Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - June 18, 2010

How would YOU balance city budget?

'Last chance' Monday night for official citizen input on how to close a projected $7.3 million city budget gap

Palo Altans will feel the impact of the recession next year under a city budget that will be about $7.3 million leaner — even if some of the more onerous or visible cuts or fees have been eliminated or reduced.

City administrators have done a good job of outreach, in a series of neighborhood informational meetings preceding or paralleling the official City Council Finance Committee meetings in May and June. The committee wrapped up its exhaustive — and exhausting — marathon of wading through budget details this week and has sent its recommendations to the full council.

A council-level public hearing has been set for next Monday night on the city's overall $139 million General Fund budget for fiscal year 2010-2011, starting July 1. This is the last opportunity for residents to provide feedback on the budget and cuts or new fees before the council adopts the final budget June 28, with possible spillover meetings June 29 and 30.

The committee in recent meetings removed or neutralized some of the more hot-potato issues. This week it rejected a $5 per vehicle admission fee to Foothills Park, the Baylands Preserve and Pearson/Arastradero Preserve. Earlier, proposals to cut a police high-tech-fraud investigations unit and traffic safety officers and crossing guards were also rejected, while still cutting a community-outreach officer and crime analyst.

The bulk of the $7.3 million gap-closure comes from cutting more than 60 staff positions, including outsourcing printing and park maintenance. Individual layoffs will hit nearly all departments. Most will be minimally visible, at least in the short term, to residents.

There are still some problematic cuts or fee increases among the $7.3 million. One is to bill homeowners for half the cost of sidewalk replacements in front of their homes for the estimated 100 or so homeowners affected each year, to save about $250,000 annually. Even so, this seems odd because most sidewalk damage is caused by roots of city-owned street trees, therefore rightly a city responsibility.

The committee also agreed to accept a $35,000 gift from the Friends of the Children's Theatre in lieu of implementing fees for participation in plays for young actors — a minuscule amount in the big picture of budget balancing. That also is an odd response for a community in which most sports and other activities for young persons involve fees, with scholarships available for hardship cases.

But there is a broader significance to this year's budget cuts. That significance is that most are "structural," meaning long-lasting — an approach that in our opinion is long overdue despite some attempts to do so in past years, without which Palo Alto would be in far worse shape than it presently is.

If the council accepts the Finance Committee's recommendations, instead of facing a $10 million deficit next fiscal year the city will face only an estimated gap of about $1.7 million.

The budget does not include the separate Utilities Department budget, and the $7.3 million in cuts does not reflect a deferral (for the second year) of an 8 percent raise by the Palo Alto Police Officers Association (PAPOA), saving an estimated $800,000 this year. City employees represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and employees in management position will contribute another 4 percent for another $1.2 million savings.

City officials hope for an equivalent savings of about $820,000 from Palo Alto firefighters, with whom management began new-contract negotiations this month. But the combative leadership of the union local has so far shown scant interest in helping the city weather this financial downturn.

As for the present budget, it is difficult to second guess the cuts and fee increases proposed after many hours of effort by the city staff and Finance Committee members.

There is a universal concern about the cost of retirement and health benefits. It is clear that earlier, during flush times, councils and staff were overly generous with employee-retirement benefits, now threatening to cripple or bankrupt public agencies statewide.

Yet Palo Alto, with about $23 million in available General Fund reserves (untouched this year) is not in a desperate fiscal crises, now. But the long-term benefits issue is a major challenge that must be addressed — we hope starting with the Fire Department when its contract expires June 30.

Comments

There are no comments yet for this post

Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.

Email:


Post a comment

Posting an item on Town Square is simple and requires no registration. Just complete this form and hit "submit" and your topic will appear online. Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

We prefer that you use your real name, but you may use any "member" name you wish.

Name: *

Select your neighborhood or school community: * Not sure?

Choose a category: *

Since this is the first comment on this story a new topic will also be started in Town Square! Please choose a category that best describes this story.

Comment: *

Verification code: *
Enter the verification code exactly as shown, using capital and lowercase letters, in the multi-colored box.

*Required Fields