News

Palo Alto looks to overhaul city fees

City seeks slight fee increases in July; plans to make major changes next summer

Palo Altans looking to tee off at the driving range at the city's golf course, board a pet at the animal shelter or rent a room for a birthday party at the Junior Museum and Zoo will have to pay a little extra for the privilege starting in July under a plan the City Council's Finance Committee endorsed Tuesday evening, May 29.

The plan, which calls for a 3 percent increase in most municipal fees, is part of the city's broad effort to raise revenues and align local fees with the cost of providing services. The changes would raise the city's revenues in fiscal year 2013 by about $570,000, according to an estimate from Gail Wilcox, a management specialist at the Administrative Services Department.

The new schedule means that fees for renting rooms at the Junior Museum and Zoo would rise from a range of $275 to $500 to a range of $297 to $541; while the fee for boarding a cat at the animal shelter would go up from $15 to $16 per day. And while the cost of playing a game of golf at the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course won't change, some fees at the course would increase slightly. Getting a large bucket of golf balls at the driving range, for example, would cost between $10 and $14 under the new fee schedule, compared to the current rate of $7 to $10. Renting a set of clubs for a nine-hole game would cost between $9 and $12, a slight bump up from the current rate of $8 to $11.

But while these changes are subtle and largely non-controversial, city officials are also planning for a much more substantive overhaul of municipal fees next year. Palo Alto has recently commissioned a consultant to perform "cost of service study" -- a comprehensive analysis of all city fees and the cost of funding the various programs and services. The study, which is being performed by the firm MGT of America and which is slated to be completed in September, is expected to pave the way for sweeping changes in fees and services, city officials said Tuesday.

"Given that the information will illustrate the extent to which certain services are being subsidized by taxpayers' funds, we expect one area of focus will be the question of who benefits from -- and who should pay for -- any given service," Wilcox wrote in a new report.

The Finance Committee, which discussed the ongoing study Tuesday, acknowledged that the study could lead to difficult conversations between the city and the community. Though Councilman Pat Burt said the study would only "inform" the council's decisions rather than determine them, he noted that the study could spell "a great change to the community."

City Manager James Keene concurred and called Tuesday's adoption of modest fee increases a "movie trailer" for the greater discussion in September.

"We expect it to be contentious," Keene said.

The changes are being driven to great extent by the rapidly growing cost of employee health care and pension costs. Between fiscal year 2002 and 2012, citywide health care expenditures grew by 126 percent (from $6.6 million to $14.9 million), while its pension expense shot up from $3.8 million to $23.9 million, a 529 percent spike.

Palo Alto saw some good news this year on the revenue front, namely in stronger-than-expected sales-tax revenues. But rising expenses continue to outpace revenue growth, prompting the council to seek budget cuts and concessions from employee groups.

"It's not like 'happy days are here again' and 'we're on Easy Street,'" Keene said Tuesday.

Chief Financial Officer Lalo Perez characterized the 3 percent increase the committee backed Tuesday as the first phase in the city's effort to align fees with the services these fees are paid for. The second phase will come next year, after the cost of service study comes out and the council considers the study's recommendations.

The Tuesday meeting was the latest in a series of reviews by the Finance Committee of Keene's proposed budget for fiscal year 2013. Though the committee had unanimously endorsed most of Keene's recommendations, members split Tuesday over a proposal that would have raised the rates for garden plots at community gardens. Staff had initially proposed doubling the fee from 50 cents per square foot to $1 per square foot, a proposal that was panned by local gardeners. A revised proposal, which staff presented Tuesday, would have raised the fees by 50 percent, to 75 cents per square foot.

Burt and Councilwoman Gail Price both supported an even less steep increase -- one that would have raised the rate to 62 cents per square foot. The four-person committee split 2-2, with Chairwoman Nancy Shepherd and Vice Mayor Greg Scharff supporting the revised staff recommendation.

The committee also gave its tentative approval to the Community Services Department budget. In doing so, it rejected a proposal to trim the city's expenditures for the Summer Concert series by $5,000.

"That's the one thing that people really, really appreciate, and I think it's something we really need to keep up," Scharff said, referring to the annual concert series. "It would be a shame to make the experience less popular so it fades out."

