The City of Palo Alto is planning to lay off dozens of workers and may institute fees for visitors to Foothills, Pearson-Arastradero and Baylands parks and require homeowners to pay for sidewalk repairs as part of an effort to close an expected $8.3 million budget gap in fiscal year 2011, City Manager James Keene announced Thursday evening.
The proposal eliminates the Police Department's five-officer Traffic Team and slashes two more positions from an investigative unit that focuses on financial loss and fraud. The department's Community Service Officer, who oversees community outreach programs including Neighborhood Watch, would also be eliminated.
The budget also proposes to contract out a slew of positions currently occupied by city workers. Contractors would replace city employees in maintaining Mitchell Park, Rinconada Park, and the city's lawn bowling facility. Five city custodians would also be laid off and replaced with contracted workers, as would the four workers responsible for tree trimming and line clearing and the seven full-time workers who maintain the Palo Alto Golf Course.
The Planning and Community Environment Department would lose five positions, including three that are currently vacant. The Community Services Department, which runs the city's recreational programs and maintains local parks, would lose 18.5 full-time-equivalent positions, including a division manager.
Three libraries -- Main, Mitchell Park and the Children's Library -- would no longer be open on Mondays.
Keene said his office decided to release the proposed budget early this year to give the community time to consider the proposed changes before the council reviews them. The Finance Committee is scheduled to review the changes in May and the full council is scheduled to adopt the 2011 budget in June.
The city is facing a projected $8.3 million budget deficit in fiscal year 2011, a number that is expected to grow further in 2012, when Palo Alto is scheduled to raise its contributions to the California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS).
The savings in the proposed budget total $10.3 million, and includes another $1 million in "pending revenue and reductions." The proposed savings of $11.3 million are meant to give the City Council extra flexibility in balancing the 2011 budget.
"Our focus all along has been on making service reductions that in the end will have the least impact on the public," Keene said. "That doesn't mean that there aren't recommendations here that could have impacts on the public -- there certainly are given that we have over $10 million worth of reductions."
In some cases, the service will continue to be provided but at a reduced level. If the Traffic Team is eliminated, for example, its duties will be absorbed by patrol officers. The crossing guards, which cost the city $345,000 annually, may have to be funded through some sort of a cost-sharing agreement, Keene said.
The city also plans to save $500,000 by having home owners pay for sidewalk repairs and to raise about $100,000 through new "day-use fees" at Foothills, Pearson-Arastradero and Baylands parks.
The 56.5 full-time-equivalent positions pegged for elimination include 43.5 positions from the Service Employees International Union -- the city's largest labor group. The city unilaterally imposed new contract terms with reduced benefits on the union last summer after failing to reach an agreement.
The city and the union are scheduled to start their negotiations later this spring. Keene said he has held informal conversations with union leaders earlier this week and has asked them to roll over the current terms for another year.
Keene is also proposing to eliminate five management positions. Three division managers retired last year.
The only labor union that appears to have been spared in the proposed budget is the International Association of Fire Fighters. Only one layoff is proposed in the firefighters union -- a hazardous materials specialist. The firefighters are trying to put a petition on the November ballot that would keep the city from changing staffing levels without a vote of the people.
The council had a similar discussion about budget cuts last year, when the city was facing a $10 million gap (which then ballooned by another $6.2 million in the middle of the year). But the council decided not to cut any major programs or services this year and to attain the needed cost savings largely through salary and benefit reductions and through transfers from various reserve accounts to the General Fund. Though the city eliminated 21 full-time-equivalent positions last year, 20 of these positions were vacant.
But with Palo Alto facing an ongoing "structural" gap in its budget, the council made it clear that the city needs to make permanent changes in its programs and services, Keene said.
"If we don't correct the structural deficit, we'll never get out of having to make cuts every years," Keene said. "The idea of borrowing money from one place to another is just going to push the problem forward another year."
In addition to the Monday council meeting, Keene will meet with residents on Tuesday (April 13) at 7 p.m. at the Friends Meeting Hall, 957 Colorado Avenue, Palo Alto. He will present "The City Budget Process and Your Input " as part of a Midtown Residents Association general meeting that is open to the public.
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