Posted by Tyler Hanley, online editor of Palo Alto Online, on Feb 28, 2007 at 2:28 pm Tyler Hanley is a member (registered user) of Palo Alto Online
The staff report does not appear to be available yet on the city's Web site. It was not released with the Council packet last Thursday and instead was handed out at the meeting, which may explain why you can't access it. We'll see about getting our copy scanned and posted.
Posted by Not so fast, a resident of the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood, on Feb 28, 2007 at 3:48 pm
The staff's proposals were not well-received by the City Council because people objected to them (i.e. library, fire department etc) and you know how the City Council hates any conflict--they are afraid to go against any "neighborhood leader", organization or NIMBY.
That is why there will be no solution to our budget problem. until the Council grows a spine and makes decisions, hard that they may be, we will continue to flounder. Do you think the mayor and the City council really wants to address the budget issues, Stanford Hospital and Shopping Center expansion, re-development of Edgewood and Alma Plaza, road repair and infrastructure issues facing the city? Of course not, that is why the mayor is pushing her "10000 steps" thing and Mossar is travelling the country telling everyone how wonderful we are here and how we handle things.
Posted by kate, a resident of the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood, on Feb 28, 2007 at 5:41 pm
Why are we paying $1M for plans for a new public safety building when the citizens haven't even voted on whether or not to pass this bond issue? Did anyone else get that 15 minute survey the other night - the night Stanford played UCLA! It was tricky. Watch out. It had to do with opinions on bond issues for libraries and for the public safety building. How much did this survey cost? At the end, I was asked 1) did I live north or south of Oregon Expressway, 2) did I own my own home, 3) did I buy in BEFORE or AFTER 1978, 4) my age, and 5) my income. I did not choose to answer some. And the surveyor could not pronounce PAlo Atlo. So what to cut in the budget? In the high flying days of the dot com mania, the legislature passed laws re: pensions not thinking ahead that the bubble would burst....and cities did not set aside for this. San Diego has declared bankruptcy. The only way to pay out these retirement benefits is to cut staffing to the bone - or offer staff a compromise. Rewrite all benefits. But let's get real. The unions - and developers control Palo Alto. Priority? All this high flying talk about green house gases is ludicrous. More housing means more people means more auto emissions, and on an on. The Council awarded Benest a bonus, a sweetheart deal on his home - and he can live there until the youngest graduates from high school, and should he leave we'll have to contribute big money for another house for the next city mgr. The budget is huge. The ordinary layman - the citizen - cannot fathom it. I doubt if most of the city council can. Hillary Freeman could and did. There should be independent auditors to look at it from the bottom up. A resident brought that up last year and Diana Diamond wrote a column about the idea- it made sense. The staff makes up the budget, and that's like the foxes guarding the hen house. Last year staff did something really brilliant. Wanted to make anyone going to the Baylands pay five dollars to paint or feed the ducks. Big uproar over that nutty idea - and people didn't pay attention to the rest of the budget that just sneaked through the gates. Staff hoped that would happen. It did. CUT personnel and re-negotiate with the unions. Unless they give in, there will be less members. AND cut out of the budget all of the FLUFF centered in City Halll.
Posted by ToldUSo, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood, on Feb 28, 2007 at 7:35 pm
We need a sound sales tax base. No more fancy stores in Stanford. We need to get some real stores where we can get Palo Altans and our neighbors to spend real money. Alma and Edgewood need to be up and running. Yes, grocery stores are magnets, but they don't bring in $$$$ in taxes. So we also need useful stores in the vicinity and big box stores to attract out of towners. We then need a real move to shop Palo Alto, but until we have the stores, no one will.
Oh, and maybe we should improve the shuttle and perhaps make a modest charge. Alternatively, make a huge charge and send the shuttle to San Antonio and Menlo Park where Palo Altans do shop.
Posted by pat, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Feb 28, 2007 at 10:00 pm
Thank you, “Not so fast” and “kate.”
Our councils have never had any spine, which is why we’re always in such a mess and our infrastructure is crumbling. We have an amazing knack for electing council members who haven’t a clue about priority-setting, planning and budgeting. Hillary Freeman pushed for zero-based budgeting in order to have the entire budget reviewed – not just changes recommended by the city staff. See her op ed piece from 2004 at
All Hillary got for her trouble was snide looks from her colleagues and losing her seat on the finance committee.
Anyone who’s ever prepared a home budget or a business budget – and has to live with it! – knows that you FIRST figure out your priorities and THEN create a budget. You don’t just randomly hack and chip away in order to save money.
But look at Council’s priorities:
* Emergency preparedness
* Climate protection
* Gaining support for police building and Mitchell Park library and community center.
* A "sustainable budget"
(For more on this topic, see Diana Diamond’s piece at
If the city was your home or business, would those be your top priorities? And how would you budget for them when they’re so vague?
What happened to fixing the streets, increasing tax revenue, and ensuring there’s not another flood?
Instead of a sound planning and budgeting process, we get random cuts that will hopefully add up to $3 million. But what about the rest of the budget that’s NOT being reviewed? Do we really have all the staff and expenditures in the right places?
The focus should not be on what should be cut from the existing budget. We should demand that the city council first outlines detailed – and measurable – priorities. Only then can a working – or should I say “sustainable” -- budget be developed.
Posted by Ted Mulvaney, a resident of the Barron Park neighborhood, on Mar 1, 2007 at 6:52 am
Thanks, Pat, for the web link to the op-ed by Ms. Freeman. Her points seem like they should still be valid. Trying to get a "big picture" view of the budget has proven frustrating -- when you go to the City's site, you can only download a pdf for each section, which makes it difficult to plow through the entire budget, and as Ms. Freeman noted, there aren't any benchmarks against which to compare. I certainly understand that the City doesn't want everyone do download a 10 gigabyte file, but surely there must be a way to see some detail and trend information for the budget as a whole? This might already exist, but darned if I can find it. Without this kind of data, I think it's difficult for anyone outside of the Council (or within?) to really get an idea of where we are spending our money.
Posted by Chris Saari, a resident of the Old Palo Alto neighborhood, on Mar 1, 2007 at 7:46 am
You're all quite right. The city's budget is in shambles for basic reasons: 1. the controls and substance are missing from the budgeting process (or intentionally hidden) so that it's virtually impossible for anyone (including the Council, Ted) to understand where the city gets its money or where it spends it, and 2) The council lives in some alternative universe where they're responsible for grand projects like climate change, while ignoring the basics of municipal government like paving the streets.
Add to this the union and management employee grifters who are feathering their own nests while the council tilts at wind farms, and it's plain we're in real trouble.
There's apparently no solution but to wait until the extent of the problem becomes apparent enough to voters to effect a major change in the kinds of people we elect to the Council.
Posted by Not so fast, a resident of the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood, on Mar 1, 2007 at 8:10 am
I have to agree with much of what Pat, Kate and Chris have written. The City Council has no clue about priorities for the city or else the know and refuse to address them for fear of upsetting the usual suspects. Maybe they do live in an alternative universe.
However I do not think the we will ever be able to effect a major change on the city council. Every election I have high hopes for the newly elected members--but every year these new members seem to get sucked into the council mindset of "no conflict no matter what".
Also I believe that we should have an elected mayor that is chosen for a 2-4 year term and will be answerable to the citizens of the city (like real cities have). Instead of the choosing by the City Council, behind closed doors, of one of their own to lead the self-congratulatory cheerleading that is part of the PA mayor's job, apparently.
Posted by aw, a resident of the Old Palo Alto neighborhood, on Mar 1, 2007 at 8:14 am
I wonder if the budgeting problem is structural. The Council doesn't have staff to draft and analyze budgets. City staff report to the City Manager, who "protects" them from Council "interference." Since the Council can't do anything meaningful about streets and crime, they admonish us to walk more and drive less.
Posted by Kate, a resident of the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood, on Mar 1, 2007 at 8:39 am
Thre is an urgent need for an independent budget audit early in the building process - and long before it goes to council for approval. And it has to happen NOW. Few on the council are
equipped to analyze this massive document. LaDoris Cordell was upfront about her expertise before she was elected. She said that budgets were 'not my thing'. I would say that is true for the majority. We need a panel of financially expert CPA's, corporation CFO's and others who would serve on a 'commission' to look at the budget from the ground up.
As for an elected mayor, Gary Fazzino has proposed this before. Let's go for it. Let's start the ballot procedure to do this. How is it done? The city Mgr. has far too much power- and things are geting worse, not better. Yet he got a bonus.
I would also like to know the percentage of city employees who live within the City. Few of even the top brass live here with us subsidizing homes as far away as San Jose. Their paychecks don't go back into our community, and they have no vested interest in what is
good for Palo Altans. The unions are so powerful that they have Palo Alto by the throat.
(It doesn't take five people to patch a 2' x 5' area in a street. Two shoveling, two watching, and one in a car watching the other four.
Posted by Jim, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Mar 1, 2007 at 10:16 pm
Stop spending money on the homeless drug users...Take care of city employees and get the police a decent building...Shame on the person wanting to eliminate retirement benefits and the building..I am sure he would think otherwise if it was his future at risk...Oh yeh, many employees contribute to their own retirement by the way.
