Where would you cut the budget?
Original post made
by Tyler Hanley, digital editor of Palo Alto Online,
on Feb 28, 2007
Palo Alto is trying to figure out ways of cutting $3 million from its budget.
What would you recommend be cut? The city staff's recommendations weren't universally well-received by the City Council on Monday night; do you have better ideas?
Posted by Dick
a resident of Barron Park
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?