Some city spending priorities don't seem fair
Original post made by Diana Diamond, Palo Alto Online blogger, on Dec 2, 2007
For example, the nonprofit Palo Alto Art Center Foundation wants to renovate the Art Center building next to the Main Library at Newell and Embarcadero roads. But the city is telling foundation board members that they will need to raise the money themselves -- approximately $4.5 million for a remodel or $8.5 million for a remodel and expansion (new galleries, classrooms and storage space).
The city has approved $1.75 million for replacing the electrical, heat and air conditioning systems at the center, part of an estimated $2.5 million cost for those basics. The air conditioning was last upgraded in the early 1980s, according to Carolyn Tucher, one the foundation's supporters. All design plans to date have been paid up front by the foundation, according to its President Jean Duisenberg.
That started me thinking about some other city buildings in town, such as our libraries, the Junior Museum, a new police station -- even City Hall. I started wondering why this city can spend $139 million this year from its general fund plus millions on capital-improvement projects and yet one of the community "gems," the Art Center, has to have its foundation raise its own money.
Keep in mind that the Art Center is a public building, and first served in the 1950s as the City Hall. That building has never been renovated, according to Tucher.
In other words, the renovation is needed because the city neglected to maintain its own building for years.
Yet just last week the City Council decided to explore funding a proposed new $61 million police facility -- not with bonds approved by voters, as had been planned but with "certificates of participation," basically a loan against future city revenues. Last year the estimated police station cost was $50 million.
To its credit, the council finally is realizing that Palo Alto residents probably will not approve bonds next June for library renovations ($50 million), a new police station ($61 million) and an even greater amount of school district renovation bonds. Surveys show there is not the needed two-thirds voter approval for either the libraries or the police station, although the libraries are closer.
But if the council decides to bypass voters by going the pay-from-future revenues approach, residents will have absolutely no say if they want their tax dollars spent on a $61 million police station.
We've been talking about new public safety building for years. If city officials can suddenly come up with a new plan to finance the building council members so desperately want why didn't they use the same approach a couple of years ago to fund a new Mitchell Park library? Or why aren't they considering financing library renovations instead of a police station through this pay-as-you-go approach? Is it because council members know a lot of residents don't want to pay for a new police station? Or because council members really want it?
I scouted around for other things the council recently decided to spend money on and found a number on the council's consent agenda. The "consent calendar" is a list of items that a few samples. For a more detailed list, please visit the printed version of this column (Web Link):
* $2.5 million in replacement of city vehicles -- an annual expenditure; vehicles are replaced about every six years, according to Auditor Sharon Erickson (more often that I replace my car).
* $6 million on City Hall upgrades -- so far $2.8 million has been spent for studies and elevator upgrades.
* On July 23, $3.8 million for gas main replacement; an additional $93,000 for Cambridge parking structure improvements; $238,322 for the Cambridge structure maintenance improvement program; $250,000 for a stump removal project; $65,000 for design for the Animal Services Center.
* On the regular agenda, of the council approved $2.9 million for storm-water pump station, and a $3 million loan to buy the Ole's Automotive Repair Shop parcel.
* On Oct. 29, on consent, council approved a $6.3 million upgrade at City Hall software for employees; $4 million annually for electric capacity projects; $316,000 for Web-based permitting applications; $20,000 toward the College Terrace library seismic upgrade.
* On Nov. 13, on the regular agenda, council authorized purchase the Los Altos Treatment Plant site for $6 million, with a $2.7 million appropriation.
* On Nov. 19, on the regular agenda the council authorized purchasing a 1.3-acre, $10.9 million site on Park Boulevard for, yes, the new police station.
Some of these items are capital improvements and the city needs to maintain its infrastructure. Some are not. I won['t even go into the cost of ABAG's demand that the city provide more low-income housing -- that's the subject of another blog.
But my point here is that a lot is spent each week, much without discussion. Granted, the council's Finance Committee annually reviews the capital-improvement budget, but this comes in a 200-plus-page binder filled with projects for the next five years. This budget is tedious and gets little analysis or prioritization from the council.
And that's why I feel sorry for the Palo Alto Art Center Foundation: No city money apparently is available to renovate a city building. That's why foundation board members will have to raise $4.5 million on their own, and only dream of expanding the art center for another (mere) $4 million.
It just doesn't seem fair.