|Nearly no one was satisfied Monday night with City Manager Frank Benest’s suggested sources of the $3 million the City Council would like to set aside annually for roads, buildings and other infrastructure.
One council member called the plan "death by 1,000 cuts" for city services.
Several council members and public speakers decried the proposal’s timing. A report containing details of the city staff’s plan was only available at noon Monday, instead of 5 p.m. Thursday with the rest of the council’s meeting materials.
"I can't imagine how we can give feedback thoughtfully," Councilwoman Dena Mossar said, noting she hadn't had time to review the proposal.
But the council members -- and concerned residents -- nevertheless found plenty to comment on, and disagree with, in the plan.
The proposed cuts will be put on the agenda within several weeks to allow more time for the public to review and comment on them, Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison said.
In his package of proposals, Benest suggested eliminating $150,000 from the Human Services Resource Allocation Process, an annual grant program that supports numerous community efforts, such as Adolescent Counseling Services and the Opportunity Center. But programs such as Avenidas, Palo Alto Community Child Care and Project Sentinel (a fair-housing program) would not be affected, Benest said.
Other controversial money-saving proposals included contracting out maintenance of city parks to gain $200,000, reducing public art funding by $25,000 and transferring operations of the Junior Museum and Zoo to a nonprofit organization, which would save an unknown amount, Benest said.
The city has already shaved $20 million and 70 positions from its annual budget in the past few years, he said.
"There are now no easy solutions.... Every cut will create some opposition," Benest said.
Opposition came even from top-level city staff members, who have expressed concerns relating to "growing organization distress about increasing workloads," Benest told the council.
"This has been very difficult for our departments," he said. "There's a general feeling that we're sort of maxed out."
Perhaps the answer is a few larger cuts, several council members suggested.
"Making big cuts is hard, but maybe it's better," Councilman John Barton said, noting the city could face "death by 1,000 cuts."
"Many of us did have in mind we would need to cut some program somewhere," Vice Mayor Larry Klein said.
Mossar said she would also like to consider cutting services from the budget.
Several council members also challenged the staff to find savings in the police and fire department budgets, often considered untouchable.
"We shouldn't be afraid to look at fire and police," Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto said.
Benest cautioned that reducing the fire staff, one of the "not recommended" potential cuts, would be "very, very problematic."
Human services are not the area to make cuts, Councilwoman LaDoris Cordell emphasized.
"I will absolutely oppose balancing or creating our budget off the back of the hungry, the seniors and our young people," Cordell said.
Councilman Peter Drekmeier said he would consider investing less than $3 million in infrastructure.
The council had asked Benest to bring his proposed $3 million in cuts to the council before the public budget process officially begins, Kishimoto noted.
Last April the council voted to set aside an extra $3 million to stem the loss of money from the pool of funds used to replace sidewalks and maintain city buildings.
Despite additional contributions to infrastructure in recent years, the city's fund for those projects is shrinking because of increased construction costs and the city's desire to improve, rather than just maintain, facilities and other property, Benest said.
Additional revenue could come through the Stanford Shopping Center and Stanford Medical Center expansions, raising the tax on overnight stays in hotels, and the expansion of local auto dealers, Benest said. He did not include the potential $4.5 million boost in the infrastructure plan, however, because the revenue gains could come years from now.
The $3 million infrastructure discussion will be continued, with an opportunity for public comment, in several weeks at a date to be announced, Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison said.
In other business:
• Barron Park's Nguyen family got a green light to subdivide their 16,000-square-foot property at 897 Barron Ave., one week after the council had postponed a final vote. The subdivision accorded with zoning codes but was challenged by neighbors who protested it would change the character of the neighborhood and hurt property values.
Last week, the council was unable to reach the five votes needed to stop the subdivision, which Ha and Lieu Nguyen say is needed to care for their aging parents. This week, however, Mossar was back from a trip to Los Angeles and Drekmeier switched his vote to support the split, leaving naysayers Klein, Kishimoto and Jack Morton in the minority. Councilman Barton recused himself because he formerly provided architectural advice to the couple.
The subdivision will proceed with the conditions that the existing house is saved and attempts are made to preserve the large cedar tree along Barron Avenue.
• The council gave the Taser Task Force an additional month to form a recommendation on the city's potential purchase of Taser stun guns.
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