Palo Alto looks to 'Friends' group for budget help Palo Alto Issues, posted by Editor, Palo Alto Online, on Jun 12, 2012 at 8:14 am
Faced with growing expenditures and persistent budget deficits, Palo Alto is increasingly looking to volunteers and community organizations for help to balance the books and preserve existing services.
Read the full story here Web Link posted Monday, June 11, 2012, 10:41 PM
Posted by Marrol, a resident of the Embarcadero Oaks/Leland neighborhood, on Jun 12, 2012 at 8:14 am
If for example the friends group representing the animal shelter can generate donations equal to what the city would save from outsourcing, and, they can sustain that year after year, then I would have no issue with the city keeping this service. If they cannot, then those monitoring should recommend we look for other options. We must remain vigilant in scrutinizing these expenditures.
I realize that politics has very much to do with compromise, as it should be in my opinion. However, I wonder how do we expect to solve this budget crisis if we ultimately do not make some of these tough decisions.
This article states that several city programs and services avoided or reduced proposed operating fees after participants pledged to generate offsetting funds. My question to the reporter, Gennady Sheyner, or if anyone else can legitimately weigh in, did the Children's Theater participants raise enough money in 2010 to offset the proposed fee hikes? We know that in 2010 the city considered sharply raising PACT fees. That move was averted according to this article because PACT participants "offered" to raise money to avoid the fee hikes. There is a huge difference between offering and delivering. So, I'll ask again, did PACT raise enough funds equal to what tax payers would have saved through the fee hikes? As a tax payer I believe that information should be made public as it is certainly relevant to this issue.
Compromise is a good thing, especially on this issue when most people would expect that during difficult financial times that those involved in a special interest should either take on a greater financial burden for its use, or face reductions or elimination of supporting public funds. If these groups representing art studios, community gardens, and lawn bowlers can become self-reliant financially through fund raising then I admire their dedication. But, city management cannot simply pass on these budget improving steps based on a promise or pledge, and then fail to monitor and follow through to determine if the mission was accomplished. On this the city must remain ever vigilant.
We can't just let this pass and forget what we're trying to get done here. These groups, including animal services, must demonstrate that they can sustain this revenue stream year after year. It can't just be a one time deal when supporters are in a crisis mode. If the off-setting funds begin to run dry, then the city would be in a position to make the necessary cuts and reductions in the interest of the greater good. Again, the city must remain vigilant on behalf of all tax payers. I certainly will be.
Posted by businessdecision, a resident of another community, on Jun 12, 2012 at 8:46 am
The fear, Marrol, is that these amenities would go away altogether if reliant only on "Friends" groups, and that civic engagement would decline as these "frills" were lost. Would democracy decline as well? That's the big question, beyond Palo Alto. In Europe we see states where the democratic process "had to be shelved" and the country run by technocrats, who have some of the goals that you have in their drive towards austerity and fiscal discipline. Not everybody is sure that this is a good development at all.
Many of us, rightly or wrongly, imagine that cities exist in part to help turn people into citizens by providing activities for them to be involved in. The way people change as they get out into the world is thought to be beneficial, in some way that can't be measured, to the life of the community. The way people change when there are fewer and fewer outlets for them is another thing that we cannot quantify, but as more and more people are forced out of the middle class, they are starting to get a very good idea of what lies ahead for them.
The mere fact that there is this turning to Friends groups suggests to me that the game is over, and you can probably turn your attention to other things, such as how long you can manage to go on living in Palo Alto. But of course I could be wrong.
Posted by Tony, a resident of the Evergreen Park neighborhood, on Jun 12, 2012 at 9:22 am
Come on just cut few employees from the Palo Alto Shelter. That would save some good money. I thought the Chief of Police said that before, the City would cut Three full time positions to help save the money and keep the shelter running. I really don't get it. I love animals but why the city doesn't do that. Instead of keep going around and not resolving anything. Palo Alto is a messed up city and the city mayor and manager is showing that they don't have what it takes to make the right decision. This animal shelter novel will continue for many years to come and we will be still talking about the same issue again.
