The conversation officially kicked off at Monday night's City Council meeting, where Keene presented a budget filled with more than $11 million in cuts and new fees.
These include eliminating 75 positions, requiring homeowners to pay for sidewalk repairs and eliminating a five-officer traffic team in the Police Department.
The plan seeks to close a projected $8.3 million budget gap in fiscal year 2011, which begins July 1. Keene's proposed budget includes more than $2 million in surplus cuts to give the council more flexibility in deciding which programs to cut and which positions to eliminate.
Administrative Services Director Lalo Perez called the 2011 budget the most difficult one he's ever worked on.
"We had reductions in the past but never at a level that impacts the community on this magnitude," Perez said Monday night.
Keene seeks to reduce costs by contracting out many services currently performed by city employees, including tree trimming, custodian service and maintenance of the Palo Alto Golf Course, Mitchell Park and Rinconada Park.
Other services would be curtailed or absorbed by other personnel. Eliminating the Police Department's traffic team would require other patrol officers to spend more time on traffic enforcement. The Community Services Department would lose one of its four division manager positions, which will require the other managers to take over more duties, Keene said.
The city's afternoon shuttle would be eliminated and its cross-town shuttle would be limited to one run, Perez said. The College Terrace library, which is undergoing renovations and is scheduled to reopen in November, would be shut down for an additional eight months. Main, Mitchell Park and the Children's Library would be closed on Mondays.
The proposal will be discussed and revised over the next two months by the council's Finance Committee. But while council members offered brief comments, a few community members voiced concern about Keene's budget proposal. Former Vice Mayor Jack Morton urged the council to focus less on community services and more on the police and fire expenditures, which he said were too high.
"The community is looking to you, the council, to find ways in which the budget can be balanced, but not be balanced on their backs," Morton said.
Catherine Martineau, executive director of Canopy, a group that advocates for urban forests, warned that contracting out tree maintenance may impact work quality and cause irreversible harm to local street trees.
"There are things you can close and reopen, but it might not be the same way with trees," Martineau said.
Bob Moss, a land-use watchdog, also criticized a proposal to charge fees to visitors to Foothills, Pearson-Arastradero and Baylands parks. The city would spend more money to collect the fees than it would get back in fees, Moss argued.
The council generally refrained from commenting on specific cuts in Keene's proposal, though Councilwoman Karen Holman warned that she might not support major reductions to library hours. She alluded to the voters' passage of a $76 million bond for library improvements in 2008.
"I think the public has spoken pretty loudly and clearly about how much they cherish the libraries," Holman said.
Budget cuts are not new to Palo Alto, which closed a $10 million gap in the beginning of the current budget year and then another $6.2 million gap mid-year. The city filled these gaps by reducing employee benefits, eliminating 20 vacant positions and transferring funds from various reserves into the General Fund, a $146 million fund that pays for core services such as police, firefighters, street repair and recreational programs.
But with revenues dwindling and deficits projected to grow in the coming years, Keene and the council decided to focus on permanent "structural" cuts in 2011.
The proposed budget eliminates 8 percent of all full-time positions supported by the General Fund, as well as 18 temporary positions. It would impact 119 individual jobs, including 70 that are currently filled.
Keene called the proposed layoffs "absolutely the worst, most unfortunate aspect of these kinds of recommendations and in trying to deal with this budget." But he also pointed out that the process could also make the city's operation more efficient.
"There's good reasons for bureaucracy, but many of them lie in the past and we're dragging them around," Keene said. "We're going to have to shed that baggage."
The council is scheduled to approve the 2011 budget in June.
There will be outreach to the community. This week, Keene took his presentation to neighborhood groups, including the Midtown Residents Association on Tuesday. A few of the 30 people who attended offered their ideas on how the city could cut the budget, including eliminating fire stations, transferring operation of the Children's Theatre and Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo to nonprofit organizations, and lowering commercial rent to attract new businesses.
It was the start of a process that city officials hope will ease the pain of impending cuts.
"Whether it be neighborhood groups or community organizations of different sorts, we're really welcoming having significant participation in this process — because it's not going to be easy," Mayor Pat Burt said Monday night.
Talk about it
How do you propose Palo Alto can close its $8.3 million budget gap? Share your ideas on Town Square, the online community forum, on Palo Alto Online.