Guest Opinion: Palo Alto priorities should be the budget gap and hospitals | January 22, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - January 22, 2010

Guest Opinion: Palo Alto priorities should be the budget gap and hospitals

by Bern Beecham

When I stepped down from the Palo Alto City Council two years ago I didn't stop caring about Palo Alto's well-being as a community.

In my eight years of council service I continually strived to enhance our local economy so it could adequately support our city's budget, programs and services, as well as support our local businesses and provide local jobs.

Now the new council has the opportunity to do the same. The council members, returning and new, will be setting their 2010 goals Saturday morning, Jan. 30, 8:30 a.m. at the Palo Alto Unified School District's board room, 25 Churchill Ave.

Their first and most difficult priority will be to balance the city's budget, closing a $5 million gap for the remaining months of this fiscal year (ending June 30) and more of the same for next.

Their second highest priority must be to complete the approval of the expansion and rebuilding of Stanford Hospital and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital.

Since leaving the council I have joined the boards of three local nonprofit organizations, each working hard to raise millions of dollars for major capital and infrastructure projects in Palo Alto. I know first-hand how difficult it is to find new money in today's economic environment. Many businesses we talk to are at their limits. Many families we call have suffered reductions in or even loss of an income. Many who thought they were comfortably retired now have worrisome futures.

Last Nov. 2, we Palo Altans turned down a tax measure to place a large part of the city's deficit burden on our small businesses.

Put simply, many of our local "deep pockets" are much shallower and some are coming up empty.

Many of us have heard about Palo Alto's $5 million operating deficit for this fiscal year. But few are aware of the approximately $500 million shortfall Palo Alto has for upgrading its infrastructure, including buildings, sewers, roads, bridges and parks.

As for my second suggested priority for the new council, I will bypass the many benefits that improved health care facilities would bring to the community and focus on economic impacts. The Stanford and Lucile Packard hospitals expansion will help Palo Alto with many economic and budgetary concerns. This will be a $3.5 billion dollar investment, funded privately. Jobs will be created for the heavily impacted construction industry in the short term and will add more than 2,000 local jobs for the long term, according to initial estimates.

In addition to $18 million paid directly to the city for construction fees and traffic-mitigation measures, the hospitals propose to contribute more than $125 million to the community in the long run to mitigate other impacts of the expansions.

But there is far more at stake than economics in approving the hospitals' upgrade and expansion.

Most of us know that earthquake concerns are the catalyst for upgrading the hospitals, but the city and Stanford have a "hospital relationship" that goes back nearly 80 years, when the old Palo Alto Hospital (where the Lawn Bowling Green now is) was supplanted by the "new" Palo Alto Hospital (now Hoover Pavilion). In the mid-1950s, with energetic support of Palo Alto Medical Clinic founder Russel V.A. Lee, Stanford moved its medical school from San Francisco and built the new "Palo Alto-Stanford Hospital" jointly with the city.

In the late 1960s, beset by bed shortages due to a growing population in the area and priority "teaching" needs for medical students, Stanford bought out the city's share, with guarantees for continued care of community patients.

The Children's Hospital became a special place for caring treatment of seriously ill and terminal patients, relocating from a small hospital along Sand Hill Road to its present site. The two complementary hospitals have far surpassed what would serve as just a local community hospital.

Some argue that that's all we should have, a hospital for our community alone. I strongly disagree. Few of us who have lived in Palo Alto for some time (myself included) have not either directly or through family members benefited from care at these hospitals. We demand the best care possible, which is what I want from my "local" hospital. Serving a larger population base means there is a broader range of services available for all of us.

Other area hospitals are facing threats to reduce services or even close major departments. At our hospitals, we're looking at the benefits of a $3.5 billion investment.

I've toured the core of Stanford Hospital, still dating from the 1960s. Not only does it not begin to satisfy today's seismic requirements, it cannot accommodate current (or future) medical technologies.

Even the basic design of the hospital's shared patient rooms (common when built) is obsolete. Every modern hospital is now designed around single-patient rooms to control infections, provide patient privacy and ensure individual treatment of every patient.

When undergoing surgery some years ago, I could hear every painful conversation between my "roommate," a fairly young heart patient, and his doctors and family — including concern about losing his business if he followed his doctor's advice to slow down to live. And he could hear my conversations. Moreover, my doctor had to release me early because my bed was needed for a new patient just coming out of surgery.

The hospitals' upgrade and expansion will be the single largest and most complex project ever in Palo Alto. The environmental impact report (still delayed and still coming) will detail impacts, both beneficial and negative, and it will outline mitigation measures.

Last year, we lost one of the key economic benefits once associated with this project, an expansion at the Stanford Shopping Center and a new hotel there. In 2005, then Mayor Judy Kleinberg and I personally worked to get this revenue-generating project included in the overall process. This project would have, by itself, come close over time to closing the existing city budget deficit. Delays and excessive mitigation requirements killed this benefit.

Now the council must make very painful cuts in programs and services to close the city's immediate budget gap. That is the top priority for 2010. Approving the hospitals will not erase Palo Alto's immediate fiscal problems. But the new council must get this job done in 2010.

Bern Beecham is a resident of north Palo Alto and served as councilman and mayor for two terms. As mayor, he spearheaded an effort to reinvigorate the Palo Alto economy in the aftermath of a slump in the early 2000s. He can be e-mailed at


Posted by Alison Cormack, a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 22, 2010 at 10:57 am

This is a very important issue and I am pleased to add my support for the new Stanford Hospital project to Bern's. We are incredibly lucky in Palo Alto to have such high-quality medical care here. While I hope that most families never have to experience what we did, I can tell you that the only thing that gave me comfort at that time was knowing that we were at Stanford Hospital in the hands of well-trained specialists.

