Palo Alto Weekly

News - June 18, 2010

City to debate $139 million budget

Palo Alto council has until July 1 to close $7.3 million budget gap

by Gennady Sheyner

Several controversial Palo Alto budget proposals — to set a fee for actors who participate in Children's Theatre, charge for access to the city's open-space preserves, close the city's libraries on Mondays and eliminate two fraud investigators from the police department — were tentatively turned down this week as the City Council's Finance Committee finalized its recommendations for the fiscal year 2011 budget.

Over the past month, the committee has reviewed dozens of measures intended to close a projected $7.3 million budget gap, including layoffs and frozen salaries, new fees for rental of city facilities and shorter library hours.

On Monday night, the full council will review the committee's recommendations with the aim of approving a $139 million budget before July 1, the start of the fiscal year.

Committee members this past Monday scrapped a "pay to play" fee for Children's Theatre participants after the nonprofit group Friends of the Children's Theatre vowed it would give the city $35,000 to avoid the new fee.

The group argued at previous committee meetings that the new fees, which would range from $50 to $300 depending on the production, would discourage low-income residents from participating.

Alison Williams, the theater group's costume supervisor, stressed the theater's educational programs and strong ticket sales under recently hired Artistic Director Judge Luckey. The ticket sales are at the "highest level," with 23,000 sold so far this year, she said.

Councilman Larry Klein proposed accepting the group's offer, provided the city and the Friends have a contract in place and reviewed by both the committee and the full City Council by Sept. 30. If not, the fees would take effect as initially proposed, he suggested.

Committee Chair Greg Schmid said he would support the proposal provided the financial contributions become "enduring over time" and not a one-time payment.

The committee agreed and voted to accept the group's offer with little discussion.

Palo Alto's nature lovers, meanwhile, might continue to park and frolic for free at three prominent parklands — Foothills Park, the Baylands Preserve and Pearson/Arastradero Preserve, the committee decided Tuesday night.

A proposed $5 "vehicle access fee" ($40 for an annual permit) would have raised about $100,000.

Councilman Greg Scharff said he had received a large volume of e-mails from residents who oppose the park access fees. Based on the community input, and the fact that the budget gap could be closed through other measures, the committee voted 3-1, with Councilman Sid Espinosa dissenting, not to impose park fees.

"The important thing is to listen to the community and to make cuts that have the least impact for quality of life for people," Scharff told the Weekly. "Clearly, this was something people were concerned about."

Scharff was also the most adamant advocate of keeping library branches open on Mondays, even if services were limited; City Manager Jim Keene had proposed that Main, Mitchell Park and Children's libraries be shuttered one day a week.

"I assume most people would rather have a library open with no services that day," Scharff said.

The committee recommended that the library branches, which currently open at 10 a.m., open at noon instead.

Klein said he thinks the changes in the library hours will have "little negative impact on the community" and characterized the changes as a "reasonable compromise in this era."

The newly renovated College Terrace branch will be closed on Mondays, though the committee had abandoned a previous proposal to keep the branch closed for the entire fiscal year.

The committee also turned down Keene's proposal to eliminate the jobs of two police agents who are responsible for probing some of the city's most intricate, longest and most complex cases — ones dealing with financial fraud, identify theft and other technological crimes.

The job cuts were projected to save the city $332,000.

Police Chief Dennis Burns told the committee the two investigators would be particularly hard to replace given their high level of training. Because of the technical nature of their job, fraud investigators serve for five-year assignments while other investigators typically have three-year rotations.

"Fraud investigation is extremely complex," Burns said. "Not all of our detectives could be fraud investigators."

In recent years, the agents' caseload has been getting heavier. Identity theft has been spiking across the nation, particularly in an affluent city such as Palo Alto, which is teeming with financial institutions and which has a large number of elderly residents who are prone to financial fraud.

Over the past year, the two officers have also dispensed tips on fraud prevention at community meetings throughout the city.

Scharff said one of the city's top priorities is to ensure public safety and proposed keeping the positions in the 2011 budget.

"This is very important to the city and it would be a huge mistake to cut it," Scharff said.

The department still stands to lose a community-outreach specialist and the crime analyst, who compiles quarterly reports on demographic data from traffic stops. The committee also recommended trimming the five-officer traffic-enforcement team to four members.

The council's effort to close the budget gap received a boost Monday when police officers in Palo Alto's largest police union agreed to defer their negotiated 6 percent raise for the second year in a row. The move is expected to save the city about $800,000 in fiscal year 2011, according to Sgt. Wayne Benitez, president of the Palo Alto Peace Officers Association.

"It is the hope of PAPOA that this will help the city balance the budget while maintaining city services and preventing layoffs," Benitez said.

The full council is scheduled to discuss the budget Monday night (June 21) and to adopt the full budget on June 28. Two spillover meetings have been scheduled if needed for June 29 and 30.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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