Price was the lone dissenter in the vote, saying she is confident that staff would be able to make the event successful even under a tighter budget.

The full council is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the 2013 budget on June 11 and to formally adopt it on June 18.

Comments

Posted by moi, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 30, 2012 at 7:10 am

Circuses and rodeos. Yes, permits are needed for them.

Wake up! This is our chance.

Raise the fees for animal circuses and rodeos by 10,000% so that they never darken our doorstep again.

Raise the fees so outrageously high that our community makes a political statement against the blatant disrespect and suffering of our fellow creatures.

Animal circuses and rodeos are atrocities, not entertainment.


Posted by Time-To-Pay-Up, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 30, 2012 at 8:02 am

> City Manager James Keene concurred and called Tuesday's adoption
> of modest fee increases a "movie trailer" for the greater discussion
> in September.

> "We expect it to be contentious," Keene said

This sort of review, and fee reset, is long overdue. It's a shame that the the City needed to pay for an outside consultant to do this sort of work--but given how convoluted the City's finances seem, having a fresh set of eyes looking at the matter is probably worth the money.

No doubt there will be very long line of special interests lining up at Council meeting after Council meeting..pleading how important their cause is, and how the City should give them more money, not less.

Let the fun begin ..


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 30, 2012 at 8:11 am

I have nothing against the modest raise in fees for elective city services, provided that the Children's Theatre also starts charging fees for participation also.

Fees for elective city services however should not exceed what would be found elsewhere. It should still be cheaper to rent a function room in a city owned community center for residents than a similar room in a hotel. The cost of providing the service, clean up, etc. should be the aim, not making a profit as would be the case for a hotel.


Posted by Paul Losch, a resident of Community Center
on May 30, 2012 at 8:32 am

Paul Losch is a registered user.

Bravo! The beginning of developing a revenue strategy.

All the years I have spent on the Parks and Recreation Commission, I have advocated that variable costs of programs et al that the City offers should be covered by fees, which is the direction this is going.

We still have numerous community events that are offered at no cost, such as the upcoming World Music Day and the July 4th Chili Cook-Off, both of which are terrific.

There are differences of opinion in town about the level of services and how they should be financed. I am in a camp (maybe by myself, although I doubt it) that advocates continued high level of services that contribute in a positive way to the character of Palo Alto. And we do need to fund them in a manner that is fair for all parties. I dislike subsidies.

The larger point, though, is that the City seems to at long last starting to develop a revenue strategy. It goes well beyond the fee structures for Services, although that is as good a place to start as any. We need to expand the strategy to determine how best to attract more businesses that will generate sales and occupancy taxes, and adapt policies as necessary to do so.

I still am heartbroken that the former Hyatt Rickeys was replaced by a condo complex. No disrespect to those that live there, but it is a great example of how a property that generated significant income to the City now generates very little.

I hope there is a mindset change occuring in City Hall, as appears to be the case. The biggest challenge will be to "face up" to the locals who do not like this or that because it will change their neighborhood. Such attitudes have contributed mightily to our current revenue dilemma.


Posted by Time-To-Pay-Up, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 30, 2012 at 8:36 am

> It should still be cheaper to rent a function room in a
> city owned community center for residents than
> a similar room in a hotel.

Why? Why shouldn't the cost of the facility being rented reflect the true-cost of providing that facility? The claim that it should be "cheaper" than in a hotel suggests that it should be subsidized by other people (taxpayers). Why should you be expecting other people to subsidize your recreation, or other pastimes?

The City does not operate on a "for-profit" point-of-view, so they do not think about the cost of land, the cost of the buildings, or the number of people necessary to manage the facility—since all of these costs are exacted from taxpayers, or other people, via unnecessarily high fees/fines/etc.

If the true-cost of the facility were what people were expected to pay, then it would give the City some opportunity to think about how to run their operations as effectively as the private sector does, rather than as taxpayer-subsidized employment engines for labor union members.

If it turns out that it costs less than why the private sector can provide—then that people will have a choice. But if taxpayers don't get much of a choice when they end up paying for other people's use of City facilities.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 30, 2012 at 9:03 am

Pay Up

Yes, I agree with ou you completely. If you reread my post you will see that I was saying exactly that. My thoughts about not making a profit was that the cost of rental should include all costs but still be cheaper than renting a similar room in a business that is there to make a profit such as a hotel.

