After tentatively approving on Wednesday afternoon a budget that would close the College Terrace Library, Palo Alto leaders reversed course later in the evening and restored nearly $1 million to libraries and community services.
The decision to restore funding to some of the community services on the chopping block was the final action of a meeting that stretched for 11 hours and that concluded with staff agreeing to find $1 million in savings in the infrastructure program to offset the cuts.
The proposal to close the College Terrace Library for two years was part of a long list of cuts that City Manager Ed Shikada proposed in a budget that seeks to reduce expenses by $38.8 million.
But even with some of the funding restored, the budget that the council approved for the Community Services and Library departments reduces programs at the Palo Alto Art Center, eliminates all performances in the Children's Theatre and reduces hours at the Rinconada and Children's library branches.
The budget that the council approved Wednesday afternoon also includes the closure of the College Terrace Library, a move that many residents argued unfairly signals out their neighborhood.
As part of its action later in the evening, the council directed staff to restore funding for the neighborhood branch and to keep open the Baylands Interpretive Center, which was slated for closure. The council also requested that staff consider ways to restore $400,000 to the Children's Theatre and $400,000 for the Palo Alto Art Center, which would otherwise see a $1 million reduction in funding.
The budget also eliminates more than $500,000 for various teen programs, including MakeX; the Think Fund grant program; and the teen center at the Mitchell Park Community Center.
The unanimous vote to approve the Community Service Budget belied the deep division on the council over the proposed cuts. Vice Mayor Tom DuBois argued in favor of restoring much of the funding for community services by making cuts in other departments, including Public Works. Councilmembers Liz Kniss and Lydia Kou also strongly opposed the cuts, even as they voted to tentatively approve the budget that includes them.
Kniss and Kou argued that the city should reduce its infrastructure spending and preserve community services. The city, Kou said, should not favor "monuments" over community services.
"It's just unacceptable — the amount of service (cuts) to the community — especially to the youth programs and to the libraries and the neighborhoods," Kou said.
DuBois said that the budget proposed by City Manager Ed Shikada takes too much from the Community Services Department, which he noted makes up 21% of the general fund expenses but is being saddled with 27% of the cuts. The Community Services and Library departments will see a reduction of $6.5 million, bringing their collective budgets to $36 million.
"I think we need to restore some of these really low-cost but important services," DuBois said.
But given the council's May 4 directive to staff to cut $38.8 million from the city budget, council members agreed Wednesday that service changes are inevitable. Councilwoman Alison Cormack pitched an idea of temporarily keeping only two large libraries open — Rinconada in the north and Mitchell Park in the south — and using the savings that the city would achieve from shutting the other three branches to offset the massive cuts that the council approved on Tuesday to its public safety departments. Her proposal failed by a 2-5 vote, with only Mayor Adrian Fine joining.
Fine argued that without cutting items, the council cannot meet its budget goals.
"There ain't such a thing as a free lunch," Fine said. "The entire pie is shrinking. Everything – public safety, community services and libraries. And we can't just go through these items and add things back."
The council also heard from dozens of residents, both by email and through personal pleas during the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday budget meetings. Some spoke in favor of retaining teen services, including contributions to the Youth Community Services programs that promote mental wellness. Many urged the council to retain funding for the Palo Alto Art Center, the Children's Theatre and – most notably – the College Terrace Library.
"For our community, the College Terrace Library really is a tremendous center point," neighborhood resident Hank Edson told the council Monday.
Resident Kristen Anderson called the library a "vital part of College Terrace" and a resource for every demographic.
"Closing the College Terrace Library would be a false economy and overall a big step backwards," Anderson wrote to the council. "Please keep it open."
Library Director Gayathri Kanth told the council on Tuesday night that closing the College Terrace Library was "probably the most difficult decision that was taken" but noted that that the branch accounted for only 5% of the checkouts in the city's library system.
Kanth also said that the department will be decreasing its budget for library materials, even despite the fact that e-material circulation has gone up by 40% in the last two months.
In addition, the council approved the budget for the Planning and Development Services Department and for the Office of Transportation, which were slated to see a 16% reduction. The budget cuts include the elimination of the city's free shuttle program, which includes the Crosstown and Embarcadero routes. Chief Transportation Official Philip Kamhi noted that the shuttle has seen a gradual decline in ridership, which went from about 150,000 trips in 2016 to about 100,000 trips in 2019.
"This year, we'd be lucky if we hit 70,000 riders," Kamhi said of the $500,000 program.
The council voted 6-1, with Kou dissenting, to approve the planning and transportation budgets. Cormack called the elimination of the shuttle program "a huge loss" for the people who use the service.
"These are students who don't have access — who aren't able to drive yet, senior citizens who don't have licenses or can't afford cars or have disabilities that make it hard for them (to drive). That's tough," Cormack said.
Editor's note: This article was updated to reflect the actions that the City Council took after it was initially published.
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