This project is similar to the library renovation and construction projects in that it takes 50 year old buildings, designed before technology was pervasive in medicine, and makes them work for us today and tomorrow. Further, just as we are rebuilding libraries and the hospital, citizens should expect other crucial infrastructure needs to come forward in the future.

I hope and expect the Council to complete approval of this project in 2010.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 22, 2010 at 3:42 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Instead of millions in mitigation, why not a perpetual 10% discount on resident's hospital bills?

Posted by Gary Gechlik, a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Jan 24, 2010 at 4:35 pm

This is a very important issue. Capital investment by Stanford is often matched in the long run by the federal government. Most residency programs take years to establish. An improved facility offers the opportunity to grow with the aging population.

2010 will be a difficult time for Palo Alto. We are seeing high unemployment in Santa Clara county and government shortfalls in most city budgets.

I think this is why the council must really work with the University. Often, when times are very good, we can take a relationship for granted. When hard times confront us, we find out who our real friends are. Stanford will always be a friend of the city, and the city needs to work very hard always to be a good friend of Stanford University.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 25, 2010 at 10:45 am

I believe Stanford hospital should have the upgrade it needs but not the expansion it requests. I agree the hospital should serve all instead of being limited to Palo Alto residents.

I disagree that it is a good idea to plan and build for ever-increasing population density because we don’t have the water resources to support unlimited population growth. We in the Bay Area need to think first about how to live in an area with limited water resources. We need our local farms and we need our parks and backyard gardens.

Our elected officials need to first fix our sewage infrastructure so sewage doesn’t continue to spill into the Bay. They need to fix our ground water problems (contamination and extremely low water tables due to lack of regulation). They need to improve the quality of our air and as a consequence improve our health. They need to work for maintaining the quality of our schools instead of allowing them to become overcrowded and then suggest we build three and four story schools.

There is open land for hospital growth in nearby cities. Of course cities need to think about revenue, but cities also need to think about what overcrowding brings and what we lose when we support growth for the sake of growth and the enrichment it brings to the few.

Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 25, 2010 at 11:21 am

Mr. Beecham - What thoughtful and pragmatic comments! In order to accomplish any of the things we would like to as a City - including all the environmental goals - we need to put our financial house in order. Thank you for your common sense, I hope our City Council listens to you.

Posted by Marvin, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jan 25, 2010 at 11:21 am

I think Stanford needs to start playing hardball with Palo Alto if a quick, positive resolution is not reached with the city. I am hoping we have gotten past the era of Stanford bashing by the city council now that Kishimoto, Morton and Drekmeier are, thankfully, no longer on the council. Their negativity (constant whining about traffic, claims that Stanford "does not play fair", rude comments made to those that came before the council to speak on Stanford's behalf etc), coupled with the feeling that Stanford is a cash cow to be milked whenever Palo Alto mismanages it's finances, led to the cancellation of the Stanford Shopping Center expansion, which would have provided much needed tax revenue for the city.
Step one would be to assert Stanford's private property rights on the dish area. This issue cannot be allowed to fall into the "Alma Plaza-Palo Alto Process" black hole that seems to be the way council members want development to be handled.

Posted by Beecham represents business, a resident of Stanford
on Jan 25, 2010 at 2:41 pm

The business interests are organized on this issue. Mr.Beecham has always represented business and development interests on the council.
Calling people whiners, when what they want is for their home town to reflect the views of the residents is pretty low. Stanford isn't a cash cow, it is more like a marauding bull. They have BILLIONS to put into development. Please stop the crocodile tears.
Dropping the shopping center was Stanford's decision because of the retail depression. How hard is that to understand?

Posted by Marvin, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jan 25, 2010 at 3:04 pm

Beecham represents business--Palo Alto wants business in town, they want tourists in town, they want people coming to Palo Alto to shop. Remember Destination Palo Alto, the big donation to advertise during the Enior Games? They want tax dollars and that tax revenue, is generated by people shopping in town and staying in hotels.
The Stanford Shopping Center expansion was shut down because Stanford wanted to focus on the hospital expansion after they saw the way the council was handling both issues (we heard endless whining about too much traffic and no new net car trips, complaints that Stanford was evil and did not play fair and was like a medieval duchy and people filtering everything through their fogged up green glasses--courtesy of our now retired troika on the council).
Palo Alto cannot have it both ways. They want money?? Well then Stanford is a nice source and a profitable partnership will benefit both--once our city council learns how to deal with Stanford respectfully. Otherwise, Stanford will have to start cutting Palo Alto off from the benefits they enjoy from Stanford.

Posted by long term, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jan 25, 2010 at 6:22 pm

There is a pattern for some institutions of higher education to expand to another campus when, as the population grows around its original campus, it becomes part of an urban environment.

The expansion campus is first seen as a satellite, but because it is typically located in an area that allows growth and is newer, and gets attention from regents or boards, it rapidly grows into the better campus. Some time after that it becomes the more desirable campus for faculty, then for students and finally for their parents. It eventually becomes the main campus.

Stanford should plan for the day that Palo Alto essentially tries as hard as it can to strangle its growth. Its reputation, faculty, and management talent can drive a far larger university.

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