I think that city owned function rental rooms should be more affordable than hotel ones, but not subsidized in any way.


Posted by Koa, a resident of Barron Park
on May 30, 2012 at 9:08 am

The examples listed in this article are fee increases of 7%, 8%, 13%, and 40%. If most fees are only going up 3%, where are those examples? Do their revenue increase projections take into account the decrease in purchases as a result of these price-hikes? Hitting balls will now cost 40% more than last year in PA and Shoreline in Mountain View is an easy substitute.


Posted by Taxpayer, a resident of Green Acres
on May 30, 2012 at 9:52 am

Charging market rate for services is all well and good, but it's about 1% of the problem. The other 99% is that we're not paying market rate for labor. Outsourcing a few of the $150K total cost bureaucrats in the planning department would have a much greater effect. Or hiring out the street cleaning instead of paying $100K/year for city street sweepers. The fire department certainly doesn't need to offer six figure pensions at age 50 to attract talent. Firefighting is statistically safer than most blue collar jobs these days, and involves a lot of paid "standby" time.

The inefficiency of our city govt is ridiculous. Our mission is not to support a bloated government class that underproduces relative to the private sector that supports their bloated salaries and benefits. Fix the real problems before wasting more tax dollars on consultants to look for ways to further nickel and dime the public (or, as has been the case recently, look for any reason to justify spiking utility rates so that the utility users' tax funds help prop up the general fund). Enough is enough.


Posted by Barbara, a resident of Downtown North
on May 30, 2012 at 10:53 am

Why not make the drivers who line our streets with their autos daily pay to park in the downtown or city hall garage? Or at least, their employers should pay for the parking, or split the cost. The city streets in the downtown area are a total mess with automobiles!!


Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on May 30, 2012 at 10:58 am

Yes to fee increases. Yes to keeping an eye on market rates and demand elasticity.

Paul - unfortunately I think what we are seeing is not a revenue strategy, but rather a knee-jerk/tactical reaction. Just like you, I hope for someone to sit down and pencil out a 5-year plan for revenue, costs, overhead, etc. Crunch the numbers and plug the holes!

I understand the criticism over salaries and benefits, etc. I, for one, would appreciate it if we can stop from making it personal. Too many threads devolved into a "us vs. them" POV.

And as much as it seems that outsourcing services would provide short and long term cost reductions - I think people need to consider that there are other costs that can't be appreciated to those types of changes. Specifically, the loss of institutional experience and memory. For example, I appreciate the fact that there are people in the planning department who know our neighborhoods, the types of houses, flood plain stuff, etc. It's heck of a lot easier to work with someone who knows what you're up against. Outsourcing such services tends to breed a "temp-employee" environment --- where you may not see the same faces...where you almost have to start over when working on a house plan, etc. Just my 2 cents.


Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on May 30, 2012 at 11:37 am

> Outsourcing a few of the $150K total cost bureaucrats in the planning department would have a much greater effect. Or hiring out the street cleaning instead of paying $100K/year for city street sweepers.

The city is going to charge $6.66 per month for street sweeping. Seems this is a basic service, which should come out of the general fund.

Fees for non-essential services make sense, but why is a consultant needed to figure this out?


Posted by Joe, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 30, 2012 at 12:13 pm

> Specifically, the loss of institutional experience and memory

This comment pops up frequently as an objection to 'outsourcing". The problem is that there is no institutional memory now, with the current system. The reason there is no institutional memory is that the Staff has never been properly managed by the City Managers, requiring them to actually do the appropriate paperwork that documents whatever "institutional memory" actually turns out to be.

The current records retention, managed by the so-called City Clerk, keeps paper records for no more than eight years (maximum). There seems to be no requirement for the City to keep even the City Budgets back, say, just thirty years. The Library has these documents, but it's more by accident, than on purpose. They are not digitized, and on-line—because this library "ain't gonna digitize nuttin'".

The current web-site is barely adequate. Even with the Google Search engine, the City has done nothing to aid/abet people's finding old records. There is nothing in the Clerk's view of the world that includes digital records being kept for decades, rather than just a few years.

In short, the current system is designed to insure institutional amnesia. So, how can outsourcing be any worse?


