As Palo Alto grapples with a bleak budget picture, city officials are considering withdrawing from Cubberley Community Center and shuttering the College Terrace Library entirely.
Both the sprawling community center and the small library on Wellesley Street are popular recreational amenities that residents have been enjoying for decades. Now, with Palo Alto facing a projected $40 million budget shortfall, city leaders are considering closing the library for two years and ending the city's agreement with the Palo Alto Unified School District over Cubberley. The district owns 27 acres at Cubberley and leases them to the city, which in turn rents the facilities to various nonprofits, studios and sports groups.
Both community assets came up on Monday night, as the council held the first of three meetings on City Manager Ed Shikada's proposed budget. The council will continue the budget discussion on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The closure of the College Terrace Library proved particularly unpopular Monday, with residents pushing back Monday against the proposal.
Altogether, the list of budget cuts that City Manager Ed Shikada released last Thursday includes $6.5 million in cuts to community services and libraries. This includes reducing programs at the Children's Theatre and the Palo Alto Art Center, cutting staff at community centers and reducing the hours at Rinconada and Children's libraries.
If adopted as presented, the budget would represent the biggest contraction of city services in decades, with an expected elimination of 91 full-time equivalent positions and 33 full-time-equivalent part-time positions. It also reduces the general fund, which pays for most city services not including utilities, by 18% from the pre-shutdown level, bringing it down to $195.4 million.
Kiely Nose, the city's chief financial officer, noted that the numbers remain somewhat uncertain, given the lack of clarity about how long the shelter-in-place order will remain in place and how long it will take for the economy to recover once the order is lifted.
"Even if the shelter in place is lifted, will people go back to business as usual? Will the economy be in a recession and consumers be hesitant to spend disposably?" Nose asked.
The proposal to shut down the College Terrace library for two years is expected to save about $167,550, a tiny fraction of the city's total budget shortfall.
Some residents believe the proposal is ill-conceived and unfair. Neighborhood resident Sonam Soni called the library branch an "important and integral part" of the community. Rather than cut the College Terrace Library, the city should cut employee salaries or consider closing one of the libraries in the northern half of the city, she wrote.
"It is heavily used and a vibrant part of our community," Soni wrote to the council. "The city provides very few services on this side of the city — no community center, no shuttle service, etc. — please do not take our library away."
Doria Summa, a resident of College Terrace, was part of a group of residents who addressed the council at Monday's virtual meeting and urged it to keep the library open.
"It's not just the library. It's a historic resource, it's a community center," Summa said. "it's a child care center, it's a park. It's a public place where it's free for any person to come in and sit down, to find a respite from the elements and something to educate themselves. Please share whatever kinds of accommodations you have to make across the library system, and don't pick this one to be closed."
Many of her neighbors agreed. James Cook called it a "great, intergenerational meeting place," while Kevin Murray said it was a valuable community resource. Many speakers pointed out that the small library is the only branch that is west of El Camino Real.
"More than ever, we need things like this in this community," said College Terrace resident Annette Ross.
The council didn't make any decisions on Monday about the library budget, which it plans to review in detail on Tuesday afternoon. It also plans to discuss at the May 12 meeting the budget for the public safety departments, which stand to lose about $7.7 million. In the Police Department, this means a reduction of investigative and patrol services and the elimination of the designated traffic-enforcement team. In the Fire Department, it means brownouts of stations when staffing levels are low – a deviation from the current practice of staffing vacancies with overtime.
Vice Mayor Tom DuBois proposed that the city first consider big-ticket items like capital expenditures and pension obligations before weighing cuts to each department. He warned against making cuts that could "change the nature of our community."
"We all know we're going to be making hard cuts," DuBois said. "But if we can be creative and keep an open mind, we can talk about some partial cuts and some deferrals and shift the balance a little bit."
The proposed budget assumes that the economic effects of the pandemic-induced shelter-in-place order will linger through the year, even after the county lifts its health order. The council directed staff on May 4 to cut $38.8 million from the budget.
The bleak budget picture has also upended Palo Alto's plans for Cubberley Community Center, a worn-down but well-used campus on Middlefield Road. Last year, the city and the school district were working on a master plan that envisioned a reconstructed center with shared facilities such as swimming pools and theaters, as well as teacher housing, playing fields and classroom spaces.
Those plans have largely stalled, with little consensus between the city and the school district on the next steps. Now, even the status quo appears in jeopardy. While the city has been leasing about 27 acres from the school district since 1990, and the City Council voted last October to extend the lease by five years, the negotiations appear to have stalled. Rather than reach a new agreement by the end of 2019, when the prior lease expired, the city and the school district entered into a month-to-month agreement for Cubberley space.
Now, the city is considering terminating this arrangement and only renting more limited portions of Cubberley, including the playing fields, the gym and the theater. Shikada said he has communicated his position to school district Superintendent Don Austin. The city's goal is to save about $2.5 million from the Cubberley lease in the next year.
Shikada also said he has talked to Austin about the prospect of turning over any revenue that the city would receive from the Cubberley facilities to the school district. He noted that the city's goal at Cubberley would not be to make money but to make the community center open to the public.
"So we can be relatively austere in terms of our own expectation on revenue, given that our focus is availability of those facilities, while also recognizing that we just don't have the discretion to continue the lease as has been the case over the last many years," Shikada said.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss noted that there will be "some unhappiness from the school district about what we're doing." She also suggested that the budget crunch might be an opportunity for increased collaboration with the district.
"We've needed to share things for a long time," Kniss said. "This is a great time to start doing it."
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