some, but the city is not in a financial position to refund past special assessments. As I mentioned above, our budgets are tight. Repaying past assessments or offering to exempt recently assessed properties from the wheel tax simply isn't feasible at this point.

Individually I've explained the situation to a few people with the following metaphor: Imagine for a moment we had everyone on a street come out and put their fingers on their curb, then someone walked by and stepped on them. Halfway down the block, we realize that this is an awful idea. The "fair" way to do it would be to step on everyone's fingers anyway, but that doesn't make it right. At the same time, we can't really undo what's already been done.

There's really no way to eliminate special assessments that's perfectly "fair" for all of the property owners that have paid them in the past. I know some people will be upset about having to pay for their street and a wheel tax, but I hope over time they'll come to understand that if we're going to make a change it has to start somewhere.

But I live on (street name) street and it's not due for reconstruction. Why should I have to pay for everyone's streets?

While you may only live in a building adjacent to one or two streets, odds are you drive on other streets too. Having all of the city streets maintained well is in every driver's best interest.

How can I weigh in on this?

The wheel tax proposal is on the agenda for the Wednesday, August 20, 7 pm meeting of Appleton's Common Council. The meeting will be held in the council chambers on the sixth floor of City Hall, at 100 N Appleton St. If you're attending the meeting and would like to address the council, please come early and sign in on the sheet at the back of the room.

If you're unable to come to the meeting but you'd like to contact an alderperson to share your opinion on this or any other matter, this page contains links that allow you to contact them individually and this page allows you to send an email to all of 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, August 11, 2014

What you may not know: Week of August 11

Before I start with my committee week update, I'd like to take a moment to remind everyone that primaries for the November election will be held on Tuesday, August 12. If you live in Appleton's 13th district, your polling place is Faith Lutheran Church at 3100 E Evergreen Drive. The polls will be open from 7 am-8 pm, so please take a moment to familiarize yourself with the candidates and go vote.

Our committees are off on Tuesday to give everyone time to head out to the polls, but we still have a very significant week of meetings planned. Here are some of the highlights:

Human Resources, Monday, 6 pm

One of the action items on Monday evening's agenda is a request for council to set Aldermanic salaries to take effect after the 2016 April elections. Council is not allowed to vote on our own pay raises, so when we consider our own salaries we delay action for two years, when every member of council's current term will have elapsed.

Currently, members of Appleton's Common Council make $5,805 per year. That rate hasn't increased since going up 3% in 2009, and has gone up just twice in the last 12 years. The combined $85,705 spent paying all 15 alderpersons represents about 0.2%, or two thousandths of the city's net tax levy in our most recent budget.

Our council positions are intended to be part-time, but doing this job well requires a pretty significant time commitment. In addition to council and committee meetings (which frequently tie up 4-5 evenings every two weeks), most alderpersons spend a fair amount of time on meeting prep, working with staff and doing research to help understand and evaluate potential council decisions, working with constituents to answer questions and resolve issues, attending various other events and more.

The challenge with setting our own salaries is that "0%" is the easy answer politically. With that said, if we do that again this year we'll go all the way through 2016, a total of seven years, between salary increases. I think a modest raise is a fair request, and I hope we'll consider it.

Furthermore, I think the system by which we approve potential raises is part of the problem. I'm hopeful we'll consider tying potential council raises to some kind of metric (a percentage of the city's total tax levy, for example), to give ourselves an easy point of reference to use when making this decision in the future.

Finance, Wednesday, 4:30 pm

Most of this week's headlines are likely to come from the Finance Committee meeting, where we have one topic that's been sent back and another longstanding item that might be close to wrapping up.

First, at our last committee meeting we voted unanimously to approve a resolution of necessity allowing the city to negotiate with Trinity Lutheran Church and the owners of Michiels to potentially purchase the site for the new home for the Appleton Public Library. The issue was referred back to committee at council, however, so we'll be taking it up again on Wednesday.

This is the first time the council has been asked to approve anything related to this site, as the work on determining the future of the library largely falls upon the Library Board of Trustees. That body, however, has done a remarkably thorough job of looking at the possibilities and scrutinizing every option for the future. I think it would be a tremendous mistake for us to turn away from all of the work they've done.

