Even as the state slowly begins to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, Palo Alto City Manager Ed Shikada is preparing for a second year of budget cuts, with libraries, community services and the public safety departments all facing significant service reductions.
Under Shikada's proposed budget for fiscal year 2022, the Children's, Downtown and College Terrace libraries would all be closed to the public, though each would be equipped with vending machines that allow for contactless distributions.
Fire Station 2 in the College Terrace neighborhood, which already experiences "brownouts" during weekday nights and weekends, would see these brownouts extended to all day, every day. This means it would be effectively shut down when firefighters in the department are on leave for any reason.
The Police Department would lose five more patrol officers under the proposed budget, following a year in which 11 positions were cut.
"As a result, the Department anticipates increased response times and non-response to various types of calls for service, a transition to mandatory online reporting for certain report types, reduced capacity to perform patrol-level investigations and respond to quality of life issues, and reduced adopt-a-school (K-8) traffic enforcement," the budget states.
Community services would also suffer. The Children's Theatre would lose a costume designer and administrative support staff. The theater, Shikada wrote, "will need to find ways to creatively reuse their existing costume collection, or seek donations instead of fabricating new costumes." And the Palo Alto Art Center would lose all city support for its exhibition programs for the first time in its 50-year history, according to the budget.
Shikada is proposing to eliminate all teen programs and free Family Day programs at the Rinconada Park institution, as well as scrap the Cultural Kaleidoscope, a bridge-building program that brings artists to elementary schools in the neighboring communities in East Palo Alto and Menlo Park.
Even with these cuts, the proposed general fund would be about 4.4% higher than in the current fiscal year, when the city cut $39 million in response to the economic impacts of the pandemic. The budget includes a $205.6 million general fund and $152.9 million in capital spending in the coming fiscal year. The budget also eliminates the dozens of positions that the council froze last year during its budget-setting process. Combined, the current budget and the proposed one eliminate 96 full-time-equivalent positions and 129 positions, resulting in a workforce of 939 employees, which includes 490 in the general fund.
In recommending the latest round of service reductions, Shikada stressed in his transmittal letter that the strategies proposed in the budget "are neither recommended nor sustainable for the fiscal health of Palo Alto in the long-term."
The budget, he wrote, "reflects our current fiscal reality as a result of the ongoing, extended pandemic, related economic challenges and continued resource limitations."
"As the hopeful signs for recovery continue, this Proposed Budget positions Palo Alto well to respond quickly and adapt should more moderate growth occur than forecasted," Shikada wrote. "However, the City's long-term fiscal health must be addressed through more sustainable approaches to address the community's service priorities into the future."
That said, some changes are expected to remain for the long term. The city, for example, has been partnering with a national organization (currently known as Polco Citizen's Survey) for nearly two decades to poll residents about their satisfaction with various city services. Traditionally, the survey has been coordinated by the City Auditor's Office and released in time for the council's priority-setting process in the beginning of each year.
But over the past two years, as the council outsourced auditing services and eliminated all auditor positions at City Hall, the responsibility for the survey was shifted to Shikada's office. Now, he is proposing conducting the survey every two years rather than every year. This means the next survey would take place in fiscal year 2023.
This, he wrote in the budget, "will ensure the feedback from the community is received on a routine and consistent basis in order to assist in informing staff and the City Council on its priorities and areas for further focus and improvement" (the budget doesn't explain how conducting the survey less frequently than in the past would help with this effort).
He acknowledges, however, in the budget document that the city is expecting to see some negative feedback in response to the many cuts being proposed in the Community Services Department.
"There will likely be a reduction in satisfaction and quality of service due to the lower level of service, however the department will ensure that the services provided will be of a continued high quality," the budget states.
The budget process will kick off this week, when Shikada provides an overview to the council in a Monday night study session and then presents the budget to the Finance Committee on Tuesday afternoon. The committee will then go through each department's budget in the coming weeks and either recommend approval or modifications.
Some residents are already suggesting that the budget goes too far in gutting popular programs. Supporters of the Children's Theatre have been urging the council in letters not to approve the cuts being proposed in the budget. In addition to positions reductions, Shikada has proposed the full closure of the theatre as a "Tier 2" strategy that would be undertaken if the revenues plummet even further than expected. The closure, and other more significant service reductions (including the complete closure of Fire Station 2), are not being recommended at this time, thanks in large part to the fact that the city has received federal aid through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
Michele Wang, a board member at Friends of the Palo Alto Children's Theatre, wrote to the council that the theatre "provides a safe community for children to express themselves and connect to like-minded youth."
"With these deep cuts, our children will no longer have access to their strong community or opportunities to express themselves," Wang wrote. "It devastates me to see this city jewel dwindle."
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.