Hi, Neighbors. Here we are, fresh off an 11-hour day at City Hall yesterday for Budget Saturday and ready to move into our next Full Council Week. Below, I’ll provide a short synopsis of what to expect in meetings scheduled for this week and then conclude with a short recap of the “highlights” of Budget Saturday.
Safety and Licensing Committee (Special Meeting) – 5:45pm The bartender’s license application of a person who openly admitted to previous involvement with some criminal activity was originally denied by this committee last week when the applicant did not appear on time during the committee meeting. However, this applicant later arrived and provided information regarding her recent rehabilitation actions. Her boss at the service station where she works also testified at that committee meeting that she is a good employee and has never shown up to work intoxicated. She did not provide the rehabilitation documentation requested by the committee, though, so the committee held a reconsideration of their vote on this license until such time as she does have that information to provide. Before the full council meeting this week, the committee will again convene to receive that statutorily required documentation of rehabilitation from this applicant and then take a committee recommendation vote.
City of Appleton Common Council – Public Hearing on the Proposed 2024 Executive Budget – 6pm Here is the public hearing notice for the 2024 Proposed Budget. I highly encourage you to come to City Hall and ask questions or express your concerns on this coming year’s proposed budget. At the end of this blog post, you can read about some of my concerns. I hope you’ll ask questions and provide comment on those and whatever other items in the budget are of concern to you. The full proposed budget can be found here.
City of Appleton Common Council – 7pm The mayor will get the ball rolling in this regular council meeting with five — count ’em, five! — mayoral proclamations. We will then move on to the items that were taken up last week in committee meetings. Here are the highlights:
- From the Municipal Services Committee: Appleton Downtown, Inc. (ADI) asked this committee to allow free parking in all of the city’s parking ramps and all city parking meters on Small Business Saturday (the Saturday after Thanksgiving). After a long committee discussion, it was determined that there is no logistical way that the city could grant the parking ramps portion of this request since, if a driver enters the ramps without taking a ticket (if the ramp gates are left open per the ADI request) and the vehicle remains in the ramp after the ramp gates are closed (at the end of the request period), the vehicle will not be able to leave the ramps without the driver requesting a ramp ticket… which would result in a $50 “lost ticket” fine for the driver. This logistical issue caused the committee to amend the request to allow lack of fee enforcement on parking meters only on this date. This amended request was approved by the committee.The issue I have with this remains — there is a revenue loss incurred by the city’s parking utility with this request. Yes, there is some intrinsic value to the city to encourage increased purchasing traffic in the downtown area with downtown small businesses benefitting most. However, there are many other instances where businesses and organizations (other than ADI) request parking meters not be enforced and the businesses/organizations requesting this must follow specific written city policies and pay fees for said privileges. This instance flies in the face of those rules and policies in what seems like a special exception. What are your thoughts on this?Also from this committee, the request from the owner of a property where he would like to pave much of his front yard as driveway/parking was denied by this committee. I agree with this decision and will vote to deny it as well. This was discussed in greater detail in last week’s blog post. But if you disagree or have other questions in this regard, please let me know.
- From the Human Resources and Information Technology Committee: This committee (on which I serve and am chairman) voted that no pay raise will be granted to aldermen who will be serving the term beginning in April, 2025. I agree with this (and will vote in favor of no pay increase) as Appleton aldermen are already some of the highest paid aldermen in the municipalities in the surrounding area.
There is a special request at the end of this meeting agenda to suspend the council rules to cancel the January 3, 2024, and July 3, 2024, full council meetings. There are very few other items and none of any particular contention to be discussed and voted upon at this full council meeting.
Your Alderman’s Concerns with the 2024 Proposed Budget
At the Finance Committee’s Budget Saturday session, each portion of the budget was voted on individually by the members of the Finance Committee — Chris Croatt (District 14), Denise Fenton (District 6), Brad Firkus (Chairman, District 3), Katie VanZeeland (District 5), and your alderman. Three of the five members of the committee voted to fully approve (without amendment), all 41 separate portions of the budget. I and Alderman Croatt suggested amendments to several portions of the budget and I intend to yet request other amendments at the full council budget adoption session. It is disconcerting that the mayor’s proposed budget has seemingly not at all been challenged as of yet. It’s possible that the mayor’s proposed budget will be “rubber stamped” by the majority of this council.
