City tackles hardest survey results first
Palo Alto City Council focuses on areas needing improvement rather than feel-good items
Focusing on Palo Alto's weaknesses rather than its strengths, the City Council Monday night wrestled with how it could improve services and programs rather than bask in the city's overall successes.
The focus of discussion was the city auditor's 110-page "Service Efforts and Accomplishments Report" (SEA) for 2009.
The report includes results of a survey of 424 residents by the National Research Center. A strong majority believes the city tops the list of local jurisdictions in most areas of service and governance. The report also said the city is above the benchmark in welcoming citizen involvement and listening to citizens.
But council members acknowledged disparities between the more positive report results and public perception, which at times rates the city much lower.
Council members will have a retreat Saturday to set priorities for 2010, at which time they will discuss the report in greater detail.
Only 50 percent of survey respondents think the city is doing a "good or excellent" job of community engagement, a fact not lost on council members.
"We're not doing well in civic engagement. It was our priority," said Councilman Greg Schmid, referring to the council's top three priorities for 2009, which also included economic health and environmental protection.
Mayor Pat Burt said the survey measures perceptions rather than facts. He pointed to how residents residing in different ZIP codes had different evaluations of city performance.
Residents in south Palo Alto ZIP code 94306 had a lower sense of the safety of downtown Palo Alto than persons living in 94301, which includes downtown.
"That's a red flag" as to how many other things may or may not be based on perception rather than reality, he said.
Burt said the disparity could reflect the high rate of new development in south Palo Alto, which could have shaded residents' perception of other city services.
The survey found just 43 percent of south Palo Alto residents felt the overall direction Palo Alto is taking is good or excellent, compared to 65 percent for persons living in ZIP codes 94301 and 94304. In south Palo Alto, only 34 percent approved of land use, planning and zoning compared to 53 percent in other parts of the city.
Councilman Yiaway Yeh said the results point to a need for greater community outreach.
"The further you get from City Hall, the less satisfied you get with city services and programs. It is striking," Yeh said, pointing out the trend exists in almost all areas except one.
Council members agreed key areas to focus on would include outreach to citizens and emergency services.
General Fund expenditures for the Fire Department in fiscal year 2008-09 were $23.4 million, or down 3 percent. The Police Department budget was down 4 percent, to $28.3 million in 2009, according to the report.
Council member Gail Price said she was concerned about "the graying of Palo Alto" and the growing need for emergency services. She wants to discuss retention and future expansion of emergency services during Saturday's retreat.
"I know the (new) police and emergency services building is off the list," she said, referring to an aborted effort to build new police headquarters. But in some rare cases cities have found multifaceted funding to expand public-safety centers, she said.
She questioned whether a reduction in emergency services and preparation is prudent, given Palo Alto's proximity to earthquake faults and its aging population.
"A lot of this is risk analysis," she said.
The council retreat is open to the public and will be held Saturday (Jan. 30) from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Palo Alto Unified School District Board Room, 25 Churchill Ave. The entire report and citizen-survey results are available on the city's website at www.cityofpaloalto.org.
In other business, items the council Monday night:
o authorized an $88,000 expenditure from the Council Contingency Account for city activities and a lobbyist related to the high-speed-rail project;
o adopted an ordinance authorizing the closing of the 2009 budget and approval of a budget-amendment ordinance to reinstate an $809,000 transfer from the General Fund Budget Stabilization reserve to the Technology Fund in fiscal year 2010-11;
o voted unanimously to name a small plaza adjacent to the High Street garage the Anna Zschokke Plaza, after one of he city's first six residents and a founder of Palo Alto's public school system;
o adopted a resolution approving the Utilities' Legislative Policy Guidelines for 2010;
o approved federal appropriations requests and the city's federal and state legislative program, including asking the federal government for $2 million for the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority; $384,520 for the Foothills Fire Management Plan evacuation-route vegetation treatment; and $7.65 million for a Highway 101-Bike and Pedestrian Overpass project;
o approved a longtime agreement with the Palo Alto Unified School District for public use and maintenance of district-owned athletic fields, tennis courts and basketball courts jointly used by the public;
o approved a cooperative agreement with the Family Resources Foundation in Palo Alto for continued funding for support of staff and programs, including a Family Resources website.
Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.