Posted by Marrol, a resident of the Embarcadero Oaks/Leland neighborhood, on Jun 12, 2012 at 9:35 am
First of all Business, these services and amenities would not be relying solely on their respective friend groups. In these cases, those groups would be responsible for either donations, memberships or other user fee hikes in order to offset what tax payers would otherwise have saved through imposed increases. No one is suggesting zero public involvement in most cases. However, at some point we have to balance these services and programs with a higher degree of fiscal responsibility.
Palo Alto offers a nationally recognized school system, a myriad of activities, all in a wonderful environment in what is considered to be among the most desirable places to live or raise a family in the entire country. I can appreciate your concern for our city, but I think we're doing more than OK when it comes to producing people that will be beneficial to our city.
On that note I will continue to keep my attention on our city affairs as will many others. Being a third generation Palo Altan and homeowner I don't think I'll be leaving anytime soon, so no worries, I'll be here whenever you wish to discuss topics of mutual interest.
The game certainly isn't over when it comes to our budget issues either. The cornerstones of a viable community are a stable budget, strong infrastructure, and public safety. That is what enables us to lay down the foundation of the many wonderful services and programs that a city like Palo Alto offers. But, those services cannot come at the expense of our basic and essential civic needs. Once we the balance the budget and fund these vital needs, then I have no issue in reviewing what's left over and determine how and where we would like to invest that additional public money. That's just common sense, plain and simple.
I don't know where you live Business, but I would be interested in hearing any ideas of how these issues are approached and handled in your own community. I think we can all learn from these discussions. Any thoughts or ideas?
Posted by Marrol, a resident of the Embarcadero Oaks/Leland neighborhood, on Jun 12, 2012 at 10:38 am
It would be easy to portray public employee salaries and benefits as the sole culprit of our current budget woes, but it's simply not the case. A convenient approach for those not wishing to face the reality of much needed reductions or cuts in many city programs and services.
The budget problem will not be solved with a single action. Long term solutions and viability will occur only after a multi-layer adjustment in public spending. For example, the police department is operating with approximately 15-20% less personnel than they had even a decade ago. Those position cuts, which involved numerous specialty assignments, were eliminated due to budget issues. Most recently, in this current budget review, it appears that the traffic enforcement team will also be eliminated. Those officers were assigned specifically to traffic safety, drunk driving enforcement, as well as providing traffic, bike and pedestrian safety and enforcement in school zones. Those specific assignments appear to gone.
The fire department's scaling down and restructure is also well chronicled. In addition to these departmental cuts, the public safety employees have also accepted salary reductions, will begin to pay a higher portion of their medical insurance costs, and made tier adjustments to their retirement packages. We seem to be making some reasonable head-way when it comes to public employee compensation and pension reform, but again, a long term solution will not occur until our city leaders and elected officials have the courage and responsibility to follow through on many other cuts and reductions in city spending.
Posted by TT, a resident of the Barron Park neighborhood, on Jun 12, 2012 at 11:00 am
@Marrol, yes actually it is that easy to point to city employee pension & health care liabilities as the source of current budget woes. that is exactly the problem.
"Though the city's revenues have largely returned to where they were before the Great Recession, the city's expenditures have grown even more dramatically. The cost increases are driven primarily by sharp growth in pension and health care spending for employees. "
Posted by Garden Gnome, a resident of the Crescent Park neighborhood, on Jun 12, 2012 at 11:05 am
Neighbors TT and common sense,
I think you're forgetting that our primary role is to pay for city workers and benefits. After all, in respect of, well, whatever they do, it's only reasonable that they retire early and with good pensions.
IF there's any money left over, only then should we consider using our taxes for frivolous expenditures such as road and other infrastructure maintenance.
