Palo Alto seeks help with 'difficult' budget | April 16, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 16, 2010

Palo Alto seeks help with 'difficult' budget

Faced with $8.3 million gap, city plans to lay off dozens of workers, may reduce library hours, institute park fees

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto officials are bracing for two months of painful negotiations with residents over City Manager James Keene's sweeping plan to lay off dozens of city workers and possibly reduce library hours, contract out park maintenance and charge residents for visiting three major open-space preserves.

The conversation officially kicked off at Monday night's City Council meeting, where Keene presented a budget filled with more than $11 million in cuts and new fees.

These include eliminating 75 positions, requiring homeowners to pay for sidewalk repairs and eliminating a five-officer traffic team in the Police Department.

The plan seeks to close a projected $8.3 million budget gap in fiscal year 2011, which begins July 1. Keene's proposed budget includes more than $2 million in surplus cuts to give the council more flexibility in deciding which programs to cut and which positions to eliminate.

Administrative Services Director Lalo Perez called the 2011 budget the most difficult one he's ever worked on.

"We had reductions in the past but never at a level that impacts the community on this magnitude," Perez said Monday night.

Keene seeks to reduce costs by contracting out many services currently performed by city employees, including tree trimming, custodian service and maintenance of the Palo Alto Golf Course, Mitchell Park and Rinconada Park.

Other services would be curtailed or absorbed by other personnel. Eliminating the Police Department's traffic team would require other patrol officers to spend more time on traffic enforcement. The Community Services Department would lose one of its four division manager positions, which will require the other managers to take over more duties, Keene said.

The city's afternoon shuttle would be eliminated and its cross-town shuttle would be limited to one run, Perez said. The College Terrace library, which is undergoing renovations and is scheduled to reopen in November, would be shut down for an additional eight months. Main, Mitchell Park and the Children's Library would be closed on Mondays.

The proposal will be discussed and revised over the next two months by the council's Finance Committee. But while council members offered brief comments, a few community members voiced concern about Keene's budget proposal. Former Vice Mayor Jack Morton urged the council to focus less on community services and more on the police and fire expenditures, which he said were too high.

"The community is looking to you, the council, to find ways in which the budget can be balanced, but not be balanced on their backs," Morton said.

Catherine Martineau, executive director of Canopy, a group that advocates for urban forests, warned that contracting out tree maintenance may impact work quality and cause irreversible harm to local street trees.

"There are things you can close and reopen, but it might not be the same way with trees," Martineau said.

Bob Moss, a land-use watchdog, also criticized a proposal to charge fees to visitors to Foothills, Pearson-Arastradero and Baylands parks. The city would spend more money to collect the fees than it would get back in fees, Moss argued.

The council generally refrained from commenting on specific cuts in Keene's proposal, though Councilwoman Karen Holman warned that she might not support major reductions to library hours. She alluded to the voters' passage of a $76 million bond for library improvements in 2008.

"I think the public has spoken pretty loudly and clearly about how much they cherish the libraries," Holman said.

Budget cuts are not new to Palo Alto, which closed a $10 million gap in the beginning of the current budget year and then another $6.2 million gap mid-year. The city filled these gaps by reducing employee benefits, eliminating 20 vacant positions and transferring funds from various reserves into the General Fund, a $146 million fund that pays for core services such as police, firefighters, street repair and recreational programs.

But with revenues dwindling and deficits projected to grow in the coming years, Keene and the council decided to focus on permanent "structural" cuts in 2011.

The proposed budget eliminates 8 percent of all full-time positions supported by the General Fund, as well as 18 temporary positions. It would impact 119 individual jobs, including 70 that are currently filled.

Keene called the proposed layoffs "absolutely the worst, most unfortunate aspect of these kinds of recommendations and in trying to deal with this budget." But he also pointed out that the process could also make the city's operation more efficient.

"There's good reasons for bureaucracy, but many of them lie in the past and we're dragging them around," Keene said. "We're going to have to shed that baggage."

The council is scheduled to approve the 2011 budget in June.

There will be outreach to the community. This week, Keene took his presentation to neighborhood groups, including the Midtown Residents Association on Tuesday. A few of the 30 people who attended offered their ideas on how the city could cut the budget, including eliminating fire stations, transferring operation of the Children's Theatre and Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo to nonprofit organizations, and lowering commercial rent to attract new businesses.

It was the start of a process that city officials hope will ease the pain of impending cuts.

"Whether it be neighborhood groups or community organizations of different sorts, we're really welcoming having significant participation in this process — because it's not going to be easy," Mayor Pat Burt said Monday night.

