New city jobs prove a tough sell in Palo Alto

Council committee questions need for staffing increases in proposed budget

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.

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19 people like this
Posted by PAresident
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 22, 2015 at 8:20 am

"...[S]taff is struggling to keep up with the council's work assignments."

This is rich. As most who have experience dealing with City staff would have likely observed, the problem here is that staffers have a leisurely, inefficient work culture that bears little resemblance to the work culture of the general area.

The solution isn't hiring more [portion removed] staffers at every improvement in the health of the host PA economy, and for decades bear the cost of their benefits, etc. Rather, the solution is -- over time -- compelling an efficient work culture. PA should get it's management from the private sector and give direction and incentive to compel this change.

20 people like this
Posted by Abitarian
a resident of Downtown North
on May 22, 2015 at 9:00 am

Well, I'm glad to see our Council Members looking at these requests with a skeptical eye.

It's too bad that they didn't show similar scrutiny before approving the hiring of *two* Assistant City Managers with exorbitant compensation packages.

That money could have surely been put to better use!

17 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 22, 2015 at 9:11 am

We need less "planning" by highly paid bureaucrats and more "doing" by worker bees in this bloated city where they still haven't synchronized the traffic light that causes major backups on one of the 3 access roads to/from 101.

Obviously I'm talking about the Town & Country light.

Maybe our city officials need a multi-million dollar "wayfinding" app to find that intersection to add to the $3,000,000 contract awarded to our former "Transportation" guru to synchronize all the city lights.

7 people like this
Posted by EfficientTraffic
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 22, 2015 at 10:55 am

Oh thank heavens they are looking into a Traffic Czar.
The so-called improvement along Oregon have made cross-traffic waits even longer.
And we all have experienced sitting at a red light for way too long while there's nobody using the green lights. I pull my hair out wondering, how can this not have been figured out yet? Smarter traffic. Get us moving. Help our economy, reduce the pollution from our idling cars.

Oh, one more baffling example: The light near my kids school, at E. Meadow and Cowper. If a car so much as touches the sensor on Cowper, they cause a red light on the much, much busier E. Meadow -- but half the time the Cowper car turns right, obviating the need for the light change. So frustrating as we all wait wait wait for that light to change back.

13 people like this
Posted by 38 year resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 22, 2015 at 11:03 am

This is just how progressive liberals roll. When revenues are on the rise money gets spent on new hires whether needed or not while road repairs and essential services get put on the back burner. Keene is a big time liberal spender. Where did he come from? Berkeley. Need I say more? PA resident worded it so well. Let's get rid of the parasite culture at City Hall and bring in management from the private sector to get some output from these overpaid staffers. Once productivity is up you can then begin to reduce non-contributing staff.

12 people like this
Posted by Slow Down
a resident of Community Center
on May 22, 2015 at 11:08 am

Slow Down is a registered user.

Why do you need to hire a traffic czar to adjust timings on lights? Just fix it.

15 people like this
Posted by Wha?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 22, 2015 at 11:55 am

Nice comment about city staff being "parasitic staffers". I suggest you visit a City facility and interact with the staff and come back and tell me they are parasitic. Staff are doing their jobs, jobs that most that live in Palo Alto wouldn't stoop to do. If you can't be kind, perhaps don't speak. Bet your mother once taught you that.

8 people like this
Posted by Heading for bankruptcy
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 22, 2015 at 12:39 pm

Someone on another thread thought the city was heading for bankruptcy. Sounded a bit pessimistic, but given the unlimited, and sometimes downright ridiculous spending by the current Manager, I think it may be where he is leading us.

That is how you get there, with wild spending while you are prosperous, instead of saving for the inevitable downturn.

10 people like this
Posted by Merry
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 22, 2015 at 12:55 pm

Unfunded pensions and health care liabilities??? Why exactly? Perhaps start funding!

9 people like this
Posted by Carol Gilbert
a resident of University South
on May 22, 2015 at 2:20 pm

Perhaps there is a need for a body here and there, but that many more--NO. And besides that, get rid of the new Assistant City Mgr.

14 people like this
Posted by Jane
a resident of Evergreen Park
on May 22, 2015 at 4:32 pm

After last fall's elections we finally have a couple of highly qualified new council members and finally a majority of council members who won't just roll over and collude with our city manager's empire building. The city manager will be long gone when the retirement pensions and health benefits of all these highly paid city staff come due. The council needs to figure out how to fund this huge debt, because the city manager hasn't, before adding the extras such as sustainability staff, recreation staff, etc. Yes, perhaps extra staff can identify other sources of money, but these aren't essential services. However, having attended or watched a great number of Monday council meetings I have decided that the new director of planning, Hilary Gittelman, is outstanding. Especially now she understands the new council wants to hold her department to a higher standard when reviewing development applications as well as the discretionary decisions within the department's purview, than past council majorities have.