And, of course, the committee also continues to work on our review of the city's special assessment policies. This week we're down to the main event: Street reconstruction. One of the items on our agenda is a resolution calling for the city to implement a wheel tax to pay for street repairs, replacing special assessment revenue and allowing us to eliminate the street portion of that practice.

Last week the council voted 15-0 to eliminate special assessments for sanitary sewer mains but continue to assess for laterals, which connect individual properties to the mains. I suspect that our previous action may set a precedent for a similar outcome here, with street reconstruction becoming the city's sole responsibility but connections (aprons, in this case) remaining the responsibility of the homeowner.

I also hope we'll consider an alternative I raised several meetings ago: Continuing to special assess for streets, but capping a property's potential assessment at a percentage of their assessed value. This would hopefully allow us to continue to repair streets without major budgetary impact, but also allow us to avoid (for example) charging $10,000 for street reconstruction to a corner property with a $65,000 assessed value.

Assuming the committees take action on these items this week and don't opt to hold them, all three items will come as recommendations before the full council on Wednesday, August 20.

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, August 5, 2014

What you may not know: Week of August 4

After a week off, the Appleton Common Council resumes our normal schedule this week with our first full council meeting of August on Wednesday. Our top stories this week are likely to be items I've discussed before, so here are some updates from my last post two weeks ago:


On Monday, July 21 the City Plan Commission voted unanimously to recommend approval of a resolution calling for an immediate, temporary halt to the enforcement of our ordinance regarding painted signs and murals. The ordinance, as currently written, would call for some public art and advertising like the painting on the exterior of the Wilmar Chocolates building on Wisconsin Avenue to be painted over.

It's worth noting that this resolution is not a permanent solution to this issue. The resolution calls for a temporary halt to enforcement while the city reviews and potentially amends its policies. Those possible changes would come at a later date.

In the meantime, however, I suspect we'll pass this resolution and open the door for the review process.

Fire Trucks

During our last week of committee meetings the Central Equipment Agency Review Committee, Finance Committee and Safety & Licensing Committee all voted unanimously to recommend approval of a proposal calling for the Appleton Fire Department to purchase a new, in-stock fire truck from Pierce Manufacturing to replace our 100-foot platform truck, which is 14 years old and in need of major service.

Purchasing this truck comes at a cost, as the city will have to add an additional $200,000 to our 2014 borrowing package to cover the resulting shortfall in the existing truck's vehicle replacement fund. In the bigger picture, though, buying a new truck now represents both the best short and long-term decisions when combining issues of public safety and fiscal responsibility.


On July 23 the Finance Committee voted unanimously to recommend approval of a "resolution of necessity" authorizing city staff to open negotiations to purchase the proposed site of a new library.

This resolution would authorize the city to pay for appraisals of both properties and begin negotiations with their owners regarding a possible agreement to purchase these spaces. Without these resolutions the city cannot proceed with the effort to build a library on these properties.

At the Finance Committee meeting we again received very strong assurances the city does not intend to condemn or otherwise force out these property owners. We intend to negotiate and make our best offer but we're prepared to move on to alternatives if the owners are unwilling to sell. This resolution is a necessity to move along with that process.

Special Assessments for Utilities

Also at our July 23 Finance Committee meeting we voted 4-1 to approve an amendment to the city's special assessment policy dealing with sanitary sewer reconstruction. Our current policy calls for homeowners to receive a special assessment for a portion of both the sewer main and the lateral extending to their property line. Our amendment would call for the city to continue to assess for 50% of the cost of the lateral, but removes the cost of the main and several related items from the special assessment.

This change could reduce the sanitary sewer utility portion of a homeowner's special assessment by roughly two thirds, and reduces their assessment obligation to only the part of the project that specifically benefits their property: The lateral connecting them to the sewer main.

Once the committee voted to make that amendment, we voted unanimously to send the amended policy on to council for approval.

Once we've reached a final decision on the utilities portion of the policy, we're expected to move on to discussing street reconstruction and a possible wheel tax at our next Finance Committee meeting on August 13. Street reconstruction and/or the wheel tax are not on Wednesday's Council agenda.

Bike Lanes

On July 22 the Municipal Services Committee voted unanimously to continue to hold an action item calling for portions of five streets to be retrofitted with bike lanes when other portions of those streets come up for reconstruction in the coming years. This item will not be on Wednesday's Council agenda.

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.