The City Council's Finance Committee tentatively approved on Tuesday night a proposed budget for the Department of Planning and Community Environment, which will undergo a transformation when the new fiscal year kicks off on July 1. The budget proposed by City Manager James Keene would create a new Development Services Department, which would handle permitting, inspections and other construction-related services. These functions have traditionally fallen under the purview of the planning department.
At the same time, the city plans to invest more in what Planning Director Hillary Gitelman called a "mountain of work" in long-range planning. The city recently launched a broad community-engagement process called "Our Palo Alto" that aims to solicit citizen input on the update of its chief land-use document, the Comprehensive Plan. In addition, city planners are now drafting a new Housing Element, which is due to be submitted to the state in January, as well as working on a "downtown cap" study that aims to tally downtown's capacity for growth. Other items on the department's long agenda for 2015 include expanding the city's shuttle services and forming a new Transportation Management Authority that would help to coordinate the city's downtown traffic-reduction efforts.
The decision to spin out development services will make the city's planning department far leaner, with 24 full-time jobs shifting to the new department along with $9.1 million in projected revenues and $2.8 million in non-salary funding. The department's current budget of $13.6 million would drop by 48 percent in 2015, falling to about $7.1 million.
This does not, however, include separate proposals to create a $1 million fund for an expansion of the shuttle program and an investment of $150,000 for a consulting firm that will help the city establish the new Transportation Management Authority.
The shuttle proposal stirred the most controversy at Tuesday's discussion, with Councilman Pat Burt balking at Keene's proposal to create a $1 million "shuttle fund." Though the Finance Committee tentatively approved the budgets for both the new Development Services Department and the planning department, it deferred any shuttle decisions to a later date.
In opposing the proposed reserve, Burt argued that the shuttle routes proposed by staff have not been vetted by the council and the community and that the $1 million figure appears to promise more than the city can reasonably deliver in one fiscal year. The staff proposal, which was initially outlined in a February report from planning staff, includes new shuttle services between south Palo Alto and Stanford Shopping Center; along Embarcadero Road and between Palo Alto and East Palo Alto (the lattermost would include reimbursement from East Palo Alto).
Gitelman said Tuesday that the shuttle expansion will proceed in two phases, with the first phase focusing on renewing contracts for existing routes. In the second phase, staff would work with consultants to identify new routes that could be added to the shuttle network, Gitelman said. Keene characterized the reserve as little more than a placeholder that will be refined later, as staff gets more information about proposed routes and vets these options with the council.
"As we go through the process, we'll find out what $1 million will buy and what the performance is," Keene said. "The marketplace is going to start to let us know whether or not we're on the right track."
The fund would send a signal to the public, Keene said, that the city is serious about addressing downtown's traffic and parking issues, which have increasingly been stirring resident concern and dominating council agendas for the past two years.
"I think we should show the public that we are committed enough, knowing that we certainly may not spend as much," Keene said. "On the other hand, we may come up with routes and such that cost more than the estimates for this year."
Mayor Nancy Shepherd, who took part in the meeting so that the Finance Committee could have a quorum (regular members Karen Holman and Liz Kniss were both absent and city procedures empower the mayor to fill in on committees as needed), agreed with staff's position. Allocating $1 million for shuttles would make it easier for the city to budget for the new routes later in the year, when it receives proposals from service providers later in the year.
"I think it's wise to go ahead and put a shuttle fund in place at this time," Shepherd said. "I think that's what the purpose of this is now so we don't have to revisit it when the (proposals) come back."
But Burt observed that a report from staff includes actual proposals for routes, with funds allocated for particular segments. He argued that the city has yet to establish clear goals for the proposed shuttle expansion and vet the routes. At the February council discussion, Burt criticized some of the routes proposed by planning staff. One of them, he said, would largely duplicate an existing bus route administered by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.
He also requested that staff return with more information about two new positions that the planning department proposes to add this year, a land-use analyst and a senior transportation planner. The three committee members -- Chair Marc Berman, Shepherd and Burt -- voted unanimously to leave these issues outstanding for now and approve the remainder of the planning budget.
In separate votes, the committee also unanimously approved on Tuesday the budgets for the new Development Services Department, as well as for the Community Services and Library departments.
The full council is scheduled to vote on the budget in June.