Since the city staff went to a four day work week with supposedly longer work days Monday to Friday, I have heard though I can't verify, that instead of coming in at 7 am staff still turns up at 8 and department's close and the staff goes home at 5 instead of 6 pm. Time to bring back a regular Mon-Fri, 8 to 5, schedule and skip the three-day weekends.

6 people like this
Posted by Jim H.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 22, 2015 at 5:09 pm

You have to admire the shell game they play. Just because they contracted out the street sweeping service does not mean those expenses disappear. They merely show up under "Contract Services" in the budget. Looking at the Salary and Benefits figures, they do, in fact go from $150M in 2015 to almost $159M in 2016. (This assumes that the 2015 number doesn't increase over the next 7 months. However, the Contract Services number also increases from $33M to $36.5 M, and increase of another $3.5M.

Have to wonder how many people on the council have actually read the entire 496 page budget book they were presented.

8 people like this
Posted by City contract
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 22, 2015 at 6:17 pm

What business connection does the former Transportation Director, Jaime Rodriguez, have with the city now? How does a citizen find out if Rodriguez has a contract/financial deal to do work for the city? I've heard rumblings that he has been hired back as a consultant.

6 people like this
Posted by jane
a resident of Evergreen Park
on May 22, 2015 at 7:00 pm

@city contract
You may be able to find out about the contract Jim Keene awarded Jaime Rodriguez when he "resigned" following a disclosure that he was running a couple of businesses on the side (traffic planning for other cities and a paving company) by reading back articles of Palo Alto Weekly. That the city knew about this when they hired him and took his word that he did this on his own time shows great lack of judgement by the city manager, and a lot about city hall culture.

9 people like this
Posted by Enough Already
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on May 22, 2015 at 7:52 pm

NO more staff. Period.

We can't afford more exorbitant salaries for bloated, underperforming city departments. Much less the generous pensions and boundless healthcare benefits.

Let's use the private sector to do the real work where we, the taxpayers, are not indentured with huge personnel costs for decades.

8 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 22, 2015 at 8:39 pm

Jane, re Mr. Rodriquez's consulting contract, do a search here on Palo Alto Online and you'll find articles stating that Mr. Keene intends to keep him as a consultant, Claudia Keith saying he has been retained as a consultant and years of background.

Also see:

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by oh really
a resident of Midtown
on May 22, 2015 at 9:24 pm

The city council questioning bloat? The Palo Alto City Council?!?!? Are pigs flying by or something?

Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 23, 2015 at 10:20 am

The City itself through its disastrous policies has created it's own workload in the Planning Dept- the need to study and try to respond to all the problems as the breaking point was hit with the public. This comes up against Keene's top priority the last two years to increase staff to streamline and expedite development proposals.

The City responds when forced to, never anticipates and the same is true with the impact of the drought- apparently no mention of it or credence given to it in the budget even though it is potentially an economic game changer as well. But don't worry about it now.

Like this comment
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on May 29, 2015 at 6:48 am

Marie is a registered user.

I'm very disappointed that the cc turned down a third code enforcement officer. There are so many code violations. Especially with the city administration encouraging Air Bnb to continue hundreds of rentals a night, (Air Bnb has agreed to collect the 14% TOT), the city needs to at least provide faster and more complete responses to residents who complain about noise, litter and partying by some Air Bnb rentals.

If the city's policy is to only enforce city codes when neighbors complain, then they need to be prepared to quickly respond to those complaints. As someone who has complained about numerous code violations in my neighborhood, I can tell you from experience that very few have been resolved, partially because of the necessity of triage by the code enforcement officers. There is not enough time in the day for the code enforcement officers to respond to violations, especially when there is no penalty for violating the ordinance. The enforcement officer I have worked with is very responsive to my emails - but he has only gotten a few of the code violators to comply.

There are dozens of employees to help developers and only two code enforcement officers. I hope the city council changes their mind and hires a third code enforcement officer to improve the quality of life of the existing residents.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 29, 2015 at 1:46 pm

@Marie, I'm curious what kind of code violations you've been reporting (without getting too specific as to identify yourself or your neighbors). Is this process anonymous, or do your neighbors figure out who reported them? Are there any repercussions or retaliatory actions?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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