Monday, November 23, 2015

What you may not know: Taking a week off

Hey folks,

This week would be a committee week for the Appleton Common Council but, between the Thanksgiving holiday and Tuesday's Christmas parade, nearly all of this week's meetings have been cancelled or postponed. As such, I'm taking the opportunity to take a week off to spend time with family. I'll see you back here next week.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours,

Monday, November 9, 2015

What you mat not know: Week of November 9

One of the busiest weeks of the council year is upon us, as we have a normal committee week in addition to Wednesday's final adoption of the 2016 city budget. Here are the highlights, in chronological order:

Human Resources, Monday, 5 pm

I wrote about this last week, so I hope you'll excuse me for being brief. Council salaries have to be set two years in advance so no member of the body is setting their own salary: They'll all face re-election once before the new salary takes effect. In 2014 council voted to raise the salary 2% in 2016, from $5805 to $5921.

No inflation adjustment was necessary for 2017, so two weeks ago the HR committee voted to hold salaries flat for another year. At council, however, I supported an amendment to switch to a 5% increase in an effort to begin to address the fact that low salaries combined with our evening work schedule may prevent many qualified candidates from seeking this office. That amendment failed, but the item was referred back to committee for further discussion.

Raising salaries for elected officials is never popular (last year it resulted in one of the screamiest voicemails I've ever received), but the reality is our failure to adjust our position's pay against inflation for long periods of time has allowed it to become so low that it's a barrier to entry for qualified candidates who may need to take evenings off of work or find childcare to be able to participate. A 5% increase (from $5921 to $6217) won't solve that problem, but it is a step in the right direction.

Municipal Services, Tuesday, 6:30 pm

The effort to reconstruct a portion of County Highway JJ and resolve some safety issues along the north side of North High School will take a step forward this week when the Municipal Services Committee holds a public hearing to discuss the proposed design.

I haven't seen the actual plan yet, but it's my understanding that it contains:

  • A new raised median with a fence on JJ between Ballard and Lightning, eliminating left turns on and off of the street throughout that area and preventing students from running across the street instead of using the crosswalk.
  • A roundabout at the corner of JJ and Lightning that will allow vehicles that had to turn right onto JJ to turn around.
No official action will be taken at this meeting: The committee will be asked to approve a final design at a later date.

Budget adoption, Wednesday, 6 pm

Finally, the council will meet in special session on Wednesday to wrap up deliberations on the city's 2016 budget, make any final amendments and approve the final document. This event concludes more than a month of review, special meetings and public hearings.

I've developed something of a reputation for being heavily involved in the budget process, pre-submitting 74 questions for our all-day budget meeting and proposing several amendments during final adoption each of the last two years. This year, however, I find I have no changes to propose.

This decision didn't come from a lack of effort or concern. Here are some of the items that remain on my radar:
  • The primary headline from this budget season has been the decision on how to proceed with the Erb Pool project, as that facility is scheduled to close following its 2016 season. Two weeks ago the Finance Committee amended the plan to call for a total of $9.25 million to be spent replacing the 50 meter pool (and the proposed "splash pad" replacement) with a 25-meter pool and other amenities to be determined later. Two of my colleagues have proposed amendments to expand the project by either $750,000 or $1.25 million in an effort to keep a 50-meter pool at the facility. I support these amendments: If we're going to build a new pool, I'd like to see us preserve some of the unique features that make Erb a notable community asset.
  • There has been some discussion of the possibility of adding a full-time recreation programmer position to the Parks & Recreation department to help address rapidly increasing demand for our programs and services. I support adding this position, partially funded by the increase in Recreation revenues, and look forward to discussion on two amendments calling for it.
  • Finally, I remain concerned by some of the financial details in the city's relationship with Reid Golf Course. The city continues to pay $8500 per year in rent to the golf course for winter programs despite the fact that the course owes about $160,000 to the general fund on a 24-year, interest free loan. I proposed an amendment last year to address this issue but it did not receive any support. I did not propose the amendment this year, but would still like to see the situation improved.
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. Good governance happens in the open, and I remain committed to raising awareness on the issues coming before us.

Monday, November 2, 2015

What you may not know: Week of November 2

A busy budget season for the City of Appleton Common Council continues this week. We did make one significant change to the budget at our day-long review session on Saturday, adding $6.25 million to the budget for the Erb Pool project to allow for the project to continue with an actual pool, as opposed to the splash pad concept that had been proposed.

