Facing an unprecedented budget crisis, members of the Palo Alto City Council approved on Tuesday a series of steep cuts to police and fire services and clashed over whether to delay construction of long-planned infrastructure projects, such as the new public-safety building and the fire station at Mitchell Park.
During a tumultuous meeting that stretched for 10 hours, the council voted 4-3 to reduce the budgets of the city's public safety departments by 9.1%, a move that will eliminate more than two dozen positions in the Palo Alto Police Department and force the Fire Department to increasingly rely on Santa Clara County for ambulance services. The expenditures for the two departments and for the Office of Emergency Services are now set to be reduced from $84.9 million to $77.2 million.
In making the cuts, the council reserved the option of restoring some of the positions later in the budget process, when it also weighs additional cuts to its capital improvement program. But even with that provision, Council members Liz Kniss and Lydia Kou each argued that the cuts go too far. Councilman Greg Tanaka also voted against the motion because it failed to incorporate his request that the city explores eliminating management and supervisor positions in public safety services.
Even those who supported the cuts did so with little enthusiasm. Mayor Adrian Fine called the public safety cuts "a super tough pill to swallow" and called these services "our core obligation and responsibility in the community."
"But we're facing a very hard time and it's going to affect everything," Fine said.
Councilman Eric Filseth agreed but argued that the cuts are necessary, given the precipitous drop in key revenue categories as a result of the economic shutdown. The council directed staff on May 4 to plan for $38.8 million in budget cuts — a grim projection based on steep declines in revenues. With much of the local economy shut down, the city is bracing for a steep drop in sales tax receipts and hotel-tax revenues.
"Nobody really wants to cut any of this," Filseth said. "What you're looking at here is a big part of the reason people want to live in Palo Alto. But the reality is, we're not going to be able to do all of this in its current form because of what happened on the revenue side."
Under the approved budget, the Police Department would see reductions in patrol operations, communications, dispatch and the investigations bureau. The department's traffic-enforcement team that returned in 2018 would be eliminated and there would be reductions in animal control services.
In presenting the cuts, Police Chief Robert Jonsen noted that since 2003, the department has lost 23 positions over the course of various financial downturns and saw the number of full-time positions drop from 177 to 152.
"In one swipe, these cuts potentially will surpass all the steady reductions which have occurred over 17 years, reducing our department another 20%," Jonsen said.
The department has worked exceptionally hard to fill the vacancies, he said. When he joined the city, there were 13 vacancies; today there are four.
"These positions have been filled with outstanding candidates who are presently working their way through our academy or our field-training program," Jonsen said. "It would be a major setback if we had to let any of these individuals go and start from scratch."
The Fire Department would reduce staffing on evenings and weekends and cut back on management and administrative staff to its leanest level, said Fire Chief Geoffrey Blackshire. It will no longer backfill vacancies when a firefighter goes on leave with overtime. Rather, it would pursue a "flexible staffing" model with fewer personnel and situations in which multiple absences could prompt a brownout of a fire station.
Blackshire also noted that with fewer resources, the department will need to rely more on private ambulance services from elsewhere in the county. This, he noted, will necessarily involve slower response times. Blackshire said that in 2019, the department's average ambulance response was seven minutes and 19 seconds, while the county ambulance average was 15 minutes and 39 seconds.
"The more we rely on mutual aid, the longer the response times in the area," Blackshire said. "They're coming from other jurisdictions. And that's assuming the resources are coming to Palo Alto, that those resources are available."
The debate over public safety cuts followed a similarly vigorous disagreement over infrastructure projects. Despite the revenue drop, staff is proposing to move ahead with the major projects on the council's priority list, including a new public-safety building, a reconstructed Fire Station 4 at Mitchell Park and a bridge over U.S. Highway 101. Other projects, including improvements to Byxbee Park and enhancements to the city's bike-boulevard network, will be curtailed.
Kou and Kniss both suggested that the city avoid making cuts in public safety by eliminating some of the items in its proposed capital budget. Earlier in the day, both supported deferring the replacement of a fire station at Mitchell Park. Kou called the proposed cuts to public-safety services "huge."
"I just hope that we have more regard for our community and less for structures — things that are not going to go away, just be deferred," Kou said. "This is about the people who live here."
Tanaka favored delaying other projects, including the replacement of the Newell Road Bridge, a necessary component of a regional flood-control plan. He also suggested deferring the construction of the new police headquarters, which is slated to go up at 350 Sherman Ave. immediately after the city finishes building a new public garage at an adjacent lot.
"I think the delay of the public safety building, or the Newell Road Bridge or the fire station — the average person in the city isn't going to care this much about. But they will care if crossings guards disappear; they will care if libraries close; they will care if the art center is closed. Small changes here really do help," Tanaka said.
Neither recommendation swayed the council majority, though some council members stressed the need to reconsider these projects at a later date.
"These capital projects are important. Not all of them are urgent," Vice Mayor Tom DuBois said. "I do think we can defer some of these. It does push things out a number of years, but I think given the situation, it's probably the right thing to do."
After debating infrastructure changes and failing to reach a compromise on eliminating any projects, the council directed staff by a 4-3 vote, with DuBois, Kou and Tanaka dissenting, to make their own recommendations for reducing the capital budget.
As part of the vote, the council directed staff to reduce the amount that the city transfers from the general fund for capital spending from $7.6 million to $6 million, with the understanding that the savings would go to the city's budget reserve.
DuBois suggested transferring some of the hotel-tax revenues that are normally reserved for capital projects to the general fund, which pays for basic services, but the council majority rejected his proposal.
The occasionally tense discussion highlighted the challenge the council is facing in meeting its ambitious budget-reduction goal. Filseth argued that the typical political process, in which different people bring varying views to the table and hash out a compromise that makes everyone happy, may not work in the current budget season.
"The problem with this process is that it doesn't always work," Filseth said. "When politics meets math, politics wins until it doesn't — then there's hell to pay. We have to be careful about this stuff because it's not what we're used to."
The city also discussed on Tuesday one of the most contentious proposals in the budget: the closure of College Terrace Library. But with the meeting dragging on into the late hours, the council limited its discussion to questions and agreed to defer its decision on libraries and other community services to Wednesday.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.