Palo Alto's art lovers, park visitors and young actors are likely to feel the sting of the city's budget deficit after a City Council committee recommended implementing a host of new fees in July to reduce the city's budget gap.
Despite protests from theater advocates, art lovers and other community stakeholders, the Finance Committee agreed on Tuesday night to support a package of new revenues and "cost recovery" proposals aimed at reducing a projected $7.3 million budget gap in fiscal year 2011, beginning July 1.
These include a new $5 parking fee for visitors to Foothills Park, the baylands and the Pearson/Arastradero Preserve; higher priced tickets for certain Children's Theatre shows; a new entrance fee for exhibitions at the Palo Alto Arts Center; and higher fees for recreational classes.
The committee approved these increases during its review of the Community Services Department budget. A crowd of residents, including Children's Theatre supporters of all ages, filled the Council Chambers to hear if their favorite program would get slashed or face fee hikes. Before they had a chance to speak to the committee, Councilman Larry Klein warned them that service cuts are inevitable.
"This is a very difficult year," Klein said. "I've heard lots of speeches over the years that translate to, 'Don't cut my program.'
"I hope this year your speech will be different because we're in a different place."
Despite his plea, about 20 speakers appealed to the committee not to cut off funding to the Children Theatre, impose new fees for the Art Center or reduce financial support for local nonprofits.
Louise Carroll, chief operating officer for the Palo Alto Art Center Foundation, said the proposed fees for the Art Center would create a new barrier.
"The Palo Alto Art Center is a community resource and a creative outlet for all," Carroll said "We have been proud that in our near 40-year history, we have not had a barrier to entry," she later added.
The Community Services Department also plans to contract out maintenance of the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course, Mitchell Park and Rinconada Park and eliminate one of its four division manager positions.
Former Councilman Jack Morton, a longtime champion of community services, said he opposes the widespread cuts and fee increases in the departments and urged the council to focus on the Fire Department, where the budget is scheduled to go up by about $1.7 million. The council should require other departments to share in the costs, Morton argued.
"It's not just taking a little here and a little there," Morton said. "They are balancing the budget on the back of the Community Services Department."
"Not every department is sharing in this equally."
But for the committee and City Manager James Keene, the operative phrase on Tuesday night was "cost recovery."
Keene and Community Services Director Greg Betts both said the proposed budget is the first step in a broader effort to make more department programs pay for themselves. This could soon translate to new admission fee for the Junior Museum and Zoo and the Art Center and higher fees for art classes and recreation fees.
"I think we have to move to a much fuller cost-recovery program," Keene told the committee.
Judge Luckey, director of Children's Theatre, said he's confident the theater can achieve the new target of raising its revenues by $100,000, through donations and increased ticket prices.
"I think it's a stretch for us, but I think we can achieve this over the course of the next year," Luckey said.
The Finance Committee rejected a few of Keene's proposed budget cuts, including proposals to eliminate the city's annual summer-concert series and to trim funding for the Human Services Resource Allocation Process (HSRAP), Palo Alto's grant program for nonprofit groups. The committee unanimously agreed to maintain both services next year.
Klein was the only member of the four-member committee who opposed the new $5 fee for visiting local parks. Frequent park visitors would also have the option of buying $40 season passes. The fees are projected to bring in about $100,000.
Klein argued that there are better ways to raise $100,000, but Vice Mayor Sid Espinosa, committee Chairman Greg Schmid and Councilman Greg Scharff voted to adopt the staff proposal.
"In essence, what this is is a parking fee," Schmid said. "As a parking fee that can be enforced informally, without having someone standing at the gate, it's equivalent to what the experience is at other parks."
The full council is scheduled to consider the committee's recommendations and adopt the 2011 budget in late June.