Palo Alto Weekly

News - October 29, 2010

Around Town

SHOW ME THE MONEY ... The California High-Speed Rail Authority received some good news at the beginning of this week, when the Federal Railroad Administration awarded the agency another $715 million, bringing the agency's total secured funding up to $4.3 billion. The grant specified that the money would be used primarily for constructing high-speed rail in the Central Valley, even though the rail authority has yet to formally decide which segment of the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles track to build first. Curt Pringle, chair of the authority's board of directors, said the funding "has once again invigorated the project and will be a huge boost to the state's economy." By the end of the week, however, followers of the rail project had a new reason to be concerned about the money. A new audit from state Inspector General Laura Chick concluded that the authority is "not fully prepared to distribute and monitor (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) funds." The audit found some notable deficiencies when it comes to the authority's money management. Auditors reviewed 11 invoices totaling $8.94 million and found that $3.4 million in expenditures were "without adequate supporting documents." Auditors also found that over a four-month period, the authority paid $72,000 to public-outreach consultants "without any back-up documentation." During this same period, the authority dished out more than $1 million to Ogilvy Public Relations, its primary communications consultant. Chick indicated in a letter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that the authority is getting better at tracking its expenditures and that its new contract manager has renegotiated several contracts, potentially saving the taxpayers $2.6 million. "Just think how much money could be saved if all state contracts were negotiated in this way from the get go!" she wrote.

SIDE EFFECTS ... Palo Alto hopes to protect its residents from going thirsty after a major earthquake by building a 2.5 million gallon reservoir under El Camino Park. But while emergency preparedness is the primary goal of the massive voter-approved reservoir project, park visitors and local athletes could also see some unexpected benefits. The Parks and Recreation Commission is now lobbying the City Council to use the reservoir project as an opportunity to refurbish and improve the park, which it deems an "underused asset." The commission's ambitious plans for the new El Camino Park initially included a dog exercise area, a walking track and new lights for the soccer field in the park, but commissioners had to adjust their expectations after they learned the money for the new reservoir has to be used for a water project and not for recreation. Still, at least some of the commission's recommendations will likely materialize when the park opens for business in 2013. The latest designs for El Camino Park include lacrosse striping on athletic fields, improved paths between the downtown transportation depot and the park; and underground electrical and water lines that could accommodate future improvements. The commission also recommends installing lights at the soccer field to allow night games, a scoreboard and a backstop for the softball field and a better bathroom. Last week, the commission submitted a memo to the council calling the reservoir project a "timely opportunity to upgrade the park while construction-related disruptions are already underway." "It makes sense to fund park improvements now," Commission Chair Daria Walsh wrote in the memo. "The commission strongly encourages the City to capitalize on this opportunity."

GRAND REOPENING ... Palo Alto's colossal effort to revamp its aged libraries will hit a major milestone on Nov. 9, when the College Terrace Library reopens for business after more than a year of renovations. The city plans to mark the occasion on Saturday, Nov. 6, with a special celebration that will feature food, drinks and one severed ribbon. The event, sponsored by Friends of the Palo Alto Library, the Palo Alto Library Foundation and the College Terrace Residents' Association, will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. at the library, 2300 Wellesley St. Other local libraries will host similar celebrations in the years to come, thanks to a $76 million bond voters passed in November 2008. The Downtown Library will see a major upgrade and the Mitchell Park Library and Community Center is being rebuilt, while the Main Library will be renovated once the Mitchell Park branch is re-opened for business.

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