Posted by Jeremy Loski, a resident of the Ventura neighborhood, on Mar 1, 2007 at 10:44 pm
Yes, there is a looming crisis, but it's also true that Palo Alto is ahead of most communities in that it has set funds aside to provide for funding benefits. Nevertheless, it's a problem we're going to have to grapple with. Perhaps a serious reorganization of city operational personnel as key personnel retire. Several key members of our city staff will be retiring within the next few years.
That said it doesn't do any good to berate City Council members and city staffers; in fact, it weakens the position of those who attack and demean our elected officials and city personnel in this way. Everyone is trying to do their best job, but a complex environment, and off-center assumption
Comments like "It doesn't take five people to patch a 2' x 5' area in a street. Two shoveling, two watching, and one in a car watching the other four" aren't taken seriously, and show a serious misunderstanding of how street maintenance crews work, and how they are deployed for a full day's work.
I wonder how some of the people who make comments like this would feel if they were called "lazy" or "grifters" every time someone saw them taking a break at the water cooler, or sitting around waiting for their turn to perform a specialty skill while someone else in their group finished their assigned part of a project, or simply congregating for 30 munites after a job well done. Sour grapes, indeed!
I'm no fan of municipal waste, but some of the comments here are wasted breath, and make mean-spirited assumptions about people who are otherwise doing their best.
Last, most of the roads here are just fine. the only time people "notice" the roads is when someone starts to complain about them. Funny, the only complaints I hear about roads in this community are on this bulletin board.
About the idea to elect a mayor; it's a good idea, but would take some doing. I've looked into this and it would be no easy task. One would have to collect something like 6000 signatures to put something like this to a vote, or Council would have to change our city charter (not likely).
The idea of electing a mayor deserves an entire thread, so I'll stop here.
Posted by lhj, a resident of the Palo Verde neighborhood, on Mar 1, 2007 at 11:11 pm
One thing for us all to start thinking about right now - in the fall we will elect four NEW members to the city council. (3 council members are term-limited out and a fourth has said she will not run.) So start thinking about what qualifications you are lookings for and what kinds of questions you want the candidates to answer - and whether or not *you* want to mount a campaign. We need a very strong pool of candidates!
Posted by Lucy, a resident of the Greenmeadow neighborhood, on Mar 2, 2007 at 8:03 am
I agree with Council Member John Barton's comment, the proposed budget is "death by 1,000 cuts." Council Member Barton suggests making some selected big cuts. Copies of the staff power point presentation were available at the Council meeting Monday night. In the presentation some staff salaries were listed. I was shocked at the extraordinarily high salaries we tax payers offer our City employees. One employee's part-time compensation was over 68,000/year! Add benefits and pension and the figure soars. Maybe it is time for the Council to consider cutting staff salaries across the board. A 5% cut across the board (including Frank Benest) might make up the 3.1 million budget shortfall.
The Palo Alto Daily News published staff titles and salaries years ago. I'd like to see what we're paying.
Posted by Brian, a resident of the Downtown North neighborhood, on Mar 2, 2007 at 8:22 am
Great idea Lucy, except the unions will kill it. I remember that Palo Alto Daily news article listing city salaries. The top wage earners were police officers and fire fighters (including overtime hours.) I also remember when Council members voted to staff Foothill Park during the Summer with two fire fighters from nearby stations, instead of staffing through overtime. This would have saved the City $180,000. The fire fighters union mounted a public relations campaign with a picture of a fire fighter leaving a burning house with a baby. The caption read that they would TRY and get to a call within 2 mintues. They also mounted a campaign against Dena Mosser. Thankfully the public say through the smear. Until we can negotiate strong, firm contracts with our unions, pay cuts probably won't happen.
Posted by KR, a resident of the Crescent Park neighborhood, on Mar 2, 2007 at 10:12 am
I will restrict my comments to the budget document supplied by the city, since I have not reviewed the budget in its entirety.
It is my opinion that the following issues need to be addressed:
1. Leave the police and fire departments alone. If anything, we need more police on the streets. Fire and police personnel take on hazardous duty and we need to support them. It is also in our best interest to have well staffed police and fire departments. We all know that they have fantastic benefits, but I for one think they deserve special consideration. Caveat: Get rid of the bad apples. Not everyone in these two departments are motivated and performing their jobs at the level that we, as a community, expect.
2. Stop funding the Opportunity Center until there is mandatory drug testing there. Anyone serious about improving their circumstances should also be serious about the inevitable consequences of using drugs. I don't want to fund those that are not willing to engage in drug testing.
3. Why are we placing the Junior Museum in the hands of a private non-profit? What would we save by doing so?
4. Stop funding public art. I have not come across one piece of public art that I would have commissioned.
5. Take a hard look at ALL departments at City Hall. I have had first hand experience with the Planning and Transportation Department. They have enough extra help to engage in projects that cause the citizens of Palo Alto to take time out of their own private lives to prevent the Planning and Transportation Department from diverting traffic from one neighborhood to another. The only thing they accomplish when they engage in these unnecessary projects are bad feelings between the various neighborhoods. I wonder how many other departments operate in the same manner?
Posted by Brian, a resident of the Downtown North neighborhood, on Mar 2, 2007 at 1:23 pm
Yes Tim it does cost more to staff Foothill Park with overtime. That is why the City Council suggested taking two fire fighters from 2 nearby stations thereby saving the City $180,000. The Fire Department wanted the overtime.
Posted by Tim, a resident of the Crescent Park neighborhood, on Mar 2, 2007 at 2:36 pm
City Council wanted to not staff a fire truck at a another station and move those firemen to the foothills station. Now that leaves one less fire truck in that area of the city. Do you want to see the fire station in your area closed while the foothills station is open? Not me.
Posted by brainer, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood, on Mar 2, 2007 at 3:58 pm
Instead of cuts, how about increasing the top line by bringing in some retail sales tax revenue - a grocery store in Alma Plaza for starters. All our sales tax revenue currently goes to Mt. View
How about some reinvigoration on El Camino?
Honestly, its a no brainer.
How abut the city council start gettin their heads out of choking our city with high density housing projects, (creating overcrowded schools crisis in the process), and start getting our city back to business.
As the article clearly states, no stations were closed, and no stations were understaffed. In short no neighborhood's safety was impacted, AND the City saved $180,000. I think however, his savings was lost when neighbors in the Palo Alto hills requested firefighters be on staff at Foothill Park year around. Not sure though.
Posted by Chris, a resident of the Palo Alto Hills neighborhood, on Mar 3, 2007 at 7:54 am
Those who think that anyone who criticizes the way the city is run are attacking the individual employees, or are against art are quite wrong. But it is self-evident that city employees or grantees will take whatever they can get from a complaint Council - just as most of the rest of us would. That's why we're paying for the City Manager's property taxes and why the city's unions have benefits that make most private arrangements look like pauperism. It's also why we're paying multiples of what was originally agreed upon for the Colors of Palo Alto project as detailed in the recent Diana Diamond piece.
The problem is primarily that the Council, being a political body, is subject to political subject to political motivations - and economic efficiency is far down the list of their priorities (despite what they may say.) For that reason municipally-provided services are inherently inefficient - not because the people are 'bad', but because they work in a system that rewards political efforts more than work efficiency.
The solution? There's no perfect answer, but many cities, including large ones like Indianapolis, have freed up funds for other uses by contracting out municipal services to more efficient private companies. The City's function in these private-public deals then becomes one of holding the contractors accountable - something they are better equipped to do than they are providing the services directly. Palo Alto has taken baby-steps in this direction by contracting out some maintenance services.
Naturally, there is great resistance to doing more of this by city employee pressure groups. Thus the public tantrums of union-captured Council members like LaDoris Cordell at the thought some union jobs might be at risk if the Jr. Museum were operated by someone other than the city. That, of course is exactly the point: a private entity would be able to operate the Museum (or pothole patching or even the library) much more cost-effectively precisely because its not hampered by a the city's bureaucratic procedures and union contracts.
Posted by Paul Losch, a resident of the Community Center neighborhood, on Mar 3, 2007 at 9:15 am
Chris' comment above about the role of city employees or private contractors is quite interesting and provocative. I believe that keeping everything "in house" with City employees at one extreme, and "contracting out" at the other extreme both are problematic, and the challenges around that, like most things, quickly get more complex once you start peeling back the onion.
If we look at the budget challenges the City faces, right now the biggest ticket items, particularly those around infrastructure, are much more costly than our finances can handle, be it with city employees or outside contractors or a combination of the two. It is disingenous to think that all the deferred maintenance is the fault of contracts cut with city unions and the like. The choices made by city leadership over many years to defer maintenance are finally started to manifest themselves--that is a problem of leadership and a problem of tax aversion by the citizens.
I do think it is fair to say that the current model for city employee compensation has run its course, and needs to be re-engineered. It simply is not sustainable actuarily. But this is not the only model of costs and revenue generation in Palo Alto that needs re-engineering. Many of the models that served us well in the last 30 or more years and resulted in the community we now have are not in my opinion the models a city like ours needs to sustain, maintain and dare I say enhance the character of this city going forward.
Dibbling and dabbling on annual budgets will not fix this problem. It is just like a car, after a certain point, you are better off getting rid of the one you own and getting a new one, the cost of upkeep and the general condition no matter how well it is kept up just aren't enough. It becomes less costly to make payments on a new car, and the older version never will have many features needed in the current era to be a safe and worthy vehicle. Old cars can be quaint, and we have a lovely old car show in town each year for them.
