Palo Alto has much to cheer about in 2011, but challenges that dominated the city's attention last year will remain front and center, Mayor Sid Espinosa told the crowd during his State of the City speech Monday night.
Listen to the speech (Editor's note: Windows users need to save the file in order to listen to it).
Speaking in front of an enthusiastic standing-room-only crowd, with about 50 more watching in an overflow room, Espinosa celebrated the city's recent accomplishments, went over the city's 2011 priorities and urged the crowd at Cubberley Community Center to become involved in civic life.
The annual State of the City speech normally takes place at the City Hall, but the council decided to move it to the Cubberley Community Center Theatre to appeal to the residents of south Palo Alto. The crowd responded by filling the theater and spilling out into the gymnasium to follow the speech on television.
Espinosa's speech was in part a summary of the council's recent accomplishments, in part an explanation of the challenges ahead and in part a celebration of the various volunteer groups and neighborhood leaders who continue to help the city address such priorities as emergency preparedness, environmental sustainability and youth well-being.
Espinosa also discussed the City Council's two other official priorities: city finances and land use and transportation planning. The Great Recession has precipitously reduced the Palo Alto's tax revenues, Espinosa said, and the city is still recovering from its devastating effects.
At the same time, he highlighted the series of actions the council has taken over the past two years to bring the city to solid financial footing, including eliminating 60 positions, outsourcing some programs and adjusting employees' pension and benefits.
"There is no more critical issue facing our city," Espinosa said. "If we do nothing else, this City Council will balance the budget and we will put the city on a path of financial strength, which is a foundation for everything else we want to do."
Though the deficit is projected to be smaller in the next fiscal year than in the previous two, Espinosa pointed to other fiscal challenges on the horizon, including the city's infrastructure backlog, which is estimated at about $500 million.
Espinosa also said the city will continue to ramp up its emergency-preparedness efforts. He said he intends to help local neighborhood associations recruit block captains who would take charge during emergencies. He also said Palo Alto will once again hold a citywide emergency drill -- a sequel to the Quakeville drill the city conducted in 2010.
"We are of course seen as leaders in this area, but the magnitude of problems we're facing could be overwhelming," Espinosa said.
Though his speech was punctuated with jokes and asides, it hit a somber and personal note when Espinosa addressed the subject of teenage suicides. At one point, he talked about a friend of his who last year took his own life.
"The pain and grief of even one suicide is unbearable," Espinosa said. "We feel lost, frustrated, and powerless. We want to help but we don't know how."
The topic took on a sense of urgency over the past two years in Palo Alto after a string of teenage suicides on the Caltrain tracks. The community responded by starting Project Safety Net, a broad program aimed at promoting youth well-being and educating people about suicide prevention.
Espinosa also pledged to make city government more transparent and urged the citizens to hold their leaders accountable.
As mayor, he said he will establish weekly office hours, put out a monthly newsletter and travel around the city to talk to citizens. The city will also ramp up its social networking tools and unveil a new program that makes it easier for citizens to report maintenance issues directly to the departments responsible for the repairs.
"The way in which people receive and process information are fundamentally changing around the world," said Espinosa, who moved to Palo Alto to work for Hewlett Packard and who now works at Microsoft. "We need to adapt and evolve."
He concluded the speech by urging the community to become more involved in civic life by joining one of the city's many neighborhood groups and volunteer organization.
"We want you to be engaged," Espinosa said. "Please leave here with a commitment to be involved."
VIDEO: The full program and speech are online at www.communitymediacenter.net.