Posted by Taxpayer, a resident of the Downtown North neighborhood, on Jun 12, 2012 at 11:27 am
Palo Alto residents and residents in other cities have a choice. We can have efficient, quality services at a reasonable price, or we can plan on a combination of decreased services, increased taxes, and anguish every time budgets are discussed. The choice revolves around government unions and their influence on politicians. If we continue to elect Price and politicians like her, we will have union ff's costing $200K per year, retiring at 50 and collecting pensions for 30+ years. The ff's are the worst example of sever over compensation and excessive benefits. But the problem extends to the compensation and benefit plans for all PA government union employees. As voters we have the ability to fix the problem. But it is going to be a battle with unions and the politicians who have found it is easier to stay in office if they ride the funding of the unions, and not concern themselves with the best interests of their constituents.
Posted by neighbor, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood, on Jun 12, 2012 at 11:43 am
California is well recognized as an "overspending" kind of place when it comes to government. All these initiatives, bonds, the legislature, the governor -- all too free-spending.
The budgets of local government seem "large enough" and I think it is about management. It IS about generous hiring, pay, benefits, retirement. I have a spouse who is originally from another country and I get to read reports, news articles - since this country is somewhat comparable to ours (educated, etc.), I can actually compare local municipal budgets. I realize nothing is identical, but our California local government budgets are incredibly greater than what I read about in this other place.
I feel we have a government "monster" out of control and relying on volunteers in wealthy in Palo Alto is ridiculous. I pay a LOT of taxes. IF volunteers wish to assist, that is great, but it shouldn'tbe built into the system because then the politicians and government managers will overspend even with that taken into account.
Posted by neighbor, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood, on Jun 12, 2012 at 11:49 am
@Taxpayer, yeah I like how with these clever politicians, everything is framed in extremes: either you "support" firefighters or you "oppose" or do not appreciate them -- the idea that one can retire at middle age and etc. is the issue rather than whether one wishes to have firefighting services or not. I commend you for referencing the specifics, not the generic argument: do you mean to say you do NOT support our firefighters?! Shock and horror.
Of course, the classic is about Education (state and federal, mainly): do you or do you not "support" kids and public education? Ridiculous -- talk about an egregiously wasteful system -- California public education. It has nothing to do with wishing to "deprive" some poor kid from his gym class, but this is how the unions and cozy politicians frame it, and some Californians are too casual in their reading and examination of these issues to really know the score. They get swayed by these silly arguments. Talk about waste!! -- the education system.
Posted by Larissa, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Jun 12, 2012 at 12:15 pm
You can't just "cut a few employees" from Animal Services when the department is already running as efficiently as possible. 13 full-time employees who work weekends, holidays, and extended hours is not what I'd call a bloated workforce. Just wait until Palo Altins have to deal with delayed calls/pick-ups/service offerings and more stray pets than they know what to do with as a result of this kind of decision.
Posted by Marrol, a resident of the Embarcadero Oaks/Leland neighborhood, on Jun 12, 2012 at 1:05 pm
As I've stated previously, pension reform, compensation packages, and public employee health care costs are definitely part of the solution to the current budget problem. But it is not, nor will it ever be the only part of the solution. There has been significant progress made in terms of concessions and compromise with our city employee labor groups.
Again, both the police and fire departments are currently operating with much fewer personnel than they've had in the past. Along with these changes, the only long term solution to our financial problems will occur when we've made decisions to appropriately outsource, reduce, or eliminate certain city services and programs.
For Larissa from Midtown, I truly do not believe that our streets will be littered with stray animals if we reduce or outsource our animal services. You state that as if there would be no animal services available at all. I have spent considerable time living and working in this region, and I do not recall other cities who use Silicon Valley for their animal services to be experiencing these kind of problems. Let's not take the rhetoric to an extreme. If you have an example of another city who is wrought with animal and pet problems due to a lack of services, then let's hear about it and maybe I'll reconsider my position.