Quaint ain't what I think we need for Palo Alto as a whole.
Posted by Chris, a resident of the Palo Alto Hills neighborhood, on Mar 3, 2007 at 10:20 am
The overall thrust of Paul's comments are right on the mark. The devil is in the details of course, and Paul doesn't offer many of those. However he's right that the City does need to rethink and redo everything. I did not mean to suggest that contracting out city services would solve all our problems, but it is elucidating to note the myriad success of other that have done so.
Paul is quite right to note that our current budget problems, and the sad state of infrastructure is the result of choices made by past Councils. While I agree that it is simplistic to try to impute overall "fault" to the union contracts, or to any other single item in past budgets over the years, it would be foolhardy not to note that rising employee costs have been the major driver of rising expenses for the city. Thus the choices of councils to fund employee salaries and benefits (instead of, say, an infrastructure reserve) certainly are implicated in a major way in our current problems. I think Paul accepts this by inference when he says quite rightly that the current model for city employee compensation is outmoded.
One of the benefits of contracting out some services is that it gets around the outmoded municipal employee cost structure by simply avoiding it. It is much easier to go around the unions than it is to try to restructure them under the existing labor laws - as the well publicized woes of GM, Ford, and Chrysler demonstrating. The situation is even worse in the government arena because the contract terms always have heavy political in addition to economic input.
Whether it is politically possible in Palo Alto to do much in the way of outsourcing services is another matter - but I do think it should be on the table as it seems to offer some solution to the current budget - which as Paul notes is not sustainable.
Posted by Carol, a resident of the Old Palo Alto neighborhood, on Mar 4, 2007 at 7:13 pm
The City could save money by refusing to accept any sole-source bids. Where there is no competition, the costs and the cost overruns are exorbitant.
The City has a responsibility to employees, particularly line-of-duty employees. They are not to blame for the budget. Thanks to the Weekly, we know that the blame lies further up the chain of command. We have no responsibility to former employees accustomed to getting private contracts from the City.
There seems to be a semi-religious belife in private-public partnerships that simply hasn't been supported by data. If employees can't do the work, they probably can't design a proper proposal, and they certainly haven't been able to control the contract costs.
Palo Alto may not be charging enough to cover the cost of the services it provides to Stanford.
It absolutely is not charging enough to cover building inspections.
The City has no control over Stanford expansion; at least it needs to make short-term contracts for the services it gives Stanford for fire and police and hazardous waste.
Now is a terrible time for the City to try to sell the residents on any bond issue, let alone several. The City is wasting money, trying to convince residents it knows better than they do what they really want.
Mitchell Park library has the best chance of passing. Concentrate. Trim the blubber, and maybe it will get enough votes.
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Mar 5, 2007 at 6:48 am
Civil service duplicates the job protection a union contract presumably gives, but changes the method of setting salaries and job conditions. Redundant job protection seems excessive to the vast majority who have no job protection except their individual productivity. If they are going to be employees under contract let the contract stand alone.
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Mar 6, 2007 at 4:57 am
I am always willing to respond to substantive criticism. Alas, it is a weakness of mine that I am always willing to respond to calumny, also. I do fall somewhere on the right side of the Bell curve, just not enough to be reclassified Asian. I also feel that the City has been frittering opportunities to do right for a long time in lieu of doing correct.
Posted by Lucy, a resident of the Greenmeadow neighborhood, on Mar 6, 2007 at 7:58 am
OK, hopefully we're complete with the personal comments about other posters. Now... about how to cut the budget. Lots of ideas so far. How about a totally unscientific vote that can be shared with the City Council at their next meeting. I've listed below some of the proposals. Please add what may have been missed.
1. pay cuts for City staff across the board
2. re-negotiated contracts with unions
3. civil service protection/or union contract - not both
4. no sole-source bids, ie: former employees/mayors/City Council
members accustomed to getting private contracts from the City.
5. Palo Alto should charge enough to cover the cost of the services
it provides to Stanford, at least make short-term contracts for
the services the City gives Stanford for fire and police and
6. charge more to cover building inspections.
7. out-sourcing some of the services covered by City employees
8. focus on bringing in more tax revenue instead of cuts
9. Retirement benefits for city employees should be reduced or
Posted by Carol, a resident of the Old Palo Alto neighborhood, on Mar 6, 2007 at 2:56 pm
Lucy: any specific thoughts about 8? As Stanford Shopping Center expands, it cuts into downtown receipts. Not sure whether it's a net loss or a gain. As overall traffic increases, more purchases are made online.
7. Every time we out-source, it seems to cost more. Either poorly designed proposals, or cost of supervision, or perhaps the city is simply regarded as a pigeon. Staff does not have good negotiating skills, or doesn't have them in the right positions. Remember the bike underpass to PAMF?
Posted by Lucy, a resident of the Greenmeadow neighborhood, on Mar 7, 2007 at 7:29 am
The list I compiled was assembled from suggestions posted in this subject thread. I'm sure there are plenty of other ideas floating around, including the suggestions from staff on how to cut the budget by 3 million. It would be interesting to find out which of the 9 items seem the most viable to residents following this subject.
Posted by Chris, a resident of the Old Palo Alto neighborhood, on Mar 7, 2007 at 10:07 am
Lucy has done a terrific job of synthesizing the many ideas for tackling our budgetary problems that have been offered in this and may other threads. We have a very creative citizenry here in Palo Alto. Were that that creativity matched by our council members.
We don't have a shortage of ideas for dealing with our problems - we have a courage and leadership deficit at the City Council and City management levels. It's unfair to criticize Lucy because the details of implementation on her list aren't totally fleshed out. Carol, there are a lot of local examples of cities being creative and pro-active in bringing sales-tax generating businesses into their towns. And many cities all over the country have had great success in outsourcing services. (Do a Google search for Indianapolis, e.g.) What they have that we don't isn't a 'specific plan', it's political will. You may be sure that if there were 5 council members who made these things (rather than, say, fighting global warming) a goal, the plans would be forthcoming in great detail.
It ought to be apparent to any reading this board - including we can hope City Council members - that Palo Altans are desperate for change.
Posted by patmarriott, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Mar 7, 2007 at 10:10 am
And while the city staff has been told to cut $3million from the budget, Council approved the plan to build and operate a fiber-based network -- in spite of the fact that the city manager says, "The council action will require city staff to postpone or eliminate other projects."
Posted by Dick, a resident of the Barron Park neighborhood, on Mar 7, 2007 at 2:53 pm
I have on several occasions submitted to the Palo Alto City Council detailed analyses comparing PAs budget and services with the budgets of other cities. What I found was that Palo Alto does not offer any better services than most other cities in our region. In fact, what I found was that our nearest neighbor of comparable size, Mt. View, offers a superb park system with better tennis courts, better paved and landscaped roadways, a fire department with a more rapid response time, and a state of the art library and performing arts center. All this is done with a staff to population ratio around 7 to 8, compared to Palo Altos 14 to 16 (utility departments taken into account) and with a smaller balanced General Fund. No Council Member could refute my findings, and not one could give me a list of the often cited "superior services" they like to say is the reason for our higher per capita level of expenditures. In fact, the only response to my reports was a report initiated by Mr Benest and his staff called A Five Cities Report, which attempted to do exactly what I had already done. This report failed, in my opinion, to prove the point of a superior Palo Alto, and was easily rebutted, which I did.
Don't get me wrong. I have lived in this town for 45 years, and have made my share of significant contributions and dearly love the place.
But it galls my soul to witness the year after year fumbling of finances while we slowly sink to a level of mediocrity in essential services. For example, I recall that in 2005 we were told that "structural" changes to the tune of $5 million were necessary to avoid deficits in future years. Yet in 2006, and now 2007 we continue to face large deficits.
Even the city auditor reports that some departments suffer from long term neglect, to the tune of tens of millions to rectify.
I agree with most of the commentators on this page, many of whom claim the fault is with a Council that shuns controversy of any kind, seeks politeness over substantive debate and fears making decisions that will anger some part of a multi part constituency. I call it lack of true leadership; we have not one visionary leader on the present Council who is willing to study the present, look to the future, and offer programs that will pave the way for a better common good. If readers think I am overstating the case, please identify those leaders on the Council for me.
So how would I cut the budget? It would be a bumpy ride, but I'd get the job done. Here are some ideas taken out of the box and not from the usual recycled ideas perennially offered by staff.
1. Eliminate all healthcare perks for elected officials, retroactively if legally possible; also reduce healthcare and pension plans for staff that are more in keeping with packages offered throughout the County. Eliminate bonuses for managerial staff until they deserve it. As long as this city faces deficits, no manager of any department deserves a bonus.
2. Reduce staff by 25% or until our ratio is in line with the staff/population ratio of Mt. View. Do this over two or three years, providing training for departing staff to take up vital positions that remain but become vacant, and offer reasonable layoff packages, including help in out placement service. After all, it is the Council's responsibility to serve the resident taxpayers, not become a welfare agency for city staff. If the union threatens a strike, let them. If non essential services have to be cut, cut them.