The newly recommended dollar figure is likely enough to pursue something similar to either option 1A or 1B on this page, which both include 25-meter pools in addition to other amenities. The current pool at Erb Park is 50 meters, and the option calling for a new 50-meter pool would could roughly an additional million dollars.

If you'd like to weigh in on this topic or any of the other items in the 2016 budget, we will hold a public hearing on Wednesday night at 6 pm before our regularly scheduled council meeting. No official action on the budget will be taken this week. Any final amendments and the official adoption of the budget will happen on Wednesday, November 11.

Now, on to this week's agendas.

Appleton Redevelopment Authority, Wednesday, 3 pm

Efforts to redevelop the former site of the Foremost Dairy plant on the Fox River will take another step forward on Wednesday when the Appleton Redevelopment Authority will meet in special session to see presentations from two of the five developers who responded to a recent request for proposals (RFP) for the property.

This is the city's second attempt to redevelop this property. The first fell through earlier this year due to a financing issue, but that process helped us learn a fair amount about concerns regarding this property's maximum occupancy, access issues and neighborhood concerns. I'm hopeful that some of the lessons learned the first time around will help us come out with a strong result the second time.

After that and the previously mentioned public hearing on the 2016 budget, we'll hold our regularly-scheduled council meeting. Here are some highlights from the agenda:

Alcohol in parks

A discussion that started in July of this year will carry on into November on Wednesday night as council will be asked to consider the Parks & Recreation committee's recommendation regarding a proposed permitting process for allowing alcohol in parks.

Throughout this process it has been clear that something needs to be done to address problems arising from groups of people drinking to excess all day long in some city parks, but we've also heard concerns about inconveniences caused to responsible park users by any new ordinance. The committee had previously recommended adopting a permit-only policy for alcohol in parks, and last week they amended that recommendation to allow both one-time and one-year permits.

As I've mentioned previously, Appleton very nearly stands alone as a Fox Valley community allowing alcohol in parks without a permit. This recommendation puts us in a position to be more consistent with our neighboring communities while still allowing those who wish to drink responsibly in our parks an opportunity to do so.

Aldermanic salaries

On the same day last week the Human Resources committee voted 4-1 to recommend alderpersons receive no salary increase for the council year beginning in 2017. Alderpersons are currently scheduled to receive a 2% raise in April of 2016, raising our salary from $5,805 annually to $5,921.

There are a pair of issues to consider here, and I'll admit I'm still struggling to weigh one against the other. The first is a relatively simple goal to help our salaries keep pace with inflation. The 2% increase in 2016 reflected a Bureau of Labor Statistics-estimated 2% rate of inflation between midyear 2013 and 2014. This year the BLS says the rate of inflation was flat from September 2014-present, so no increase was needed for that purpose.

Beyond that, however, there's a larger issue related to accessibility of this office that represents a significant factor. While the workload related to being an alderperson varies from week to week and season to season, the simple action of attending assigned meetings occupies somewhere between 3-6 evenings every two weeks. Most alderpersons would make more money if they spent those evenings working somewhere for minimum wage or tending bar than they do serving the public. And, of course, attending meetings isn't the only responsibility of this position.

It's an honor to be elected to serve in this role and many of us would do it for free, but the combination of evening hours and low compensation make this position one that many qualified people either cannot afford to take or would prefer not to pursue. As a city, we lose out every time a good candidate for one of these jobs is disqualified or disinterested. Simply raising the salary by a percentage point here and there to keep up with inflation won't solve this issue.

Exhibition Center

Finally, this week we're likely to cast another key vote in the decision making process regarding the proposed exhibition center. The item on the table at this meeting is a proposed management agreement between the city and the new owners of the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel.

I haven't had a chance to review these documents yet, but I understand the changes are minimal from the item that was on our agenda two weeks ago. While many of my initial concerns regarding this project have been resolved, I still voted against two of the three room tax-related action items last week due to concerns over lack of details in one of the ordinance's late additions: a funding mechanism for to-be-determined sports facility projects.

To the best of my knowledge the approval of this agreement and our neighboring communities' willingness to approve the room tax agreement are the last two hurdles between this project and a required November closing 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.