Talk about it

How do you propose Palo Alto can close its $8.3 million budget gap? Share your ideas on Town Square, the online community forum, on Palo Alto Online.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at


Posted by Julia, a resident of University South
on Apr 13, 2010 at 9:33 am

Maybe we should consider delaying unnecessary renovations to California Avenue and instead keep our libraries working?

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 13, 2010 at 10:32 am

The Council will adopt a Final Budget by the end of June. For more information on the City’s preview budget, visit Web Link

The current 2010-11 operating budget (before cuts) is at:
Web Link

Send email to and

Posted by Frank, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 13, 2010 at 10:56 am

I love how Jack says to keep the library hours and cut the police and least our councils priorities are in order. When there is a major incident, and I realize there may be only a few of these a year, maybe you can call your local librarian to catch the guy speeding down your street or bring a hose to put out your house fire. When crime picks up or someone dies as a result of the emergency folks not getting there in time due to a lack of resources, we can all thank our city manager.

Posted by Too Much Traffic, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 13, 2010 at 11:08 am

I also love how in today's Daily Post Jack Morton (former vice-mayor and 8 year vet of the city council) claims that the council was in denial on salaries. Note how he takes no responsibility for his actions while on the council. We will have to make cuts across the board--this has been coming for years--Jack chose to ignore it while on the council, spending most of his time defending Pat Briggs and vilifying Stanford.
He helped get us into this situation. the least he could do now is sit quietly on the sidelines.

Posted by Cant understand, a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 13, 2010 at 11:37 am

What is really remarkable is how skillful the staff is at not answering straightforward questions. They never say yes or no. They launch into long explanations and repeat irrelevant background and make it sound as though they are responding. The questioner gives up, what can they do. I remember Larry Klein once responded to a long answer, "So that's a Yes?"
I couldn't figure out what the library director said in response to the simple question about the number of Reference librarians since people do most of their own searches now. She made a long involved irrelevant response. What did she say?

Posted by Darwin, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 13, 2010 at 11:47 am

Cant Understand-

I'm not defending any of the staff. However, I have noticed from watching the meetings that council members tend to often ask overly simplistic questions that cannot really be answered in short responses.

Posted by Can't understand, a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 13, 2010 at 11:52 am

So why not say so? They never say I don't know.
If you did watch, what did she say?

Posted by Jerry, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 13, 2010 at 11:57 am

The vote for the library bond is somewhat similar to the vote for the high speed rail bond. It is a feel good thing, without regard to structural deficits. In general, Palo Alto citzens are irresponsible, they want what they want, and always figure the money will be found. Not this time.

Shut down all but one library; it will become the main city library, and will possibley be a good one.

Eliminate the frills, like support for PACT, which should have its own nonprofit fundraising board, just like other youth recreational activities.

Eliminate the sustainability czar. Eliminate the Opportunity Center. Allow herbicides and pesticides to be used for park maintenance (improved efficieny). Encourage business, by eliminating many regulations.

Cut police and fire by 5%, across the board. Take on a strike, if necessary.

Cut city staff by 10%, allowing the city manager to determine who goes and who stays.

Eliminate the PAHC and put an end to BMRs, they are a drag on our economy, as well as a hidden tax.

There are many other possible cuts, as well as economic enhancers.

Along with all of the above, DON'T go whining to city council about the required cuts in services and regulations.

Posted by Catherine, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 13, 2010 at 12:50 pm

At the Baylands there are signs "Do not leave valuables in car". How long does the city mgr. think a $$$ fee collection box will survive intact even overnight? There are enough problems with auto break-ins and alleged drug dealing. Please get real. We've been this proposal route before for the Baylands and previous councils knew it wouldn't work and turned it down "This is small potatoes". . As for Foothills Park, when fees were imposed, entrance counts plummeted, and it cost more to collect the $$ than there was taken in. Keene is wrong to think the city can make $100K on this idea. It will cost much more in good will. Cut salaries on the 6th and 7th floors.

Posted by Irina Cross, a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 13, 2010 at 1:40 pm

It is very easy to say don't fix "their" streets. I don't think we should be engaged in neighborhoods "who got what" arguments. We are all in the current mess together. The questions we should be asking is how our leadership got us there and what they are really going to do not only get us out but keep us solvent in the future. I would like to see much more open discussion about benefits our city is paying to the employees using our money. Show us hard numbers about benefits and salaries.
If we will know the facts we will see what really is eating our city.