3. Abandon the "we are so Palo Alto attitude" and get real about the city's services and environment. We are no longer the superior city of the South Peninsula. In fact, we have become quite mediocre - remove Stanford and what do we have that Los Altos, Mt. View, Menlo Park and Santa Clara don't have in spades? Not much. So redesign government to provide quality police service, fire protection, one good central library and the Childrens' Library, (shut down the branches), parks, planning department to regulate building codes and land use. Outsource where possible if this saves costs. One good way to begin this process is to initiate Zero Based Budgeting, making every department justify its existence on the real needs of the residents. Look at recent surveys. The residents have make it very clear where their top priorities are.
4. Remove from the Utility Department all those services that were once budgeted under the General Fund, and which are so budgeted by other cities. For example, traffic lights, curb and sidewalk repairs and similar functions that have been shifted to the Utility Cash Cow by earlier councils, rather than face the fact that the city cannot afford to maintain these functions without making serious budgetary changes. It has been too easy for the staff and Council to shift costs to the Utility Department. We are seeing the results in the extraordinary rates we are now paying for the actual utilities. We own the Utility Department and so should be able to realize lower rates and would if past Council actions hadn't messed up the program. Now if I am wrong in this I welcome the opportunity to be shown how wrong I am, and if that happens, I will post the results on this page. But I have asked this before, and so far have gotten no response.
5.. Give the Children's museum to the outside group permanently; shut down the zoo on grounds it is outdated, unscientific, ugly and most of all cruel to animals and gives a bad message to children about animal care and stewardship.
6. Convert the golf course to prime commercial use, like maybe auto dealers or big box stores not already in the area. Sorry, but we gave one of the most valuable commercial sites away to soccer players at the corner of El Camino Real and Page Mill Road. Other sites could have been found on the vast Stanford acreage for playing fields if some thought had been given to it. So now we have to find other places for big revenue producers, like it or not. Go with the Stanford mall expansion, but demand they bring in stores like Target, JC Penny. These stores are always packed and I'll bet there are many consumers in this area who would go there rather then to Sunnyvale and beyond.
Also go with the Medical Center expansion. This is a big magnet for PA and will be even more so when Stanford finishes their plans. I've yet to see a Stanford project that wasn't a big improvement to our community. Look what the university did for the Sand Hill Road corridor from ECR to the Foothill Expressway.
6. For the future: Forget FTTH unless an actual survey of all residents indicate that at least 75% of residents will sign up for services. Other municipalities that have tried FTTH are experiencing serious financial difficulties. This is an area where the business world can and no doubt will provide the services we really need. Wayne Martin's many reports on this subject should be heeded. This city cannot afford a 40 to 70 million dollar bond (always counting interest) such a system is likely to cost, the recent so called response to the city's RFP notwithstanding.
7. For the future: Take another look at the police building. 50,000 square feet!! There are several splendid vacant buildings in the Stanford Industrial Park that are nearly that large that could be remodeled for less than the projected cost of a new building. And I refuse to believe that none of those building cannot be seismicly retrofitted to meet reasonable safety needs for a police building. Has this idea been thoroughly explored? The recent response to the city's survey indicates that residents are not willing to foot the cost of the bond required to build such a building. It may be possible that the current leasers of those long vacant buildings would be willing to share in retrofitting costs, just to get off the lease hook, and perhaps the city can cut a deal with Stanford - say a breeze on the shopping center and medical center expansion, for a good deal for a police building in the industrial park.
Should the Council ever decide to do any of these or similar things, there will be howls, screams and tears from many small groups in town.
Doom will be said to befall us and so on. But it that is true, pray tell me how our neighboring cities seem to manage so well. With so many people on this page commenting about what a terrible job our council is doing, I am amazed that we don't have a crowd advancing on City Hall with pitchforks in hand demanding change - but of course that is not so very Palo Alto, is it?
Posted by Carol, a resident of the Old Palo Alto neighborhood, on Mar 7, 2007 at 3:28 pm
I agree with Chris that other communities have saved money with some of his recommendations. I'm just pointing to Palo Alto's record, and suggesting that we be realistic. We have no idea how to change the City's habit of throwing money away in contracts. Like the DOD's "black box" we don't even see where the money's going.
At least proposals done with staff are more modest, and more transparent. We have a better chance of getting things trimmed back when it's in the budget.
We've voted for Councilmembers based on attitudes and personality. We knew nothing about their competence, and didn't care, because the Staff runs almost everything. Now we're getting expensive decisions made by Council over Staff objections. Perhaps we need to go to a true Mayoral system?
Has anyone done the expenditure/resident figures including Stanford? Does anyone know just what we provide Stanford, and what is reimbursed?
It would be helpful if it were a line item in the budget.
Posted by Betty, a resident of the South of Midtown neighborhood, on Mar 7, 2007 at 7:41 pm
To the person who suggested city employees live in town so they have a stake in the community...are you serious or kidding? The price of even small houses in Palo Alto is beyond the reach of all but the very top employees and they can only afford to live here if they already had equity or have a rich spouse! The average police officer, utility worker or librarian could never afford to live here!
Posted by Get Real, a resident of another community, on Mar 7, 2007 at 8:40 pm
Most city employees can't wait to leave Palo Alto at the end of the day and would never dream of living there because of the way city employees are treated on this board and in person. They work hard to provide excellent service but all they ever hear is that they're paid too much and have too many benefits. In my opinion, they don't get paid ENOUGH to put up with the abuse of people who treat them like chattel. Would you like strangers who are clueless about what you do sounding off in public about you? What if somebody came to your workplace and verbally abused you and then it was broadcast on TV? That's what city employee have to deal with. You all need to show some respect for those who keep your city running, protect your safety, and provide amenities for your community. Seriously.
Posted by Geoff, a resident of the Palo Alto Hills neighborhood, on Mar 7, 2007 at 9:00 pm
I haven't seen much criticism of the people who work for the city here. I have seen a lot of commentary on the city expenditures on salaries and benefits. The last city budget showed that item as (if I recall correctly) somewhere between 70% and 80% of the city's total expenditure (and up significantly as a percentage of the total in the past 20 or so years). If citizens aren't allowed to comment on that, it seems the entire topic of how to budget is more-or-less off limits, and we might as well let the city manager run the city without our input. In fact, why even elect a council: we can just let Frank Benest tell us what he wants and send it in to him.
None of this is to say that city employees should not be treated respectfully. But with respect to the previous commenter, no one here seems to have had any personal criticism of line city employees. And the city manager is essentially a political position, so as long as criticism is to the point and not abusive, that doesn't seem out of line either.
Posted by aw, a resident of the Old Palo Alto neighborhood, on Mar 8, 2007 at 7:12 am
Just an FYI for the Stanford Shopping Center critics:
Stanford generates nearly $400 per square foot of sales per year, while a typical Target generates $200 per square foot. Some sources say non-anchor stores at Stanford average over $500 per foot. Likewise, Whole Foods generates 2 to 3x the revenue per square foot as Safeway.
Of course we should bring some big-box retail into town, but not so sure Stanford Shopping Center's formula is the problem.
Posted by Shauna Wilson Mora, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Mar 8, 2007 at 11:02 am
I appreciate the concern and thought expressed on how to cut the City budget by $3 million.
The City Council will be addressing staff proposed budget cuts at a special meeting on Wednesday, March 14 in Council Chambers at 7:00 PM. An earlier post provided a link to the staff recommendations. I've included the link again below:
I hope some of you attend and share your ideas with the City Council.
The Human Realtions Commission (HRC) will also be addressing at least one aspect of the proposed budget cuts, the $150,000 cut to the Human Services Resource Allocation Process (HSRAP.) HSRAP funds support the work of non-profit organizations in Palo Alto offering services to our youth, children, seniors, disabled, and disadvantaged. The HRC will have a special meeting on March 20 at 7:00PM where we welcome input from the community on budget cut alternatives.
As a community I believe we can work together to find workable solutions to our budget challenges.
Thanks for taking the time to share your ideas with other concerned citizens.
-Shauna Wilson Mora, Chair, Human Relations Commission
Posted by Mike, a resident of the College Terrace neighborhood, on Mar 8, 2007 at 11:14 am
Geoff, you should be aware that service sector provision, even in the private sector, has roughly 80% of its fixed costs tied up in personnel. Until we are able to hire robots to do the work, that isn't going to change.
What we need to do is find ways to expand revenue, or invent processes that reduce cost. _Some_ of thos cost reductions can be personnel, and that's being worked on. The City Manager has eliminated 70+ positions in juts tha last few years. That's pretty darned good. Keep in mind though, that city staff are running lean.
I would challenge anyone whoo think that the last statement isn't true to spend a few days at city hall. City employees work as hard as any other. It's disingenuous for those who think otherwise to say so. And it does get rather tiring to hear the same old saw about how some person or other saw a city employee standing next to her truck for 10 minutes, or some other such nonsense, as if employees aren't entitles to a break. Or dragging last year's aberration about the utility department employees, and projecting that situation to all city employees. It's a cheap shot, and reduces the validity of those who use poor tactics to make an irrational appeal to emotion.
Posted by Donnie, a resident of the Ventura neighborhood, on Mar 8, 2007 at 11:53 am
I used to work for another city, not Palo Alto. I would have to say that both Geoff and Mike have valid points.
There are a few bad apples in any system ,in government or outside of it. Most of the people I worked with were dedicated and hard working people who really wanted to do a good job. I think I fit that description too.
But there was a lot of frustration from the rules and bureaucracy on the part of the most dedicated people that got in the way of doing a good job. I do more or less the same work now that I did when I worked for the city, and I would say that I get at least 50% more accomplished during a day because my job requirements are more flexible.
