The Appleton Common Council voted 12-2 to adopt a $197.5 million Executive Budget for the year 2023 on Nov. 9. District 13 Alderperson Sheri Hartzheim and District 15 Alderperson Chad Doran were the two dissenting votes. District 11 Alderperson Kristin Alfheim, who represents the Lawrence campus, was excused from the vote due to a scheduling conflict.
Some of the larger items in the budget include $13.5 million for renovating and expanding the Appleton Public Library and a 5% pay increase for city employees that aren’t represented by a union, since unionized employees have their own contracts. District 3 Alderperson Brad Firkus, who chairs the Finance Committee, commented that the pay raise is part of a long-term effort to increase employee recruitment and retention. District 5 Alderperson Katie Van Zeeland, the Council President, feels that the previous rate of pay didn’t keep up with the cost of living and that it contributed to many resignations and retirements, adding to the work city employees already must do.
“It is unfair to expect our employees to also do the job of multiple employees at a much lower pay rate, leading to burnout and employee turnover,” Van Zeeland said.
The budget includes nearly $10 million in improvements to the wastewater treatment plant. Although the cost of wastewater treatment is increasing, alderpersons feel that these improvements are necessary due to the aging machines failing to meet new standards implemented by the Department of Natural Resources. Sewer utility bills will be increasing by 7%, which, according to District 2 Alderperson and Utilities Committee Chair Vered Meltzer, was more than anticipated. He attributed the increase to costs going up across the board.
“We don’t really have a choice about whether or not to absorb those increased costs,” said Meltzer. “We have to uphold those standards.”
The budget allocates money for the development of Lundgaard Park, named after the late firefighter Mitch Lundgaard, who was killed in the line of duty in 2019. District 1 Alderperson Bill Siebers, chair of the Municipal Services Committee, as well as Firkus and Meltzer, feel that parks are an important factor in a city’s quality of life and wanted to honor Lundgaard’s sacrifice to the community. District 6 Alderperson Denise Fenton added that Lundgaard Park is part of an effort to develop more parks and trails on the north side of Appleton.
Also included in the budget is funding for the reconstruction of Lawrence Street, the development of a parking lot for the library, new radios and cardiac monitors for the Appleton Fire Department and the replacement of the elevator at City Center West.
During the budget negotiation process, four amendments were proposed, all of which failed. Hartzheim’s amendment would have cut the proposed pay increase down to 4%, which Fenton, who chairs the Human Resources/IT Committee, characterized as a “slap in the face” to Appleton’s city workers. Van Zeeland felt that Hartzheim’s amendment would have sabotaged the city’s efforts to improve employee recruitment and retention. Fenton pointed out that the amendment would have cost city employees $400 per year in increased wages, but would only save taxpayers $3.36 per $100,000 of property value per year.
Hartzheim did not respond to The Lawrentian when asked for comment.
Doran proposed three amendments that sought to shift money from other parts of the budget into the concrete fund for road reconstruction. One of his amendments targeted the alderpersons’ parking passes, and another went after the Council Training Budget, which trains and pays new alderpersons. Van Zeeland opposed this amendment, argues that the training is necessary for helping alders serve their districts, especially for the 2/3 of the council that has been elected after 2018.
Doran’s other amendment would have reduced the operating costs of many city departments, including the Finance Department, the Public Works Department and the Parks and Recreation Department. According to All Things Appleton, a newsletter that reports on local politics, these cuts would have saved $433,512, which, according to Director of Public Works Danielle Block, would only cover the cost of paving less than one-fifth of a mile. Per All Things Appleton, Doran did not consult the heads of the different city departments before proposing these cuts, but instead sent a courtesy email. The department heads laid out the negative effects of these proposed cuts on their respective departments before the Common Council during the budget process.
The amendment failed 13-1. Siebers applauded Doran’s desire to save money but felt he should have consulted department heads. District 12 Alderperson Nate Wolff, as well as Meltzer and Firkus, don’t feel that a small amount of construction was worth hobbling city services.
“People make decisions on where they want to live based on if they find a community enjoyable to live in,” Firkus said. “If you start diminishing those things, you’re going to diminish the viability of your community.”
Wolff, who chairs the Parks and Recreation Committee, went further in his criticism of Doran’s amendments. He feels that Appleton’s population increase is in part due to the amenities that Doran wanted to cut and feels that getting rid of these is reckless. He accused Doran of trying to do away with public services and alleged that he suggested selling two city parks during the budget process.
“[Doran was] asking us to annihilate our entire city government,” Wolff said. “[We] would have shut down our parks, our transit center, we would have sold our parking utilities and we basically would have lost the library.”
The Lawrentian was unable to independently verify Wolff’s claim that Doran attempted to sell two city parks, and Doran did not respond to requests for comment.
In order to support this budget, the city instituted a tax levy that increased property taxes by 6.6%, which raised concerns from some citizens regarding increased taxes during a period of high inflation and an increasing cost of living, per The Post-Crescent. Firkus acknowledged that it’s frustrating when taxes go up, but he added that Social Security benefits are going up by a higher percentage than the property tax.
“The fact that we’re going to be able to maintain largely the same level of service while increasing prices less than the general economy…shows that we did some really good work at the city level,” Firkus said.
Mayor Jake Woodford attributed the property tax increase to problems with Wisconsin’s revenue-sharing system, which restricts Wisconsin municipalities’ ability to raise taxes higher than a certain rate without going to a referendum, with the state sharing its tax revenue to make up the difference. According to Woodford, Fenton and Alfheim, the revenue shared with municipalities by the state has flatlined since 1993, which Woodford said effectively functions as a cut due to increasing costs across the board, even as the State of Wisconsin is experiencing a multi-billion-dollar surplus collected from municipalities such as Appleton. Since the shared revenue hasn’t kept up with cost-of-living increases or the state surplus, the city has to turn to raising property taxes, according to Woodford. He doesn’t feel that revenue sharing is achieving its stated goals.
Van Zeeland and Alfheim also drew a direct link between the property tax increase and the issues with revenue sharing.
“The lack of revenue from the state in the last decade has a direct correlation to the larger increases,” said Alfheim. “Solving the revenue-sharing issue is the solution to stabilizing our property tax issue…Until the state legislature releases the stranglehold of revenue, our community…will struggle to keep up with our promises and continue to require increased revenue from residents.”
Although many alderpersons were frustrated about the constraints put on the city, they felt that they did the best they could do with the situation they were in. Fenton said that she would always like to see more sustainability measures in the budget, but is proud that the city has begun converting cars in the city fleet to hybrid and electric cars and has hired a Sustainability Manager. Firkus commented that constructing bike lanes and narrowing streets can be considered environmental improvements as well, but that the state is making it hard for municipalities to pursue bolder policies.
“It’s a realistic budget based on the world we’re in,” said Firkus. “We get to make choices, but we don’t get to create our options. If we want to make improvements in the future, we’re going to need options that enable us to make those choices.”