The budget climate may be as sunny as ever in Palo Alto, but the city's elected officials have been casting clouds over proposals to hire new workers.
The City Council's Finance Committee this month has taken a skeptical stance toward numerous items in City Manager James Keene's proposed fiscal year 2016 budget and is deferring its decisions on several requests for more staffing.
The difficult decisions belie the fact that financial times in Palo Alto have never been better. The budget, which the City Council is set to formally adopt in mid-June, shows the city's revenues jumping by $14 million between fiscal year 2015 and 2016, which begins on July 1. Just about every major tax category is showing gains. As Keene noted in the introduction to the budget, the city "continues to be at the epicenter of a thriving regional economy."
Overall, Keene is proposing to add 13.3 new positions, with the lion's share of the changes involving the library and planning departments. The net increase in positions, however, is 7.3 because of the city's recent decision to outsource its street-sweeping services. If the budget is approved as proposed, the workforce at City Hall would increase from 1,033.8 full-time positions to 1,041.1 positions.
If all of the positions are approved, the amount that the city spends on salaries and benefits in its General Fund would increase from $150 million to $158.6 million in the coming fiscal year.
At the committee's May 5 meeting, Keene framed the debate over new City Hall positions as a question of "balancing the council and the community expectations with the resources that we have."
On the one hand, the city continues to struggle with the rising costs of pension and health care obligations, including an unfunded liability of $295.6 million in the city's pension plan and a $143.6 million liability for retiree health care. Given these costs, Keene acknowledged that the decision to hire new positions isn't easy. Yet he also noted that staff is struggling to keep up with the council's work assignments.
"For the most part, what we focused on are funding items that are based on responsiveness, in many respects the hyper-responsiveness, that is the expectation of our community," Keene said on May 5. "We need to acknowledge that the demand side curve is, in my view, escalating faster than our positive revenues are."
Even so, the committee which consists of Vice Mayor Greg Schmid, Councilwoman Liz Kniss and Councilmen Eric Filseth and Greg Scharff has balked at several requests for new positions, with Filseth and Scharff taking a particularly skeptical role.
Aside from approving nearly five new full-time library positions, the committee has been placing staffing requests in a "parking lot" a list of items that the committee plans to scrutinize further in the coming weeks before making a decision.
One such position is a recreation superintendent in the Community Services Department who would help administer the city's recreation programs and serve as "the lead for citywide special-events coordination." Keene said the position was prompted by the growing demands and staffing challenges in the department. The new hire, Keene argued, would help the busy department manage the workload during a time when Director Rob de Geus is more involved in Project Safety Net, the community initiative to promote youth well-being, and the planned reconfiguration of the city's golf course.
De Geus also noted that the supervisor can assist with community outreach and help the city raise revenues for its array of recreation programs.
"I think it's a good investment because it's a leadership position that can then leverage nonprofit partners and the community to do even more, as opposed to funding specific service delivery," de Geus said.
The committee, however, balked at approving this request. While both Schmid and Kniss supported it, Filseth and Scharff opted to "park" it.
"Our instinct is that community services is one of the things we want to spend money on in Palo Alto, but there's only so much (funding)," Filseth said. "There's quite a bit of paranoia on this side of the table about increasing expenses in the near future, particularly around pension liability expenses.
"I don't know that expenses growing as fast or faster than revenues is a sustainable model for the long term," he added.
Scharff agreed and, while acknowledging that he will ultimately support the position, requested more information about what exactly the superintendent would do. That item, like all the others in the "parking lot" will now resurface at the end of the committee's budget-review process.
Planning Director Hillary Gitelman faced similar scrutiny when she proposed hiring a code-enforcement officer, raising the total number of such officers to three. The new employee would lead the three-person team and would "organize work, assign out duties and make sure the program as a whole is well-managed and proceeding appropriately," Gitelman told the committee on May 7, when her department's budget was reviewed.
"You can only do so much with two people," she said. "We're behind and having difficulty responding to complaints on a regular basis, and we could do more with more resources."
Scharff and his colleagues acknowledged that with the huge number of planning initiatives currently in the works, additional staffing to the Department of Planning and Community Environment makes sense. But Scharff said he was "shocked" by the request to add a code-enforcement officer.
"I mean, really?" Scharff asked. "A code-enforcement person when you have all this planning work that we're piling on you that you say you can't do?"
Kniss argued that adding the position makes sense, given the high number of community complaints about long-lingering construction projects and other code violations.
"I don't know exactly how to define code enforcement, but I do know it's probably the thing I hear the most complaints about," Kniss said.
Filseth, however, supported Scharff's proposal to "park" the request. Filseth also proposed taking the same approach to Gitelman's request to add a "traffic operations lead" who would specialize in traffic signals. The traffic planner would be responsible for "adjusting programming and timing of signal lights, utilizing data generated by the system for analysis and decision-making." The position would also be involved in "general transportation engineering issues, increasing the department's capacity for responding to citizen complaints and suggestions," according to the budget.
Though Filseth didn't dispute that an expert in traffic signals would be a welcome addition to the department, he advocated for hiring someone with those skills to fill one of the department's existing vacancies. The city currently has five unfilled planning positions.
Other committee members, however, said that with traffic and parking near the top of the city's priority list, the position makes perfect sense and tentatively approved it. It also gave the green light to Gitelman's request for a new leader to implement parking and traffic-demand initiatives, including the recently launched Transportation Management Association and the new Residential Parking Permit Program downtown. That part-time parking position was deemed too important to "park" and was approved with no dissent.
However, the committee also decided to place in the parking lot a proposal by the Fire Department, the Police Department and Office of Emergency Services for a senior technologist who would focus exclusively on public-safety technology. Also in the lot is a request by the city's nascent Office of Sustainability for $190,000 for "sustainability consultants" who would help implement the city's green initiatives and identify outside funding for these endeavors.
The Finance Committee is scheduled to wrap up its budget review on May 26, at which point it will issue a recommendation to the full council about the 2016 budget. The council is scheduled to adopt the budget on June 15.