The benefits of working for a city are great, but there is a lot of hassle too. This costs the people who paid our wages plenty. Ihave to admit that.
So I would say that most citys could get more done if they would hire outside companies to do some of their work (not police of course.) This would save them a lot because Mike is right that labor costs are high even for private companies but private companies can domore with less workers.
Posted by Mike, a resident of the College Terrace neighborhood, on Mar 8, 2007 at 12:13 pm
Donnie, over all, where in our city's labor pool would you choose to outsource? I would like to hear a sound argument, from anyone, as to what outsourcing would accomplish, in terms of increasing fiscal efficiency here _IN THE LONG RUN_.
It's always easy to make arguments for cutting amployees away to save immediate salary costs, or future benefit costs. But what about the costs incurred by a contract workforce that has no investment in its future, is paid bottom of the barrel wages, and has no accountability to citizens. What about that? What are the long run costs of that scenario?
Also, what systems shuold be put into place to manage outsourcing? There's a whole level of management needed to do that?
What is the cost of the process of replacing dissasisfactory outsourcers, and who pays for outsourcing jobs poorly done?
What recourse is there, long term, to ask for recompense from outsourcers that severely danage city infrastructure, or improperly manage their mandate so as to degrade a city service beyond fast recovery?
Posted by Paul Losch, a resident of the Community Center neighborhood, on Mar 8, 2007 at 1:14 pm
Mike is pointing out that there is more to an employee than what they are paid to do a specific job at a specific time. I won't repeat myself by commenting about how problematic outsourcing certain work can be--there are many jobs that belong on the City payroll, nor do I need to repeat my comments about how we do need to look at the compensation model for employees we do have in the City, because the structure that has been in place is no longer actuarily viable. I think both those discussions miss some larger points.
Even if Palo Alto were a "virtual" employer, with everybody a contractor, wages and compensation as flexible as they could possibly be, we would still have a structural cost problem in this town. There would in theory be some "one time" savings, and we might, might, might end up with a lower run rate in such a cost scenario, but I think we would find that we would still, in a another few short years, have the same conversation that is taking place today, and then where would the cuts be? This is a town that wants to have world class services, infrastructure and offerings--that is not done without putting money into the things that make that up.
There are some things we may be able to learn from other cities that do some similar things with less resources applied to them, and we should apply those as much as they make sense to do so. But if anyone read excerpts from the new San Jose Mayor's state of the city speech, they would see that what Palo Alto faces is presenting itself all around us, ours is not an isolated case.
Our revenue model is obsolete, we don't have a clear vision of what apsects that make up Palo Alto's character should look like going forward, so we don't know what we should be spending on them or what the community is willing to support.
We are looking at a Palo Alto that became what it is based on models that were created around 30 years ago, at the time of the passing of Proposition 13, at a time when the community was nearly, but not quite built out, and we were surrounded by other places consisting or orchards and sub-divisions, with a scattering of industry. If you didn't get it at Stanford Shopping Center, you could go to San Francisco. We can celebrate that those models got us to where we are today, but they are not the models that will keep us where we are now, let alone take us where we need to go. Any, by the way, we haven't really defined just where we want to be, we're all just opining about how to improve upon something that is obsolete.
In 1977, I was a marketing guy working on Sanka Decaffeinated Coffee, I flew home to California on TWA to visit my family, kept in touch via AT&T and letters sent via US Mail, played Pong with my buddies when we went to get a pizza and a Schlitz beer, my secretary typed my memos on an IBM Selectric typwriter, and filled the tank of my Mustang II with gas from Mobil. What's changed since then, and what has truly stayed the same, below the surface?
Posted by Chris, a resident of the Palo Alto Hills neighborhood, on Mar 8, 2007 at 1:42 pm
Paul's post is a nice one and very welcome here. He does a good job of pointing out that our revenue generating model, and our method of employee compensation are outmoded in an environment that is quite different than that of 30 years ago. He also points out that outsourcing won't solve all our problems, and that it can't be used for everything the city does.
I think, based on the experience of other cities that have made concerted efforts to contract out city services, Paul underestimates the savings in what he calls the "run rate" of expenditures on labor. The flexibility of private employers operating in competitive bidding situations has meant continual savings for cities that have tried it in a concerted way. It also gets around the structural wage and pension costs that the city faces for every union employee it keeps on staff, which every public entity in the state will have to deal with somehow. But either way, it seems like it's worth investigating to me.
I'm quite willing to believe, as Paul suggests, that even with maximized labor economies, we'd still be facing a structural deficit. But I'd like to see the difference doing things efficiently can make. There's can be a big difference between a little structural deficit and a large one. Is that what we're talking about? Or is it big either way. I don't expect anyone to have the answer off the top of his or her head, but we should know.
Paul's sub rosa implication is that there is some new model - whether it involves outsourcing or not - that can bring costs and revenues into balance while still preserving services. Just as we shouldn't stick with the current way of doing things (because among other reasons, as paul points out, we can't do so for much longer), we shouldn't be stuck on the first suggestions for doing something else just because they're different - and that includes outsourcing in my opinion (despite what Mike seems to think).
Got any specific ideas about how we can reach the high service level budget sustainability you sketch out, Paul?
Posted by Mike, a resident of the College Terrace neighborhood, on Mar 8, 2007 at 2:16 pm
Nothing will save Palo Alto, or any other municipal neighbor - in the long run - besides a concerted effort at regional cooperation (with teeth), and possibly a wholesale change in governance structures region wide (beginning with elected mayors, to enable rapid interchange of initiatives).
The other things that must be done is to densify without large impact; this will require innovation in transport, education, and a newfound deep cooperation between school districts and cities. Last, we will need to enable R&D, keep clean manufacturing here (in the region), while continuing to realize that lots of little municipalities competing for s alice of the pie isn't as efficient as a lot of little municipalities cooperating to invent ways to make a bigger pie.
Revenue models are one thing; political and economic structures are another. Unless we take both of these on in ways that keep things running, and permit us to expand at the same time, our regino and city will suffer. the only things that keep this from happening are fear, habit, and lack of political will. Time will resolve all of those things.
Posted by Paul Losch, a resident of the Community Center neighborhood, on Mar 8, 2007 at 6:29 pm
I just spent several minutes composing a reply to your recent query, and when I submitted it, off it went to never never land.
I do want to respond to your question with some more specifics, but I may not be able to do so now until the weekend, and next time I will remember to compose it in MS Word and paste it into this space, so that this little bug in the PA On Line system does not re-visit my missives with its appetite.
Posted by The Fly, a resident of the Crescent Park neighborhood, on Mar 8, 2007 at 10:29 pm
Bzzzzz. Is Kate off her rocker? The Fly doesn't know many city employees who can afford to live here! She's worried about city workers' salaries paying rent as far as San Jose?! Oh my. Try Manteca and Tracy. Ride along with dedicated city workers in the early morning van pool. The ones that gets to the Municipal Service Center at 5:30-6 in the morning. These hardworking people can't afford to shop at Stanford Mall or Downtown Palo Alto, so they shop in Mountain View, and Los Altos, and East Palo Alto at IKEA, Sears, Mervyns, Best Buy REI, WALMART, Home Depot. Get the point. Our retail dollars, and your potential tax revenue goes to other cities that welcome these stores, stores that were not welcome in Palo Alto. The NIMBYs will be hoisted by their own petard.
And Kate, who do you work for, (if at all) and do they require you to sleep overnight at the office to prove your vested interest in doing a good job? How about the how union (SEIU)and the City agreed to having to work for the City for twenty years to get fully vested for the dwindling retire medical benefit? But wait, Kate, bzzzzz, The Fly figures you for one of the folks who want to get rid of the "grifters" and replace them with dedicated contractors whose vested interest is to their own company. Not to you honey. Bzzzzzzz. There you are, in one of the richest cities around trying to get off as cheaply as you can. You wouldn't want a WALMART in town , yet the city council wants to "innovate" by using an old idea. Contracting out services. The City Manager and Mayor want to innovate Palo Alto into the WALMART of cities. Won't the citizenry of Palo Alto be proud knowing that their city services are being provided by the lowest bidder, who is paying as little as he can get away with, to undocumeted workers, and no benefits. No sick time. Where's your vaunted sense of social justice in that, Palo Alto? Bzzzzzzzzz. Is that the Palo Alto Way? Well, it's not he Cowboy Way.
Posted by sceptical, a resident of the Crescent Park neighborhood, on Mar 9, 2007 at 7:46 am
Me thinks The Fly knows quite a lot of details about the experiences and intricacies of benefits for Palo Alto employees for not being an employee.... or maybe The Fly is posting anonymously as an employee. How about telling us some details and intricacies about Crescent Park?
Palo Alto must offer awfully good salaries and benefits for people to travel so far and put up with such hardships. No one is forcing staff to work in Palo Alto, they can always get a job closer to home.
Posted by Chris, a resident of the Palo Alto Hills neighborhood, on Mar 9, 2007 at 11:33 am
Sceptical might be right. There do seem to be a few moles on this board who seem to be unduly defensive about Palo Alto employees.
That being said, whether they're City employees moles or not, those who say we shouldn't be bashing city employees are quite right. Most of these people are very dedicated and hard working. The city's system, however, keeps them from contributing everything they might because of its rigidity and bureaucracy. I know more than a couple Palo Alto employees who are very frustrated about the circumstances they have to operate in.
