It may not have a gripping plot, but the City of Palo Alto's latest publication will have local bookworms riveted.
City Manager James Keene on Monday night released a proposed budget for fiscal year 2016 that includes as one of its boldest suggestions a significant expansion in library hours. The council's Finance Committee will begin reviewing the budget next week and the City Council is set to adopt it, with possible modifications, on June 15.
Reflecting the surging economy and the recent uptick in tax revenues, the proposed budget includes $185.1 million in General Fund expenditures, $14 million more than in 2015. Expenditures on salaries and benefits account for $5.9 million of this increase, while infrastructure funding makes up another $5 million. The budget proposes to add 13.3 new positions, though the net increase in staffing would be 7.3 because of the council's decision last year to outsource streetsweeping, thereby eliminating six positions. New positions include two planning managers dedicated to parking and traffic, respectively. A new manager of maintenance operations for the Palo Alto Airport and a new code enforcement officer are also proposed.
But it's the city's freshly expanded library system that will see the biggest shift, starting July 1. The added staffing builds upon milestones achieved in recent months: the new Mitchell Park branch hosted its grand opening in December and the renovated Rinconada Library branch following suit in February, equipped with a new wing and a new name.
The new budget proposes to add 4.8 new library positions at a cost of $493,000. It also proposes to expand operating hours by 14 percent, from 228 hours per week to 260, starting in August. While the Downtown and College Terrace branches would retain their present schedules, the other branches would open at 10 a.m. Closing times at Mitchell Park and Rinconada would be extended from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday hours would be doubled at these two prominent branches. Currently, both are open from 1 to 5 p.m. Under Keene's proposal, the operating hours would be 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
"The increase in library hours and funding for equipment and supplies will provide library patrons with additional opportunities to benefit from library services for educational, community and personal enrichment," the budget states. "With the increase in operating hours, it is anticipated that attendance in recreational reading programs, annual library visits, as well as the number of library materials checked-out, will increase."
The proposal has yet to be vetted by the Finance Committee and the full council. But during Monday's brief discussion, no council members raised any objections to the proposal to add library services. Councilman Pat Burt signaled his strong support
"It's really great that we'll be able to expand the library and (Mitchell Park) Community Center hours," Burt said. "I think that's going to be very well-received by the community. The new libraries seem to be extremely popular and all we hear is, 'Why are they closing?' This is a great response to that."
Statistics confirm that Palo Altans like their libraries. Even with all the service disruptions and branch closures last year, 81 percent of the residents ranked the quality of local libraries as "good" or "excellent," the two highest rankings in the National Citizens Survey.
The city's checkout figures were strong last year. The budget notes that Palo Alto libraries ranked in the top 2 of 46 public library systems in checkouts per capita. According to the California Library Statistics 2014, the city had 24 checkouts compared to a peer average of eight.
In addition to proposing the 4.8 new positions, the budget notes that "additional staffing resources may be required in the future to further align staffing with service demands."
Libraries aren't the only community destinations that could see staffing changes. Keene also proposed adding an equivalent of 1.3 positions to the new Mitchell Park Community Center by bringing in three part-time recreation leaders and a program assistant. The objective is to provide "an additional outlet for Palo Alto youths and teens to engage in additional leadership and enrichment activities."
Three new facility attendants at Mitchell Park and Lucie Stern community centers would collectively add another full-time position. Proposed special-events coordinators would add another 1.5 positions.
Overall, the budget includes 1,041 positions in the General Fund, compared to 1,028 this year.
In addition to the staffing increases, the 2016 budget includes projected increases in pension and heath care spending. It notes that work is "still needed with our employee groups to reduce long-term pension and health care liabilities while remaining a competitive employer."
The city is now negotiating with its main police and firefighter unions, and it plans to talk about a new contract with its biggest labor group, the Service Employees International Union, Local 521, next year.
Even so, the general tone is optimistic. Keene noted in his transmittal letter that Palo Alto "continues to be at the epicenter of a thriving regional economy."
"This economic boom as well as the voter-approved transient-occupancy tax rate increase have generated significantly higher revenues for the City," Keene wrote. "The local economic boom has also resulted in an increase in job growth, more traffic, and a higher demand for parking, and other city services. ... In alignment with council priorities and directives, this budget proposes investments in parking and transportation funding, infrastructure, and new spending for Healthy City, Healthy Community initiatives."