It's been a busy year in Palo Alto's planning department, which accounts for a tiny fraction of the city's workforce and the lion's share of the City Council's concerns.
And if the city's budget is any indication, things won't slow down in the year ahead, with the department playing the leading role in completing the Comprehensive Plan update, revamping downtown's parking policies, review development proposals and dealing with code-enforcement complaints.
But while overall city budget is set to go up by 3.1 percent next year, the Department of Planning and Community Department is actually seeing a slight dip in its budget in the next fiscal year, which begins on July 1.
Unlike last year, the department is not looking for a $500,000 "contingency fund" to support unexpected projects that pop up in the middle of the year. Nor is it spending money to support the nascent Palo Alto Transportation Management Association (that will be supported through a special fund relating to University Avenue parking) or to hire any new employees, despite widespread belief that the city could use some help in the code-enforcement realm. The most recent National Citizens Survey, which came out in January, shows only 52 percent of the city's residents rating code enforcement as "good or excellent," though most respondents also noted that they had not personally observed any code violation.
Councilwoman Karen Holman, who sits of the Finance Committee, shares these concerns. On May 9, Holman proposed looking at ways to fund another code-enforcement position. This could mean relying more on fines and fees to offset the costs of the position, she said.
The idea of further bolstering the code-enforcement program was also floated by Planning Director Hillary Gitelman but did not get the support of City Manager James Keene, whose proposed budget the committee is now reviewing. After Holman's two committee colleagues, Chairman Eric Filseth and Adrian Fine, rejected her recommendation, she voted against the department's budget (the committee's fourth member, Greg Tanaka, was absent).
"It is one of the largest things that people complain about in the public," Holman said of code enforcement.
Gitelman, whose department includes 42.5 full-time-equivalent positions, called code enforcement a "resources-constrained function."
"You can do as much code enforcement as you have people to do it," Gitelman said. "And the more people you have, the more proactive we can be."
The city's current system is based on complaints, she said. More code-enforcement officers would make it possible for the city to be "more proactive and go out looking for violations, particularly when it comes to conditions of approval and things like that."
The budget document shows that in at least one area, the city did in fact ratchet up its enforcement. After hiring a new code-enforcement officer in 2015 (raising the total number to three), the city began to enforce its ban on gas-powered leaf blowers. In 2016, the department investigated about 400 complaints and issued about 250 notices and seven citations, according to the budget.
The budget states that one of the department's initiatives in the coming year will be to continue to improve the code-enforcement program, track officer caseloads and response times and increase "the presence and awareness of code enforcement in the community."
Even without any budget increases, the city's code-enforcement program will be in the spotlight later this year. The office of City Auditor Harriet Richardson is now conducting its own audit of code enforcement. In reviewing the budget for Richardson's office, the Finance Committee voted to add $20,000 for survey work relating to code-enforcement -- an expenditure proposed by Holman.
Richardson said she has seen significant community interest in the upcoming audit, with residents occasionally coming to her office to ask her about code enforcement. She indicated that the new survey could help clarify residents' concerns about the topic.
"We don't really know what it is that residents think is not good about code enforcement," Richardson said.
Completing the Comprehensive Plan and improving the code-enforcement program are just two items on what promises to be another busy year in the planning department. The list of initiatives on the department's agenda includes advancing entitlements for more than 200 housing units; implementing four bicycle boulevard projects; revising the zoning code; planning for Caltrain grade separations; and creating an implementation plan for paid parking downtown.