At the same time, while we should have some personal sympathy for the people who work in our city, we're not (or at least we shouldn't be) running a welfare agency. There are a lot of people in town, particularly young people and retired folks, who are right on the edge financially. It's important for their sake, as well as the rest of the tax paying residents of Palo Alto, that the council spend our money wisely, whether on concrete and paper, or on employees. If the council can get the functions of the city done at lower cost than is now the case, it's their duty to investigate doing that.
Maybe the council is doing it already, but there are a lot of us who think that might not be the case. If we suggest alternative ways of doing things, it's not because we bear any malice against city employees (or even their ardent name-calling supporters on this forum). It's because we think there might be better ways of running the city so that we can have the level of services we want at a price we can afford.
Posted by Mike, a resident of the College Terrace neighborhood, on Mar 9, 2007 at 12:35 pm
Chris, You keep saying that "I can do it better", and then leveling the same old argument that does nothing but cast doubt - namely, that tthe City Council may not be doing its best.
You're essentially putting an unprovable argument out there, cast in pleasding, emotional terms, and asking those who disagree with you to prove a negative (which is impossible).
Thus, there seems no pleasing the basis for your argument. You've set up a straw man.
Perhaps you should run for City Council and get at the 'real truth', which you've set up as something only an insider would understand.
What we keep hearing from the naysayers is disingenuous argument masquerading as legitimate doubt. That's a sad thing coming from those who say they want more transparency in government, when theie very own arguments mask their real intentions.
Posted by sceptical, a resident of the Crescent Park neighborhood, on Mar 9, 2007 at 1:45 pm
Hmmm Mike, didn't realize we were running a charitable organization here. Now that I see that Palo Alto offers tax payer funded pensions for life, and medical benefits for life for City retirees, I see Diane Diamond's point. What a treat to be employed by the City of Palo Alto. Maybe Palo Alto should try to hire locals, City residents get higher priority. Charity starts at home.
Your comment that if we outsource jobs we'll have employees that don't care about Palo Alto is specious. If most of the employees in the City don't live in the City, what makes you think they care any more about the residents than private contractors? Perhaps the "moonlighting" by Utility department employees was an aberration. I'm sure most City staff are skilled, capable professions. They hould be, they are highly compensated for their efforts. Must be nice to have guaranteed job security, with stepped pay increases not linked to performance, life time pensions and medical benefits. The rest of us have to save for retirement, often pay for our own medical benefits with no job security.
Municipalities cannot continue to offer this level of benefits. Salaries, and benefits should be on the table in any budget cut discussion.
Posted by Chris, a resident of the Palo Alto Hills neighborhood, on Mar 9, 2007 at 2:29 pm
One need not be a crazed anti-union free marketer to see that, as Paul Losch explains in a post above, that the current system is on an unsustainable course. The attempts by some to hold on as long as possible to the current hide-bound system only ensure that when the day of reckoning comes, the negative effects will be harsher.
Outsourcing is one suggested way of dealing with some of the issues presented by the upcoming (some would say current) crisis. It may not be the only way, and I am hoping that Paul will have some time to share with us the insight he seems to have on the issue as his last post indicates.
Those who are resistant to change - who suggest that if only we will give up just a little more tax money to preserve the status quo - are just whistling past the grave-yard. We're only chasing our tails if we think we can tax ourselves out of this problem - even if some taxes may be part of the answer. We need structural changes as Paul suggests. The modern world is demands more flexibility, less rigidity and (even for government) more entrepreneurial culture, whether we like it or not. This forum seems like a great potential source of ideas because it taps into the broader community in a way that the Palo Alto establishment has been unable to do.
It's important for those who see this to recognize how threatened people who've working for the city in expectation of being covered by this lifetime security blanket must feel when talk of taking it away shows up on this board or elsewhere. Even though, as sceptical points out, most of us don't have anything like these kinds of benefits, it's hard not to have sympathy for those who currently do but fear they might not someday.
Change will come, and it's important to manage it well -- something governments traditionally haven't done. It may be difficult, but let's not question one-another's bona fides or good faith as we have this discussion.
Posted by Mike, a resident of the College Terrace neighborhood, on Mar 9, 2007 at 2:47 pm
Gee, sceptical, maybe you should re-read the Fly's excellent retort to the argument you're making. He was addressing Kate, but he might as well be addressing you, too.
Your's is an argument for employing bottom-of-the-barrel employees with no benefits via outsourcing. How do yuo think outsourcers make a profit? They skimp on salary and benefits.
You're familiiar with the phrase "you get what you pay for", right?
btw, please answer questions put up earlier on the *additional* hidden costs of hiring outsourcers, en masse. Let's see some meat in your argument, instead of attacks on people who pick up your garbage.
Or, stripping public employees (employees that keep you safe and sound) of benefits in the same way that the short-sighted private sector has, while passing on the cost of those benefits to youu and I. How come you're not railing against teh private sector for stripping benefits from hard-working people? Where are your priorities, anyway?
Your argument against public employee benefits comes off more like sour grapes, jealousy, or outright envy. That's too bad, and doesn't reflect fairly on the hardworking pelople that make your life safe.
Posted by Fly Two, Too, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood, on Mar 9, 2007 at 2:55 pm
Chris, that's a nice emotional paean to "efficiency". I don't see any meat in your argument, just emotional appeals. This is what it always comes to when we encounter the very few "slash and burn" Palo Altans who want to use emotional appeals that resonated in the past.
Palo Alto is moving beyond the time when phrases like "resistant to change" and "we need to outsource" etc. etc are passed off as innovative solutions to complex problems.
What's amusing in your last few comments o nthis and other threads is how you now, suddenly, are beginning to show some "concern" for public employees, even as you make arguments that they need to go, have their benefits stripped, areen't necessary, etc. etc.
Pretty transparent stuff, if you ask me. There's no "there" there. Just the same old, same old - reminding me of a few people here a few years ago that caught well-meaning hard-working citizens and city employees by surpirse with lies and distortions prior to the library bond, ,and the second last school bond.
Posted by Dave, a resident of the Crescent Park neighborhood, on Mar 9, 2007 at 3:01 pm
I think Chris makes some good points. I don't begrudge city workers their salaries, or even some of their benefits. (But some do seem kind of extravagant to me.)
What I object to most is the crazy rules and procedures and lack of a management structure or chain of command, if that's what Chris means by "the system". Every time I talk to someone at city hall, I get tons of buck passing and quizzical looks about "who's in charge". Nobody seems to have authority to make a decision.
And relatedly, did you ever try to get something done with the city on Fridays? Most of them have a lot of Fridays off because, as I just found out, they're on some sort of system where they work the same number of hours but do it in 9 workdays instead of 10. That might be a good system if the rest of the world followed it, but when you have to interface with the normal world which works all five days a week, it's inevitable that you have problems communicating.
I don't mean to carp. Most city employees I've dealt with seem like real good people. But the system could use some going over.
Posted by Mike, a resident of the College Terrace neighborhood, on Mar 9, 2007 at 3:48 pm
Dave, sure, the system can always be improved. That's a given. However, that's a lot different than what Chris and others here are saying. They're inventing the myth that the system is broken, and using that straw man to create their own scenarios, based on nothing other than how they "feel" about the issue. Where's the beef? Where are their studies? What is their real agenda.
I'm reminded by their penchant for complaining of one very high profile naysayer here in Palo Alto, who has been very active in trying to bring down one bond issue after another. that person openly admits not liking Palo Altans. Makes one wonder about the persistent naysayer motive, doesn't it?
Posted by pat, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Mar 9, 2007 at 3:53 pm
If we can get past the emotion and epithets like "slash and burn" and “bottom of the barrel employees,” there are some serious issues regarding Palo Alto’s future financial viability.
I sympathize with employees who have long commutes because they can’t afford to live here. However, it’s not just city employees who have this problem. How many people who work in the private sector live in Tracy and points east?
Most companies these days offer “at will” employment. That means employees can be fired at any time for no reason. Have you notice all the layoffs that have taken place in corporations across the country?
How many non-government employees get overtime pay?
How many non-government employees have pension plans? Some companies offer 401Ks. Some contribute to their employees’ 401Ks, but not very many.
How many non-government employees have free health benefits for themselves and their families? Very few. Most people have to contribute to their health plans.
How many non-government employees can count on lifetime benefits when they retire? I don’t know of any.
Should these employees have pay for government employee benefits that they themselves do not receive? Does anyone really believe that ALL the city employees are hard-working and dedicated and ALL the contractors and private sector employees are lazy?
Let’s stop the accusations and complaining. We all make choices about where we work and live. If people don’t think they are well-treated working for the city, they can choose to work elsewhere. Frankly, I think city employees have terrific compensation packages.
It’s not just Palo Alto that has to change. There are some things we just can no longer afford and hard decisions have to be made. Check out a recent editorial from the SF Chronicle, about state pension solvency at:
Posted by KR, a resident of the Crescent Park neighborhood, on Mar 9, 2007 at 5:02 pm
Yes, city employees are, for the most part, over compensated and showered with benefits that most of us in the private sector will never attain. The salaries and benefits offered to city employees should be reviewed and brought into line with the private sector. There is nothing wrong with expecting salaries to be thoroughly reviewed and reduced if necessary to make Palo Alto's employees pay comparable to private sector pay for the same types of services. Anyone who thinks that is unfair and tantamount to "bashing" city employees needa a dose of reality. If the city needs to fire union employees and hire non-union in order to attain private sector pay scales then so be it.