Here are the items of most concern for me:
- The mayor’s budget proposes to move ~94% of the city’s forestry division from the general fund (which means the property tax payment funded portion of the budget) to the city’s Stormwater Utility (a utility fund which is supported by the payments that property owners and occupants pay on our water/wastewater/stormwater utility bills). The rationale behind this move is that city trees and the “urban tree canopy” is a vital part of the city’s stormwater management/absorption. I do not necessarily disagree with this rationale and see that there is some benefit to the city to have utility rate payer fund the forestry service in the city instead of property tax payers. My issues with this, though, are as follows:1) That there is apparently a large unused existing stormwater fund that will, according to city staff, be able to support the forestry division (about a $1.6M budget in 2024) for numerous years before a stormwater rate increase in predicted. How can the city rationalize that we ratepayers have not been overcharged for this long resulting in such a large pool of money in this fund? How is it possible that a rate increase not be predicted until 2029 with this large a budget move?2) That the council has not been provided any estimate on what rate increase might be anticipated to continue to fund the forestry division into the future. It is important that such a huge policy shift — moving a service from the general fund to a utility/enterprise fund — not just be passed without this information available to taxpayers, rate payers, and your elected representatives so that a measured and wise decision can be made in this regard.
3) That there are limited Public Service Commission (PSC) safeguards for ratepayers in this regard. In other words… the city’s water utility is not just able to raise rates for rate payers without clearing any proposed rate increases with the Public Service Commission first. The PSC is there for consumer protection. A stormwater utility is not required to present or clear rate changes with the PSC. So there is essentially nothing stopping the utility from overcharging rate payers for stormwater management. And this might have been the issue which led to such a large pool of money currently held in the stormwater utility fund up to this point…!
4) That this proposed move by the mayor is essentially a tax increase for property tax payers. While it might be acceptable to move the forestry division from the general fund to a utility fund, shouldn’t property tax payers get the relief that is offered by this move? Shouldn’t there be a reduction of ~$1.6M in general fund expenses and a resulting lowering of property taxes? But no. The mayor’s proposed 2024 budget aims to use the relief that moving this service out of the general fund provides to plug other holes in the budget. Instead of reducing other expenses in his budget to give property tax payers the ~$1.6M in relief that this move allows, he is asking property tax payers to still pay that ~$1.65M for other things in his budget AND asking stormwater utility fund payers to fund that amount for the forestry division as well. It’s essentially a bait and switch being played on us.
5) That this important a policy decision requires more discussion and public discourse than it is being given it. The change is being buried in the budget approval process. If the city’s budget is approved by the majority of the council, the policy decision will have essentially been made. I feel that there should have been (should still be!) a separate discussion — and a separate, individual vote — on this large a policy shift for the city instead of allowing a passed budget to pass policy change.
What are your thoughts on this? Send me any feedback you might have. I’m interested to know your feelings on this sort of policy shift without separate public input solicitation and a separate council vote.
- The city’s Parking Utility budget includes a line item of $100,000 for “wayfinding signage and other marketing.” This utility has not been financially healthy for a long time. Ten years ago in 2014, a study was commissioned by the city for assistance in improving the parking utility. One of the recommendations at that time was to spend this money to publicize the parking utility more and increase downtown signage to encourage people to use the parking ramps. That study is, in my opinion, too far outdated for the city to rely on for this expenditure suggestion. Way too much societal change has taken place in the last decade (including, but not limited to how people think and act subsequent to COVID-19!) for the advice from this 2014 study’s recommendation to hold any weight in 2024. On Budget Saturday, I proposed to the rest of the finance committee that perhaps half of that be spent on social media and other marketing for the parking utility and the balance be spent on getting updated advice regarding how the utility should be marketing itself. But even I am not happy with that suggestion. I feel that this is a poor spending of $100,000 of taxpayer money and will look to remove this line item from the budget altogether. Do you agree? What might you propose for amending this spending line item?
- It is a comparatively small amount to many other big ticket budget considerations… but the Common Council budget for “training/conferences” for aldermen is proposed to nearly double in 2024. The 2023 budget amount of $1,400 has not been completely used thus far. So it makes no sense to me to double that funding in the 2024 budget. Some aldermen believe that outside conferences and “networking” for aldermen results in them better serving their constituency. I feel that those who choose to run for elected aldermen positions should be ready to work to personally improve themselves and their service without burdening the city’s taxpayers. You do not pay property taxes for me to attend Wisconsin League of Municipalities conferences on your dime! Those who support this increased budget item claim that not supporting it is “gatekeeping” and precluding people who might want to serve as aldermen from choosing to run for election. I find this rationale misplaced. Those who wish to serve will do so not for the pay or the side benefits like conference fees paid by those whom they serve. There is great philosophical debate amongst members of this common council in this regard… so much so that several members verbally accosted others for “attempting to impose your will” on other council members with their votes in this regard. What are our thoughts on this? Do you feel strongly either way?
There are other items of concern to me in this proposed budget. I hope that you reach out to me with any questions or concerns that you might have on this proposed budget as well. It is my aim to best serve the taxpayers of this city with wise and measured discussion and votes on budget items. If you have thoughts on anything above, I hope to hear them from you.
Until we meet back here for next week’s post, I wish you the best. Have a great week!