Blasting a gas-powered leaf blower is technically illegal in Palo Alto, but that offers little solace to residents like Bill Rosenberg, who routinely hears their defiant roars.
The city's ban on leaf blowers "gets no publicity and absolutely no enforcement," Rosenberg told the City Council on Monday. A few years ago, he discussed the topic with a police officer who confirmed that the law doesn't really get enforced, he said.
"I'm sympathetic," Rosenberg told the council. "The police do have more important things in town to do. On the other hand, we do have an ordinance and that should be enforced."
Part of the problem is that the city's code enforcement takes place largely on a complaint basis. The city has two code-enforcement officers who take care of all the complaints. Their workload has been steadily rising in recent years, as the number of code-enforcement cases went up from 473 in fiscal year 2005 to 609 in 2014, a 29 percent increase, according to city data. The number of re-inspections has risen from 796 to 1,398 during the same period, an uptick of 77 percent.
Now, the city is making a move to ramp up its code-enforcement operation by hiring a third code enforcer who would lead the team and expand the amount of work that the team could accomplish by 50 percent, according to a report from Planning Director Hillary Gitelman.
The new position proved a tough sell during last month's budget hearings in front of the Finance Committee, which voted to remove it from the budget. But on Monday, the City Council reversed that decision and agreed to restore it.
The idea, council members said, is to make the code-enforcement team more proactive when it comes to leaf blowers, long lingering construction projects and new developments that fail to provide promised public benefits.
Councilman Greg Scharff, who sits on the Finance Committee, said the committee rejected the proposal because the existing two-person team already seems to have a handle on the existing backlog of code-related complaints.
"Obviously, it's better to have more capacity in the system," Scharff said. "What we heard as a committee was that we're getting the work done and that really didn't make for a strong argument for why we need a new code-enforcement person."
During the budget-review process, the committee also requested that City Manager James Keene identify three positions within the entire city organization that could be cut if the need arose to reduce staffing. The decision by Keene to include the new code-enforcement officer position as one of the three further validated the committee's decision, Scharff said.
But Councilman Pat Burt argued that the committee's focus on the complaint backlog is "not a correct consideration." Historically, he said, code-enforcement officers have been proactive as well as reactive.
Today, many code violations take place but are not reported by residents. That doesn't mean the city shouldn't be enforcing them. For instance, the city has many codes that are proactively enforced, whether it's speeding drivers or cars parked illegally next to a red curb.
"We don't go after speeders only if someone dials 911," Burt said.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss, who sits on the Finance Committee but broke ranks and supported adding a third code enforcer, fully supported Burt's position.
"There are a number of areas in town where you see buildings that are half done, lots that are left open and a whole variety of issues," Kniss said. "And I think it's up to us to make sure that essentially we're keeping an eye on what's happening in our community."
Survey results suggest that the lack of proactive code enforcement has not gone unnoticed. In the 2014 National Citizens Survey, only 60 percent of the surveyed Palo Alto residents ranked the city's code-enforcement program as "good or excellent."
"It's an area where we think the Planning and Transportation Department can be better," Gitelman said.
The new position means the department will be able to give more attention to "planned-community" projects to make sure they have fulfilled their conditions of approval. It will also help the department respond to complaints as they come in, Gitelman said. Ultimately, all eight council members (Eric Filseth was absent) voted to restore the code-enforcement position.
The new code-enforcement officer is one of three new positions that Gitelman has requested for her department. The other two, a parking manager and a traffic manager, were approved by the committee and the council with no dissent. The only other department that is getting a substantial staffing increase is the Library Department, which will see 3.3 new full-time positions and 1.5 new part-time positions. The new positions will allow local libraries to expand their hours of operation by 14 percent, or 32 hours.
Other items that are included in the budget, but are expected to see major modifications in the coming months are the city's commitments to funding Project Safety Net, a collaborative that aims to promote youth well-being, and its allocation to the city's animal shelter.
Project Safety Net is preparing to switch to a new "collective impact" model with a more formal structure and a new director.
The city's budget also includes $250,000 for transition costs for a new operation model for animal services, which will likely involve a partnership with an existing nonprofit on the expansion of the city's small animal shelter.
The council tentatively approved the budget by an 8-0 vote and is scheduled to formally adopt it on June 15. The budget presented to the council includes a General Fund with $186.1 million in revenues, $185.5 million in expenditures and a surplus of $480,000 (the surplus was $600,000 but went down to $480,000 after the $120,000 code-enforcement position was inserted back into the budget).
The budget reflects both the city's thriving economy and its growing ambitions. Revenues have gone up by $14.1 million, or 8.3 percent, thanks in large part to big boosts from hotel and sales taxes. Expenditures, however, have risen just as fast, with the city significantly boosting its capital spending and adding new positions.
The new budget includes a five-year capital-improvement program that totals $543.9 million, 64 percent greater than the five-year program included in the current budget.
Vice Mayor Greg Schmid, who chairs the Finance Committee, called the city's capital investment the most noteworthy part of the new budget.
"We are really following a trend of reinvesting in ourselves for the long run and that's a notable triumph," Schmid said.
Yet the budget also reflects the growing cost of employee salaries and benefits, with the latter taking up an ever greater portion of the compensation package. This trend, Schmid said, prompted the committee to take a cautious stance on Keene's proposal to increase staffing by 13 positions.
"Every time we're hiring someone, we aren't just hiring someone for this year, we're making an investment in the long term and we have to make sure that we have revenue streams that can meet those obligations," Schmid said.