There are infrastructure issues (streets, drains etc.) that still need to be addressed. I for one do not want money diverted to any other "project" until basic infrastructure problems are taken care of. This includes Human Services funding for projects that expect city funding for life once they are begun. If they are important to the local residents, they will be funded by the local residents. If not, they need to determine if Palo Alto is the best location for a particular project or organization.
I agree that Palo Alto should build a sales revenue tax base through stores that can actually be used by the locals. Car dealerships should also be welcome, but not on the golf course.
Posted by Tim, a resident of the Crescent Park neighborhood, on Mar 9, 2007 at 5:45 pm
I would hate to be a empolyee in your company. Most city contracts are base on what other cities(benchmark cities)pay their empolyees.
What type of police officer or firefighter are you going to get if you pay well below what other cities are paying in the bayarea? Also, where are we going to put the autodealer ships and retail that the residents leave the city for? With all the answers, you should run for city council.Then, maybe you can get your "dose of reality".
Posted by Mike, a resident of the College Terrace neighborhood, on Mar 9, 2007 at 9:45 pm
From the usual suspects we see a cry for stripping benefits our public employees, so they can degrade to private sector standards.
Pat, KR, here are some human resource realities that you may not be aware of:
Organizations are made great by the people that work in them. If you treat your employees well, and enable them, you will be profitable in fulfilling your mandate. You can take that to the bank.
It takes special skills to manage and operate a city. Some of this eskills are in demand. the best people go wgere the money and better working conditions are.
Stripping public, or any other, employee of his/her benefits passes the cost of those benefits onto the general public. Is that what you want Palo Alto to do, instead of inventiong new ways to meet our employee's needs, and grow our city at the same time?
What I keep hearing is old style solutions like stripping benefits, outsourcing, killing programs. This is tired thinking, folks. Surely, you can do better than that.
Posted by Mike, a resident of the College Terrace neighborhood, on Mar 10, 2007 at 8:26 pm
YOu know very well that private empoyers have been stripping their empoyees of lifetime benefit plans for the last 10-15 years. Some workers already on pension have had their benefits mercilessly stripped. Look at what GM has done recently, with Delco, or some of the airlines.
What I would suggest, for starters, is a determined effort to work towards reginal solutions; that would help ameliiorate some of the housing and transport problems we have, and possibly some others.
There is no easy fix, but I'm convinced that a wholesale rush to outsourcing, or strippingi services, or reducing the motivation of employees by threatening them with all kinds of rash actions is not the way to go about making our city a better place to live.
In fact. I also think we need to cut costs, but differ from you in that I think we can _grow_ the opportunity pie, instead of runnning ourselves ragged and fighting all the time about how to carve it up among increasing mandates and constituencies.
This is a huge challenge, and one that all members of our community should be aware of, and somehow, in whatever small way, be made part of. That is going to take real political will, and leadership - including an honoring of difference that compels all of us to attack problems, rather than each other.
Another thing that needs doing is to figure out a way to alter our governance structure. This will take some time, but we have to find ways to invent for, execute opportunity within, adapt to changing times more nimbly than we have in the past
Posted by Geoff, a resident of the Professorville neighborhood, on Mar 12, 2007 at 6:59 am
Interesting that Mike should cite GM, Delco and the airlines in the context he does. In fact GM, Delco and the airlines all have troubles precisely because of the lifetime benefits they unwisely guaranteed to their workers a few decades ago.
The reason private companies are no longer offering these kinds of benefits is that they're unsustainable in the modern economy.
As the various reports cited by pat show (and as San Diego's recent experience indicates), municipal governments are not somehow magically shielded from economic reality. The current compensation system for city workers simply can't be sustained. Twenty five years ago, city salaries and benefits took up less than 70 percent of the budget. Now they approach 85 percent. We can't go over a hundred. The sooner we come up with a plan for fixing it, the better off we'll be.
Posted by Mike, a resident of the College Terrace neighborhood, on Mar 12, 2007 at 12:52 pm
Sorry Geoff, you're quite mistaken about why GM and the others have been stripping benefits. The reason that American workers have lost their benefits is because the various managements of the companies involved refused to innovate when necessary. There is business case after business case written about this.
In fact, there is a near resemblance between what has happened to American business and the current problams that municipalities face. Both became overconfident with good times; both failed to innovate. The better companies have found ways to innovate; keeping worker benefits intact - even providing more benefits. The losers have cut and run. Palo Alto is decidedly in the former class.
Some good efforts have been made here to keep things sustainable; more efforts will be made in the future, but they won't resenble the "slash and burn" techniques of stripping hard-working people of benefits that were promised, and on which they depend.
Posted by Geoff, a resident of the Professorville neighborhood, on Mar 12, 2007 at 1:35 pm
[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]
In fact Delta and United airlines declared bankruptcy because of its high union costs. American's workers agreed to substantial wage and benefit reductions to avoid the same fate. See here: Web Link. Anyone reading the press lately knows that the reason the US automakers are in trouble is intimately related to their employee and retiree costs. See here: Web Link.
Smart companies are shedding these lifetime benefit packages as fast as possible - not increasing them as you allege. See here: Web Link.
Employee costs are past 80% and rising in Palo ALto. THe innovation you allude has to include a change to employee compensation if it is to be sustainable.
Please, stick to the facts instead of making stuff up out of thin air..
Posted by Geoff, a resident of the Professorville neighborhood, on Mar 12, 2007 at 1:39 pm
Anyone who wants to get a flavor of the style of analysis some on this board are using might want to examine the most recent posts on the "Library and Police Bond" section here.
I just read through this over-long thread. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.] He says that Juliette is wrong or exaggerating when she says people are upset about the condition of streets. He cites the city auditor as his source, implying that the Auditor supports his claim that residents aren't upset about streets.
The auditors report (cited by Dave above) does no such thing! The auditors first sentence is, "Palo Alto has a $28.7 million backlog in street repair, and less than half of residents rate street maintenance good or excellent." This directly contradicts what Mike claims.
[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]
Once again, let's go to the Auditor's Report: "The annual street maintenance budget is inadequate to both address the backlog and stay current with recommended preventive maintenance. The backlog is extensive." There's no planned rational deferral going on in Palo Alto. We're letting the streets deteriorate because we're not spending enough money on them and according to the auditor, we're doing so little maintenance, the problem is getting worse, not better.
Posted by Mike, a resident of the College Terrace neighborhood, on Mar 12, 2007 at 3:27 pm
Geoff, I'm well aware about what the audit says; in fact, the audot says that citizens are mostly happy with the way Palo Alto is run. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.] I have high priase for our current City Council, one that has had the courage to stand up to what had been permitted to become a powerful naysaying _minority_. They will continue to speak, as is their right, but they are no longer going to stop our city from progessing.
Geoff, show me an auditor's report - almost anywhere - where when given the opportunity to weigh in, citizens are not just lukewarm about the conditions of their roads, and traffic.
In fact, it's well known that road and bridge maintenance is often put on the backburner, and that MOST communities have some catching up to do.
The FACT is, in public testimony, and at the polls, where it counts, citizens _do not_ consider roads a major priority here. So why try to distort the _big_ picture by trotting out selective numbers from the audit? [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]
Why aren't you out starting a private foundation that will help fix our roads, like supporters of library, police, parks, education, and other infrastructure mavens have been doing?
[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]
Another thing: road maintenence is increasing in cost - so those, who like Geoff absolutely _hate_to spend money on public services that enhance the social life and quality of our community, use the need to fund mostly OK city infrastructure, like roads, to the exclusion of other necessary services, like public safety.
IN this case geoff want to project the auditor's road report verbatim, but ignores the other improvements that are bnecessary in our city.
btw, Jeff, a poll is another kind of audit. Please take that into consideration the next time you want to use selective numbers to distort the big picture.
For instance, Geoff conveniently irgores the fact that Palo Alto is being set up for *multi-million* dollar lawsuits because our police personnel have been unable to properly maintain trial evidence, and other _legally_ mandated responsibilities.
Geoff also want us to defer library improvements that have proven community benefits.
Instead, Geoff want our roads repaired. Note that Geoff doesn't say a word about improving mass transportation, or improving telecommunications infrastructure so that more people can telecommute. He doesn't say a word about implementing policy that would expand our revenue base, so that we can repair ALL of our infrastructure without making tradeoffs. Nope, not a word.
I have sen almost every single Council meeting - eiether on TV, or in person, for the last 5 years. I can count the number of persons who have complained about the streets in "oral arguments" with the gingers on both hands - maybe one hand.
Geoff, might I suggest that you run foro City Council, with road repair at the cost of public safety and the massive benefits of libraries as a sacrificial lamb for that road repair. I want to see how many votes that gets.
Posted by Mike, a resident of the College Terrace neighborhood, on Mar 13, 2007 at 12:29 am
btw, Geoff, I have a relative that worked for Delco, for 27 years. He was making $30 per hour - not exactly a ton of money. His management failed to innovate, and sat around because they had a contract with GM that guaranteed GM's purchase of Delco's products *even if they were more expensive than the competition*. So, it looks like GM and Delco management were out to lunch. When Delco went belly-up they tried to strip long-time empoyees of pensions, and reduce long-time Delco empoyee wages from $27-33 per huor to $14 per hour.
