Curbing employee costs, fixing up the city's aged infrastructure, reopening the city's largest library and using technology to spur community involvement are among the issues looming large on Palo Alto's horizon in 2012.
Coming off a busy 2011, the City Council is heading into the new year with an agenda packed with complex topics such as overhauling the city's waste-collection services, challenging regional housing mandates and finding new ways to provide services more efficiently, whether through community partnerships or through privatization of certain services, City Manager James Keene told the Weekly in an interview.
At the same time, Keene said, the city will be striving to meet ambitious sustainability goals, unveiling new apps and technologies and welcoming a slew of new department heads into the city's operation, including a new city auditor, an information-technology director and an Office of Emergency Services director.
But even with all the new faces and looming issues, the council will continue to devote much of its time to the longstanding priority of managing the city's finances during a period of austerity. Though the city has succeeded in wringing concessions from its public-sector unions over the past three years, that effort is far from over as pension and health-care costs continue to rise, Keene said.
While the Silicon Valley economy is looking better than it did a year ago, the improvement doesn't necessarily translate to more revenues for the city, he said.
"I think we partly have gotten used to the challenging times we're in so it doesn't seem as bad, but we're still faced with a future in which we have costs that continue to outpace our revenue growth," Keene said. "I think we'll still be facing how we can have more employee-sharing in the costs, particularly on the benefits side."
"You'll continue to see us addressing that and trying to ensure that Palo Alto is in the lead among cities in trying to fix that kind of structural problem."
Among the highest priorities for 2012 are devising a plan to repair the city's infrastructure and paying for a new public-safety building. The efforts received a major boost at the end of 2011 when a 17-member Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Task Force released a report analyzing the city's infrastructure needs and proposing various funding options. The group found that Palo Alto has about $41.5 million in "deferred maintenance" (fixes that should have been made earlier but weren't) and that it has to spend about $32.2 million a year to keep up with infrastructure maintenance (about $2 million more than it currently spends).
The council is scheduled to discuss the commission's findings and recommendations on Jan. 17. These recommendations include an increase to the city's sales tax and a bond package to pay for a new public-safety building and for two fire stations.
Mayor Yiaway Yeh, who will be tasked with leading the council through these complex discussions, highlighted infrastructure as a top priority for 2012 Tuesday. Yeh said he sees 2012 "as a year of infrastructure investment and renewal for our community." The city's new Mitchell Park Library and Community Center, the largest project in the 2008 library-bond package, is slated to reopen to the public this year, as is the renovated Palo Alto Art Center.
Minutes after being elected mayor by his colleagues, Yeh called 2012 "the year for us to prioritize and determine how as a community we will fund our infrastructure needs, not just for our current generation but for our next several generations."
Even while they look for new revenue sources to pay for the needed repairs, the city will continue to look for ways to cut costs. Yeh said the city would seek greater efficiencies and regional opportunities, particularly in the realms of public safety, emergency-preparedness services, animal services and municipal services. The goal, he said, is providing "the most cost-effective services, but in a way that the quality of those services are positively impacted."
"We are in an era of austerity within government and that necessitates that we use our best thinking to look at how we deliver services," Yeh said.
Environmental sustainability will also remain a priority, with several of the city's strategic plans, including its Climate Action Plan and its Zero Waste Plan, containing performance targets for 2012. These targets, Yeh said, "give us an opportunity, as council, to be able to delve into detail to make sure that we're on track, that we're hitting what we want to hit in terms of our sustainability goals."
But even as Palo Alto continues to focus on and refine its own sustainability goals, city officials are preparing for a larger battle over regional housing allocations, which are part of the state's "Sustainable Community Strategy." A plan proposed by Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission mandates that Palo Alto plan for nearly 12,000 new homes by 2035, with the goal of reducing congestion and encouraging construction of housing near job centers.
The council has vehemently rejected ABAG's housing projections and has argued over the past two years that Palo Alto has neither the land nor the resources to accommodate the regional estimates. Keene predicted that the city will emerge as a leader in challenging the regional-allocation process, much like it did on the issue of high-speed rail.
"I think we're going to play an active role in that regional conversation," Keene said.
Other city goals aim at promoting civic pride and participation. Yeh this week said he plans to sponsor "Mayor's Challenges," a series of athletic events aimed at bringing neighbors together. Keene said the city plans to unveil new apps and to place a greater emphasis on publicizing data and allowing residents to use technology to more efficiently request services and provide feedback. Social media is expected to play a major role in this effort. The city, for example, is working with the company rBlock to launch a pilot program early this year for providing a social-networking platform on a block-by-block basis to selected neighborhoods.
The city is also trying to roll out in 2012 an "open data" approach to information to spark innovation. Keene said at the Dec. 19 meeting of the council that this effort is a way "to share the data and information we have as a city with the wider community that can generate all sorts of free and new applications and mobile apps."