Also, does Palo Alto Online or anyone else in the know have an answer to my earlier question? I was wondering if in 2010-2011, did the Children's Theater participants raise enough money, as they "offered" to do, to avoid a fee hike or reduction in tax payer contributions?
Posted by who cares, a resident of the Palo Alto Orchards neighborhood, on Jun 12, 2012 at 3:44 pm
... so why are we paying a city manager over $500,000 in pay and benefits who is supposed to be making budget decisions? Who cares that we are paying the city manager's house payment, property taxes, home insurance, home landscaping fees, gym allowance, auto allowance, etc.,etc. Are we really looking for this person who is so dependent on taxpayer subsidy to make an educated informed decision on how the city finances should be spent? Where is the vision and educated decisions and foresight that city council promised us when they hired this person. Ten years of deficit spending and the city manager still receives his yearly bonus. What a pity!
Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton, on Jun 12, 2012 at 3:48 pm Peter Carpenter is a member (registered user) of Palo Alto Online
" the only long term solution to our financial problems will occur when we've made decisions to appropriately outsource, reduce, or eliminate certain city services and programs."
If you want to find out the free market cost for any city service then just force the city to issue an RFP for that service to be provided either by other agencies or by the private sector - and let the city submit its own full burdened bid including fully funding all retirement benefits on a pay as you go basis. The city will never be the low bidder.
Note that Atherton has recently outsourced almost 80% of its non-police services and did so for a firm fixed cost with a reduction in total annual costs and without an future pension liability.
Posted by Hillary Stangel, a resident of the Greenmeadow neighborhood, on Jun 12, 2012 at 4:33 pm
I urge all of you curious enough to please attend the next city council meeting on Monday, June 18th at City Hall. If you choose to do so, you can then look at testimonies and figures for the Palo Alto Animal Shelter and then formulate (or keep) your opinions about cutting within the department.
That being said, it is no easy feat to just take the employee roster to the chopping block. Before Mountain View engaged the contract with Palo Alto Animal Services decades ago, the department operated at twelve employees. With the accumulation of this city contract, the department added one or one and a half more employees. I can say from personal experience that each and every one of the employees of the Palo Alto Animal Services department is a valuable investment, from the Clinic Veterinarians to the Volunteer Coordinator. Volunteers have been coming back for years to support the family that they passionately believe in, a family led by the caring attention of the Volunteer Coordinator.
PAAS works incredibly efficiently and has been doing so for years. This is a department whose revenue is directly correlated to the manpower abilities, just as the Police Department and Fire Departments are. The Animal Control Officers are first responders that are scheduled with on-call days. With the loss of two, three, or potentially four employees, you can expect this issue to further spiral down into a loss of even more assets.
But again, I ask that the members of the community form personal opinions about the matter by obtaining information at the city council meeting next Monday, June 18th.
Posted by Marrol, a resident of the Embarcadero Oaks/Leland neighborhood, on Jun 12, 2012 at 4:43 pm
Very well stated Hillary. Everyone should inform themselves on this issue and consider the implications of the proposed service reductions as well as the possibility of outsourcing altogether. In addition to your thoughts, I would also ask everyone to consider the big picture here, and give equal thought to the overwhelming budget deficit we face, as well as our inability to fund our vital civic needs in infrastructure and public safety. The greater issue involves many layers outside of how we choose to provide animal services.
Posted by No Credit, No Free Money, a resident of the College Terrace neighborhood, on Jun 12, 2012 at 9:06 pm
@Business: the problem is that the funding is not there - with or without volunteers, non-profits, etc. You can't spend what you don't have!
You hit the nail right on the head @Business! Palo Alto is and has been living beyond it's means and relying on extra private money to balance a budget is outrageous. Scale back on services. Every other city along the peninsula and across the bay is dealing with issues yet Palo Alto always needs more money.
