Faced with growing expenditures and persistent budget deficits, Palo Alto is increasingly looking to volunteers and community organizations for help to balance the books and preserve existing services.
The trend has become more prominent since 2010, when the City Council considered sharply raising fees in the Children's Theatre but reconsidered after the group Friends of the Children's Theatre offered to raise money to prevent the fee hikes. This year, the city once again considered a series on unpopular proposals, including outsourcing animal services and sharply raising fees for community gardens, lawn bowling and studios at Cubberley Community Center. Each of these ideas was either scrapped or scaled back after volunteers and users of these services agreed to chip in.
The proposals, which the City Council discussed Monday night, were all part of City Manager James Keene's proposed budget for fiscal year 2013, which begins July 1. The council held its first of two meetings on the proposed budget Monday night and is expected to adopt the budget on June 18. But the council made clear Monday night that the most controversial cuts in the proposed budget -- most notably outsourcing of animal services -- will not be put into effect this year. Instead, the council is looking to animal-shelter volunteers, lawn bowlers and Cubberley artists to work with the city on keeping these services financially sustainable.
The budget still includes a host of fee increases, including ones for gardeners, lawn bowlers and Cubberley tenants, but these changes are far less dramatic than was initially proposed. The city had hoped to get an extra $10,000 in revenues from the bowlers but agreed to reduce it to $6,000. It helped that the lawn bowlers proposed to trim their expenditures by $4,000 and to implement new fees for players for each day they bowl, in addition to annual dues.
The rate for renting a plot at a community gardens is now set to go up from 50 cents per square foot to 62 cents per square foot, not $1 per square foot as was initially proposed. And the city also agreed to reduce the proposed revenue increase from Cubberley artists by $17,500 after artists pledged to work more closely with the Palo Alto Art Center.
The council's Finance Committee, which recommended the budget changes over a series of meetings in late May, included as part of its motions provisions requiring staff to meet with lawn bowlers, gardeners and Cubberley artists after the budget is adopted to come up with other ideas for long-term sustainability.
Volunteers are also poised to play a major role in the future of the city's Animal Services Center. Dozens of animal advocates banded to protest the cuts, in the process forming a new grassroots group called "Save our Shelter." After hearing from members of the new group, the council's Finance Committee and its Policy and Services Committee each agreed to keep the shelter open. But the budget challenge remains.
Keene's proposal was prompted by a recent decision by Mountain View to withdraw from its partnership in the facility. The decision by Mountain View to switch from the East Bayshore shelter to Silicon Valley Animal Control Authority's newer facility in Santa Clara means that Palo Alto will no longer receive $500,000 in annual contributions from Mountain View.
The volunteer group is trying to address the shelter's budget woes. It is now in the process of forming a nonprofit, Friends of the Palo Alto Animal Shelter. Members of the group said they plan to sell T-shirts and host various events to in the coming weeks raise money for animal services.
Several members of the new group attended Monday night's meeting and urged the City Council not to make drastic cuts to animal services. They stressed the importance of keeping animal services in the city and vowed to come up with funds.
"What we're chiefly asking for tonight is time," Luke Stangel, one of the group's founders, told the council. "Don't seek a permanent solution for a temporary problem."
The group's contributions throughout the budget process apparently had an effect. Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd, who chairs the council's Finance Committee, gave kudos to the animal advocates Monday for their involvement in preserving the shelter.
"We had a fantastic conversation with 'Save our Shelter,'" Shepherd said. "They understood clearly what our predicament was and were willing to step up and become part of the solution going forward."
Mayor Yiaway Yeh agreed and spoke more broadly about the growing stature of "Friends" groups in Palo Alto. The contributions from these groups are particularly valuable given the city's continuing budget challenges. Though the city's revenues have largely returned to where they were before the Great Recession, the city's expenditures have grown even more dramatically. The cost increases are driven primarily by sharp growth in pension and health care spending for employees.
Yeh said the council's budget process has enabled city officials to discuss "how we can partner with members of the community and other nonprofits to consider how to continue to provide services in Palo Alto." He characterized this as a positive development.
"I think it's great," Yeh said. "It shows a level of engagement and commitment to the services the city provides."