Posted by Taxpayer, a resident of Green Acres
on May 30, 2012 at 1:09 pm

Joe is absolutely correct. There is basically zero institutional memory that justifies the continued overpayment of city workers by the taxpayers. What institutional experience makes a city streetsweeper worth 100K per year when the taxpayers can hire the same service from the private sector for likely less than half of that? I certainly would rather keep the ~$80 per year the city is now set to charge me for streetsweeping. Like most of these new fees it's just a backdoor attempt by the city to keep enough money in the trough to keep paying its own out of market wages and benefits.

Fix the bloated bureaucracy first. Get rid of out of market pensions, wages, and benefits. Only then look to more revenue. This is a rich city. That we can't even afford basic infrastructure is a sign of just how much the city bureaucracy wastes.


Posted by lazlo, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 30, 2012 at 2:52 pm

While the city manager and city council continue to "squirrel away" taxpayer money in numerous "reserve" funds never to be spent and waiting for a "rainy day" event, taxpayers are expected to pay more in extra fees for services that are already paid for but unfortunately the money has been diverted to unspecified "reserve" funds. Funny how they always blame the ballooning, skyrocketing, and unsustainable problem on public employees. Never mind that taxpayers had enough money to buy the city manager a beautiful house in Palo Alto and paying his property taxes. Never mind that taxpayers are paying the city manager's car loan, insurance, and gas bill. Never mind that taxpayers are paying for the city manager's gym fees. While city employees have reduced their burden on the city budget, the city manager's cost to taxpayers have now exploded and exceed $500,000 a year in pay and benefits. The ballooning and skyrocketing costs have now expanded to the city manager's staff and have become unsustainable. All those managers and not one of them was educated enough to complete a "cost of service study" leaving taxpayers to cover the costs of yet another outsourced blue ribbon city study. Ignorance is bliss. What a pity.


Posted by Paul Losch, a resident of Community Center
on May 30, 2012 at 6:14 pm

CP Dad,

You may be right that this is a knee-jerk effort at this point, I am not sure, but I do know what the marching orders were for the Community Services Division.

Pushing for a clear and coherent revenue strategy still is indicated.


Posted by Nora Charles, a resident of Stanford
on May 30, 2012 at 6:28 pm

Moi,

Thank you for your comment, and Amen! There is tremendous animal suffering in rodeos and circuses and other forms of such "entertainment."


Posted by moi, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 30, 2012 at 8:38 pm

>>> Nora Charles,

Thank you for your thank you.

P.S. How is Asta?


Posted by Kate, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 30, 2012 at 10:59 pm

If I have to pay to have the street cleaned in front of my home, then I DEMAND that there be no parking alloweed on my street until at least 3:00 p.m. on street-clean day. With all the construction, nannies, gardeners, cleaning services, etc. on our street cleaning day, my street curb area never gets clean. My husband or I do it later in the day then sweep it up and put it in the green refuse can. It's taken quite a few years, but now the 'let's move' talk is getting serious. I've had it with Palo Alto.


Posted by park/ unpark, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 1, 2012 at 4:29 pm

I agree with Kate, Big Time!


Posted by Zeev Wurman, a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 2, 2012 at 5:08 pm

The article talks about 3% fee increase but all the examples show much higher increase rates -- 8% minimum rental fee at the Junior Museum ($275 to $297), 7% for daily cat boarding ($15 to $16), or 43% for renting a large bucket of golf balls ($7 to $10). Even what the reporter disingenuously (ignorantly?) calls "slight bump" for renting a set of clubs from $8-$11 to $9-$12 reflects 9% to 12% fee hike.

Where precisely can we see a detailed breakdown of the proposed hikes, and how the supposed 3% overall number was reached? I see nothing on the city web site and a simple search did not lead me anywhere. In the Weekly there is a city ad (p. 24) for a public hearing stating that "Copies of the fee schedule setting forth any proposed new fees, and increases to existing fees are available on the City's website and in the Administrative Services Department, 4th Floor, City Hall, 250 Hamilton Avenue, Palo Alto, California. There is a $3.00 per copy charge for this publication."

I have little experience with our city's web site but I couldn't readily locate the information of the public hearing or of the detailed proposed fee schedules there. Can anyone please help me?


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