Posted by Marrol, a resident of the Embarcadero Oaks/Leland neighborhood, on Jun 13, 2012 at 8:31 am
Respectfully requested, do the reporters at Palo Alto Online, or anyone else with credible knowledge, have any information on whether or not the Palo Alto Children's Theater group raised enough funds as they "offered" to do in order to avoid a participant fee hike?
According to this article in 2010 they made this fundraising pledge rather than face imposed fee hikes. I believe it has great relevance to this story. I would be interested to see if those fundraising efforts were successful, and if so, did those efforts continue in 2011.
I believe it's important to follow-up in the aftermath of these decisions to determine if these friends groups actually make good on their promise. If while trying to trim down the budget and spending a group promises to raise their own funds rather than face fee hikes or reductions in funding, and if city management agrees to that arrangement, then it only makes sense to insure that they were successful.
A group's fund raising efforts must demonstrate that they are capable of collecting enough money that would be at least equal to what tax payers would have saved as a result of a fee hike or reduction in public funds. Additionally, they must be able to sustain that effort annually. It can't just be a one time effort when a group is in a crisis mode. If not, then city management should definitely impose a fee hike or reduction in funding in order for us to collectively combat the serious budget deficit we face.
Again, we must be vigilant and hold these groups accountable to the promises they made. We cannot rely on simply accepting a promise, and then forgetting about it and returning to business as usual. The important civic work of balancing our budget and funding vital needs in infrastructure and public safety will not get done unless we constantly scrutinize these issues and hold people accountable.
Posted by pat, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Jun 13, 2012 at 10:30 am
Re Children’s Theatre – or anything else, look to the city budgets.
From 2011 operating budget pdf p. 118:
The Finance Committee passed a motion to accept the offer by the Friends of the Children’s Theatre(Friends) to provide $35,000 in lieu of a fee to charge participants in the Children's Theatre productions.
Posted by svatoid, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Jun 13, 2012 at 10:49 am
Thanks, Pat and wow--greater then $800K spent on this city "treasure". ANd the friends have come through with $35K!! And the council said okay???? Bet you this same friends group will fight tooth and nail any effort to cut back the city's expenditures on this non-essential item. We should have slain this beast back when the scandal hit.
Posted by Children's Theater should be self funded, a resident of the Embarcadero Oaks/Leland neighborhood, on Jun 13, 2012 at 11:17 am
The City should require all special interest groups - Children's Theater, Junior Museum, Ricondada Pool, etc. the pay their own way 100%. The City can provide the venue, everything else should be paid for by user fees and fundraising. As an alternative, the City could start paying for all the fees for the kids who play sports on Palo Alto property. Free soccer, baseball, tennis, etc. We could also make all the Enjoy classes and camps free. Fair is fair.
Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of the Crescent Park neighborhood, on Jun 13, 2012 at 11:27 am
I know that many, if not all, of the friends organizations will not want to hear this...because of the work involved:
There needs to be a long term funding plan for the various services or programs that require high levels of per capita use funding. Set a "friends" funding standard that must be maintained on an annual basis. Further, it should be a fixed percentage of the annual budget.
And to ensure that this does not fail - the funding program should be in the form of an endowment, not a day-to-day fundraising model. Give these programs 2 years to fund the endowments. If not funded, the program goes away or is outsourced, etc.
Posted by Sally, a resident of the Charleston Meadows neighborhood, on Jun 13, 2012 at 11:32 am
1) Start cutting Palo Alto Utilities. Their job is to provide cost-effective services, not pr, not for promoting every new thing.
I'm tired of hearing about how to compare energy use with neighbors. If they have the tech budget for all kinds of services and social networking apps, they sure don't have the outdated info systems the rest of the city govt. complains about.
2) Firefighters. Why is Palo Alto the ONLY city in the county that provides ambulance services? Are we paying to provide services to the rest of the county? Why is growing ambulance services such a good thing given what "firefighters" make?