So, your attempt to blame inefficiencies on unions, in the example you use, fails.
Back to road repair. Sure, we need roads repaired, but we're not going to compromise community policing and libraries (including the great benefits that derive from botth institutions) for road repair. The roads are quite drivable - in fact, I don't see a great difference betwenn roads here and anywhere else I drive. What's the big deal?
Posted by Geoff, a resident of the Professorville neighborhood, on Mar 13, 2007 at 10:30 am
I think Mike is quite right that Delco failed because its management and unions were protected by a system that insulated them from competition by bidders who could do the work at lower cost.
Mike fails to draw the obvious analogy to the topic under discussion however. The city's workers also operate in protected monopoly - immune from competition by private sector companies that might be able to do the same work at lower cost. The result is exactly the same as in the Delco case cited by Mike. The city is on its way to financial failure because, insulated from competition, it's costs are ballooning in an unsustainable way. We need to look at some competitive bidding via outsourcing.
Why those posters here who can see this so clearly in the examples of Delco and the airlines and their unions, but become defensive and unseeing when it comes to the city and its unions is a mystery.
Posted by Mike, a resident of the College Terrace neighborhood, on Mar 13, 2007 at 10:47 am
Geoff, It's rather disingenuous to argue that unions are the sole reason for the increases in municipal operations here; it's simply not true.
What many people fail to realize is that municipal operations often require highly skilled labor. In fact, some outsourcing has already been undertaken.
Palo Alto negotiated union contracts at a time when time were good. Policy mnakers, at thhat time, failed to see forward to a time when Silicon Valley (indeed, America) would no longer maintain massive economic hegemony.
Rather than do what short-sighted private industrial mavens and leveraged buyback artists have done - i.e. disembowel the private benefit system in America, passing costs on to you and me - many municipalities have chosen not to do this.
Palo Alto is actually ahead of other municipalities in funding forward liabilites for pensions. We have breathing room, which gives us an opportunity to look for innovative ways to create new municipal revenue streams here, with *everyone* winning.
Why aren't we looking at this side of the coin with great focus, instead of going with the old school, retro method of disabling long-promised worker benefits. Wholesale outsourcing has many inefficiencies; I mentioned some of those above; nobody has taken the time to consider them, or argue against them. What are your assumptions about outsourcing? How do you imagine it would result in LONG TERM benefit for our city? In your analysis, please include the variables I mentioned in another post on this thread.
Posted by Geoff, a resident of the Professorville neighborhood, on Mar 13, 2007 at 11:05 am
I hope I'm not being unnecessarily repetitive...but... once again...
"Why those posters here who can see this so clearly in the examples of Delco and the airlines and their unions, but become defensive and unseeing when it comes to the city and its unions is a mystery. "
Posted by Geoff, a resident of the Professorville neighborhood, on Mar 13, 2007 at 1:18 pm
Mike on March 13, 2007 at 12:45pm:
"...Your post claimed (as does your current post) that some posters don't back up claims with proof points. That's completely unfounded, as the poster we're talking about has in fact provided many studies and statistics, which you simply deny without providing countervailing rationales.
What seems to be your debate tactic is that when someone posts substantial data that you don't agree with,, you say "prove it". fyi, that's called "proving a negative", which would cost you big points in a formal debate.
We would all like to see your substantive data to the contrary of those studies you disagree with. "
Mike on March 13, 2007 at 1am:
:The roads are quite drivable - in fact, I don't see a great difference betwenn [sic] roads here and anywhere else I drive. What's the big deal?"
The City Auditor's Report on Street Maintenance:
"Palo Alto has a $28.7 million backlog in street repair, and less than half of residents rate street maintenance good or excellent. The annual street maintenance budget is inadequate to both address the backlog and stay current with recommended preventive maintenance. The backlog is extensive."
Posted by Mike, a resident of the College Terrace neighborhood, on Mar 13, 2007 at 10:16 pm
Uh, the roads need fixing; I admit that. So? Unlike you, however, I'm not saying that we should build out other infrastruvtire _at the expense_ of roads. We need to do _both_. and yuo know what? we can!
btw, I'm flattered that you would take the time to parse my posts, even if the parsing is selectively wrought, and used in your usual way of selective quoting. You might think about starting a "Palo Alto Inquirer"; you'd be good at it. Fiction in newsprint is selling these days. :)
What do a bunch of disjointed quotes, taken out of context mean, anyway? That is, unless someone it desperately treading the waters of debate, almost sinking for lack of the "substantial innertube of substantive rebuttal" ...or...
Oh, I know! It's a tactic similar to the ones that the teeny-tiny group of naysayers use here when they wallpapar Palo Alto with postcards and flyers filled with half-quotes and half truths, a few days before revenue elections. It's traditionally been enough to squeek out that 3-4% of the voters that deny more than 60% of Palo Altans the improvements they want.
Using one's effort in such a way gives one a keen sense of power, doesn't it? Being able to throw a few fliers out there, with a few well-placed GO's - just like the good old days when you and yours defeated a bond or two. Ah, nostalgia! Right, Geoff? (thank goodness the Daily is no longer the servant of the small naysaying crowd here!)
The very funny thing is that it's still quite easy to see a real correlation between what I've said, and how you are mistaken - especially if one takes the time to read context. :)
In spite of all your shenanigans, changing the subject, quoting out of context, etc. etc. you STILL have not substantively rebutted any of the substance that has been put before you.
At least I (and many others) _admit_ that the roads need work (unlike your denial that the library, police station, rec center, and some other projects are even more dire), but unlike you I'm not willing to take a city function that is mostly working (please do show me a neighboring community where the roads are any better than ours, in general), and create a zero sum game out of it.
You would sacrifice sustainably improving libraries, public safety, and other services for fixing potholes. So, who's priorities are out of whack? All those nice new roads, put in place for people to drive on, with a few less potholes. What a shame that - in your world - our citizens wouldn't be able to use them to drive to a branch library, because they'd be gone, if you had your way.
Posted by Mike, a resident of the College Terrace neighborhood, on Mar 13, 2007 at 11:49 pm
Resident (isn't it interesting that the same small, core group gather 'round to support each other). If Geoff's responses amount to anything close to a rebuttal, I'll turn in my debate coaching stripes. Geoff's comments are really about "refusal" - to answer, and instead use tired debate tactics to keep people from looking directly at what he's proposing, or reading into its implied subtext.
So far, this thread has mostly one inbred contingent "patting" each other on the back for fulminating egregiously bad public policy suggestions.
Here are some naysayer mantras: "Roads OR Libraries"; "Undergrounding OR the Public Safety Building"; Sufficient library collection OR branches". The whole thing reminds me of a kind of niggling, penny-pinching, lacking-in-innovation fiscal Puritanism that went out with the invention of portable financial instruments in Machiavelli's time. In sum, it's all very tired, and retro.
Geoff won't answer any more because he's getting worn out, unable to do much more than parse sentences out of context to prove his points. There really isn't much left for you or Geoff to do except go on the direct personal attack, or trust "feelings", and blind faith.
Thank goodness the naysayer crowd is fading. They lost their voice when the Daily (fast becoming a very respectible newspaper) was sold. As Arnie would say: "Hasta La Vista, Baby!"
Posted by Debates, a resident of the Charleston Gardens neighborhood, on Mar 14, 2007 at 2:11 am
When you debate, substance is always more important than words. You lack substance - BIG TIME. Let me describe in as few words as possible:
City has a backlog of 28 Million in road repairs. We are today looking for a mere 3 million for this years repairs and hunting for that money in all the places. Your argument - "We need to do _both_. and yuo know what? we can!" - makes you lose credibility.
See how in a few words I have shot your argument completely. It's called substance.
Posted by Brian, a resident of the Downtown North neighborhood, on Mar 14, 2007 at 9:34 pm
I am so tired of Mike's postings. His only interest seems to be in protecting the entitlements offered to municipal employees. Realizing most of us are posting "anonymously" it sure looks like Mike is employed by the City. I can thereby understand his defensiveness. Government employees have an exceptional benefit package. Private sector wages, with secured employment, and health care and life pensions. It is quite choice!
I wish we lived in a Country where we all had universal health care, and good working wages. But we don't, anymore. And we can no longer sustain this model without significant change. The future does not bode well for life pensions. Private industries cannot attract investment without universal health care and cannot maintain the burden of lifetime pensions. We are all going to have to tighten our belts and realize, we will have to take care of ourselves. Municipal, State, and Federal employees will need to plan for retirement like the rest of us.
Hopefully we can all work towards a health care system that will serve everyone. Of all the employee costs health care has been the biggest increase. So Mike, any possibility you can put down your sword and acknowledge the current system isn't working? Government employees should not get benefits in excess of the private sector. Perhaps the discussion should be about how we find a way to cover the basic needs of all citizens.
The City budget needs adjusting, and so does our model for sustaining the services we want.
Posted by sceptical, a resident of the Crescent Park neighborhood, on Mar 28, 2007 at 4:06 pm
Thanks for your comments Brian, you are right on. If you managed to catch the thread on Diana Diamond's comments on City salaries, you'd see Mike continued his tirade there as well. That is until the Weekly shut it down. We should all keep an eye out for these postings by City employees posing as residents.