Posted by anonymous, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 13, 2010 at 2:35 pm

I am reading substantive ideas in these posts here! - hope the PA City Council and management pay attention.

Silly things like installing new bureacracies to collect minor fees won't help major structural issues.

Time to delete the 1M per year donation to PA children's theatre, for a start at saving a good chunk of cash.

Posted by Deep Throat, a resident of Professorville
on Apr 13, 2010 at 3:05 pm

Jack Morton joined the City Council when it was still possible to earn lifetime medical benefits with only five years on the City's payroll. Will Morton give up his lifetime medical benefits to help balance the budget?

Posted by Retired Staffer, a resident of another community
on Apr 13, 2010 at 3:07 pm

A good start would be abandonment of the SAP database that eats money (and drove Richmond into bankruptcy) followed by less costly police cars (Dodge Chargers instead of Fords) and bidding-instead of negotiating-utility commodity purchases. It's the THINGS, not the PEOPLE.

Posted by Chalie, a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 13, 2010 at 11:29 pm

"The city's afternoon shuttle would be eliminated and its cross-town shuttle would be limited to one run."
So the city wants the kids or people who use the shuttles in the morning to walk home in the afternoon!!! And the cross-town shuttle is solely for the purpose of sight seeing. Is it a plan or a joke?

Posted by Ugg, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 14, 2010 at 10:10 am

The problem with many of these proposals is we've seen them all before. Our City staff has no institutional memory or they wouldn't propose them again; cutting library hours, shuttle bus service etc.
As for collecting money to walk in the parks. Been there done that, it didn't work before and it won't work this time, because it costs more to pay a collection person than they collect!!

Posted by senior, a resident of Community Center
on Apr 14, 2010 at 10:16 am

The city's afternoon shuttle would be eliminated and its cross-town shuttle would be limited to one run. **What does "ONE RUN" mean and how does one return if there is no afternoon shuttle? Definitely needs clarication and correction.**

OUTRAGEOUS! Many Palo Alto residents rely on the shuttle for their main source of transportation around the city.
Of course this elinination of service does not concern city manager, staff and council since they all drive.

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 14, 2010 at 10:49 am


Posted by Wondering, a resident of another community
on Apr 14, 2010 at 11:03 am

Nearly all the usual hands are on deck for this "hot button" topic. I see fireman and pat in the posts above. Marvin, where are you? Out of your bunk and on deck, sailor!

Posted by Think Before You Sign, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 14, 2010 at 11:58 am

If you signed the Firefighter unions' petition, you just gave away Council's leverage to negotiate with that union. The measure, which Palo Alto Fire Fighters Local 1319, hopes to place on the November ballot, would require the city to set the current staffing level at the department as a "minimum number" that must be "continuously maintained." Any proposal to eliminate positions, close a fire station or reduce the department's paramedics emergency medical services would require the approval of BOTH the City Council AND the voters, according to the measure.

First, it will cost the city money to put this item on the ballot if the union gets enough signatures. More importantly, City Council has to deal with a long-term structural deficit that is largely related to employee benefits packages. There will be general cutbacks in services, etc. as we can see in this week’s announcement. Council also will need to negotiate with the unions to deal with the long-term structural deficit. As a matter of policy, each of us should consider whether or not we want to tie Council’s hands in these negotiations by requiring a vote of the people (who are generally uninformed about specific city budget and staffing issues). Presently, we can hold Council responsible for the budget because they have authority to manage it. If we don’t like how they use that authority, we have the opportunity to vote Council members out of office. The question I hope we’ll consider is--do we really want to take budget management authority away from our elected officials?

If you goofed and signed, you still have an opportunity to VOTE AGAINST this measure in November. I will. This is Bad Policy. I appreciate our firefighters, but they overstepped with this one. Their budget has increased 12% over the last five years. Their whole package must be on the table...and taking it to the voters only gives the union leverage.

Posted by Jerry, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 14, 2010 at 1:15 pm

There remains the attitude, in Palo Alto, that there will be a bailout. Somehow, some deep-pockets will come to the rescue. This mystery entity is either some private persons/foundations, or state funds or federal guv. Therefore, there is no serious talk of real cuts of favorite programs. Just try cutting PACT!

There are already serious rumblings of having the federal government bailing out the states. The argument goes, "They bailed out the banks, so why not the states!?. I don't agree with either concept, but I think it is more likely than not that it will happen. I think Palo Alto is waiting for this to happen.