3) Contract Administration: The Mitchell Park Library -- a HUGE mess -- is a year late and more expensive than anticipated. How about FIRING the people responsible for overseeing this mess???
4) Fire the geniuses who study putting car dealers on the east side of 101 when they're too lazy and/or unimaginative to drive down El Camino and look at all the empty car dealers?
Posted by Sandy, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood, on Jun 13, 2012 at 1:17 pm
Some things which I'm surprised no one has mentioned that could be cut:
Art commission expenditures--we have a lot of amateurish and/ or just plain ugly sculptures scattered around town, California Avenue being the most comprehensive example--all paid for with city funds=our taxes. And how about "The Color of Palo Alto" and the current "Bottle House" in front of City Hall; both of these are not only ridiculous, they are a waste of money.
Another boondoggle: All those libraries. Both Mountain View and Menlo Park have one GOOD library, which is used by everyone in town, including many Palio Altans. Instead we have five libraries. I must admit to a special love for the Silver Children's Library, but certainly all the others could be combined into one. And the idea that everyone in town has a library within easy walking distance is a myth; there are many parts of town too far from a library to easily walk there. So instead, our libraries--particularly downtown--have become homeless shelters, each with subscriptions to how many newspapers? how many magazines? And with how many paid city librarians???
All this doesn't even mention the new city position of "Urban Forester," or our new commitment to the Palo Alto Airport--have more than a handful of residents ever even used it?
Well, just a few examples, so you don't place ALL the blame on the Children's Theatre and the Animal Shelter. Certainly we need to cut expenses, but look at everything. Oh, and we could certainly do with fewer beaureaucrats in City Hall making stupid decisions for the rest of us.
Posted by neighbor, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood, on Jun 13, 2012 at 2:35 pm
I am reading some very worthwhile comments on this thread:
- ridiculous patronage to ONE select children's group (Palo Alto Children's Theatre), while there are many local and regional equally worthy groups.
- overspending on outmoded distributed city library model -- too many libraries/facilities/collections/staff (salary, pensions, medical...) to realistically sustain in this moderate sized city (smaller than Mountain View by population, correct?)
- PA Utilities "fluff" spending -- I thought something like 200k spent on contracting out for the utility usage comparison reports that get mailed out. I think most Palo Altans are quite intelligent and knowledgeable and don't need costly, juvenile "reports" to chide them/us on energy use/energy reduction -- at least, not in this economy.
Bottom line: spend money on the fundaments of city operations, like basic infrastructure, roads and routine city services.
Posted by jardins, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Jun 13, 2012 at 4:43 pm
I've always thought that volunteering is part of one's civic duty, and I've done plenty.
However, in this present situation, the city administration is exploiting residents' sense of civic duty quite cynically and very calculatingly: we people give yet more of our time and effort, while city administrators continue to impoverish our city by spending our tax money on expensive and less than vitally necessary fripperies--including an urban forester and an environmental strategist! Jim Keene recently pointed to the number of positions he'd closed over the last several years--but these were lower-paying positions, and the effect from their closure has been outweighed by the expenditure on his recent new hires.
In my view, at least, the council should put a freeze on ALL hiring, and it should be examining the policies and expenditures by the city manager and his staff very carefully. They HAVE to be reined in before this city can make any recovery in its financial situation.
The previous city manager, Frank Benest, did a lot of harm to Palo Alto's civic finances, just as he had to the city he worked in before he came here (great choice, council!), and he was encouraged to leave. Why, then, did he of all people get to recommend Jim Keene, a buddy of his, as his successor??
Posted by Curious, a resident of the College Terrace neighborhood, on Jun 13, 2012 at 7:05 pm
While perusing Town Square, I came across this discussion, and it's interesting. Does anyone know what, if anything, is up with the proposed City Employee Hotline to report abuse/fraud? I thought it was discussed by a committee last night, but I can't find any news about it.