Priorities, whether they be personal or those of the Palo Alto City Council, are important.
A priority list brings order out of could-be chaos and organizes what we must do first. It's not a "should do" or "wanna do" list, but a "must do."
Council members met in early February to come up a new priority list, and concluded the four things to tackle are:
* Preparedness for emergencies and disasters.
* Climate protection (global warming) and ways to control greenhouse gases.
* Gaining support for and planning the construction of a new police building and an expanded Mitchell Park library and community center.
* A "sustainable budget," including ways to find $3 million a year for infrastructure repairs.
All are noble in concept, especially climate protection and emergency preparedness. Of course, global warming is not a local issue, hence the name, but, I agree, we can do our part to help cut down carbon dioxide, methane and other gases. Emergency preparedness is important; the city should always be prepared for earthquakes and other emergencies.
The third priority, building community support for two bond measures both expected to be on the June 2008 ballot, will be more of a challenge. One bond measure probably will call for a new 49,600 square-foot police facility on Park Boulevard. near the North County Courthouse. The council has already authorized more than $1 million for a study of initial design, environmental review and cost estimates -- and it still needs to figure out how much the building ultimately will cost.
Last June a Blue-Ribbon Task Force recommended a $38 to $44 million price tag including land, but I expect if the size remains the same, the price will go up to at least $50 to $55 million, given increasing construction and land costs.
This week the city's Architectural Review Board learned that a 100-year-old oak tree stands in the way of the new police facility. As a result, there are two architectural layouts -- with and without the tree. How ironic for a city named "tall tree."
By the way, the oak will soon be given an ultrasound to check its health. I had one a month ago -- they are painless, tree.
As to the library remodeling and expansion, I've heard a possible $50 million price tag, bringing the combined bond-measures total to $100 million-plus. Whether residents will approve all these tax dollars is the big question. Indeed, that's a challenge for the council.
Priority four is a "sustainable budget." I am not sure what "sustainable" means, since the council in recent years has always had to find ways to solve deficit issues. "Sustainable land use" almost was made a priority. I guess the council likes that s-word, borrowed from the environmental/green movement. Can it be adapted to a different kind of green, as in $$$?
In reviewing the list, I have to ask, are these the most important issues facing our community? Or are they simply the ones the council feels are easiest to discuss and feel good about. Two of the priorities are politically correct issues without immediate solutions or measurable goals and accomplishments. I suspect "feel good" is the primary motivation.
Yes, it's easier for the council to agree on "Let's be green" and for the mayor to come up with a 10,000-steps-a-day challenge to the community because there are no downsides to such ideas. It's easier to kick the can of hard decisions forward to the next council.
Palo Alto is facing more pressing problems. What's being done to speed up road repairs? We are some $28 million and five years behind. We've had two -- or was it three -- council-appointed committees look at getting more retail in our community. The net result are committee reports. We need more retail downtown, particularly along Alma Street, which is beginning to look like a modern-day ghost town of empty buildings.
An effort to get auto dealers to locate along 101 has crashed. We had a "Shop Palo Alto" campaign that wilted. Are there ways for the city to use its influence and power to get a major grocery in town so residents don't go to neighboring communities to do their main shopping?
Congress this year refused to fund a Joint Powers Authority request for a continued study of the San Francisquito Creek. The project needs annual Congressional approval not only for the study but also for putting the Army Corps of Engineers to work. While some fund juggling this year may keep the project alive, does the council or the JPA have a back-up plan if the feds don't come through in the next couple of years? What is this city going to do to help prevent the creek from flooding in Palo Alto? The global-warming threat of bigger storms in the Bay Area (and resulting creek overflows) is a real local climate-control issue.
Will there be ways for the council to convince the city employee unions that enough is enough? Can city officials find better methods to control the escalating costs of health and retirement benefits?
Are there ways to use Fire Department personnel more efficiently, since typically in this area, only 3 percent of their time is spent fighting fires?
And my perennial question: Can the council cut the budget so that it can spend the money on other necessities, or even fund part of a new library?
The council makes decisions on millions of dollars each year. The city's general fund is $128 million in 2006-07, the enterprise fund has $257 million in expenditures and the capital fund is $52.6 million, some of which comes from the other two funds. Palo Alto spends a lot of money -- much more than its neighbors. In a recent blog talking about the Edgewood Shopping Center, Paul Losch, a Palo Alto resident, said, "As much as I value the character of Palo Alto, I think we all need to seriously ask ourselves what our stewardship of the city really is all about. 'Hold fast to that which is good' is not the same as 'Hold fast to that which was good.' In some ways, the more things stay the same, the more they will change for the worse."
Well said -- and it applies to most Palo Alto issues. I think the council can be a good steward and make real progress -- if it wants to. We just have to prioritize better, more realistically and with less focus on political correctness -- and then act on those priorities.