The end result of the federal bailout will be inflation, which is a boon to the rich and a very regressive tax on the poor. Oh well, the books always get balanced in the end. The rich in Palo Alto will be pleased, then we can all go back to asking them to write even more private checks to save our various pet projects. Circled neat!

Posted by danny, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 14, 2010 at 2:46 pm

ok, here is what I don't understand.

When the spin started happening last year or so about budget cuts and deficits, someone somewhere suggested across-the-board pay cuts. It made some sense to me because the Daily Post had been exposing the extravagant salaries and benefits for local government employees. Then somebody somewhere started talking about labor unions. Now we're hearing about layoffs and program elimination as part of the budget cut process to "cure the deficit" of $8.3 million dollars.

From the figures, Palo Alto city employees get about $100 million per year not counting benefit packages. So this means in order to make up the deficit, each employee could get his pay reduced 8.3% per cent. This means an employee getting $100,000 per year would have his salary reduced to $92,700 for a year, which is still well over 20-30 times the money I get as a homeless bum.

Do we want public employment to function independent of the overall economy? I would suggest not. How would it feel if everyone lost their home and their income capacity while public employees receive extravagant salaries?

Public employee contracts are not sacred as no right to a certain level of pay is absolute. See Buffalo Teachers Federation v. Tobe 464 F.3d 362. Web Link

Exceptions to the "obligation of contracts clause" of the Constitution include some balance with the public welfare. The reason Palo Alto employees have such high salaries have much to do with the prosperity of the general economy anyway. The Dow is currently about 3/4 what it was before the recession when the current pay scales were accepted. The Dow is still very high - about what it was when Bush took office and about 5 times what it was when Clinton took office. If we implement layoffs and program cuts over mere monetary concerns, we will be merely insulating "the survivors" from a slightly more financially adverse general economy. Is this right to do? Is it right to increase taxes, fees, and webcam fines to support this?

dhm at freeshell dot org

Posted by Eric, a resident of Green Acres
on Apr 14, 2010 at 11:29 pm

The following was posted for Monday nights Council Agenda

15. Colleague’s Memo from Council Members Holman, Klein and Scharff
Requesting that the City Council Recommend to the Voters of Palo Alto
That They Not Sign the Union Petition Seeking to Remove the Ability of
the Council to Determine Appropriate Staffing Levels for the Fire

Posted by Penny, a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Apr 15, 2010 at 2:32 am

Hee,hee - I've been waiting for this to happen. No surprise. Why? Because there is NOBODY at the top in Palo Alto that can be ELECTED out of office. So, Palo Alto, continue to live with a collaborative group of NINE people who come and go every two years (by roughly half), promising this and that in their campaigns even though they don't have any individual power. And it goes merrily along until the City Manager gets to "take action", while heat is deflected away from Council. So now, everyone will jump on Keene, who by the way is a nice guy, but very plain vanilla when it comes to innovation in the 21st century of municipal management. But what the hey does he care - for $250K+ I'd take heat, too. Look, people, get about ELECTING a MAYOR. Call that person your leader for 4 years, and if s/he does good, elect her again! If not, throw her out! At least you get off this merry-go-round of no accountability. Are Palo Altans really smart people? We're about to find out.

Posted by chris, a resident of Community Center
on Apr 15, 2010 at 7:44 am

Agree on the above, we need an elected mayor who can be held accountable. Only then will the budget mess in city hall have a chance of being sorted out.

Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 15, 2010 at 10:20 am

Some ideas:

Require the Zoo and Children's Theater to be self-supporting.
Charge more for non-residents for using Rinconada.
Have a one time pool pass for residents for the summer.
Instead of eliminating the shuttle - charge a reasonable fee, perhaps monthly, to use it.
Close the Downtown and College Terrace libraries permanently. Use the space to generate revenue or in the case of DT, for expanding the City Hall/Police Building.
Stop paying for things we can get for free such as public art.

Posted by jardins, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 16, 2010 at 12:40 am

Has anyone added up the fees the city has spent on consultants in the last decade?

Every issue that comes up for decision seems to need a consultant--at enormous fees, like $250,000 to tell the council which garbage company to use (one or two years ago).

Informed decisions shouldn't have to cost that kind of money in a community of intelligent people.

I think that the city wouldn't have such a budget crisis if it stopped regarding the use of over-costly consultants as a status symbol!

Posted by bill, a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 16, 2010 at 8:43 am

There are many causes of our budget short fall - most mentioned above. The thing no one has mentioned is that government is a service. It doesn't produce any product, merely maintains its structure which costs money. We want lots of services but are unwilling to pay for them.

But now the proverbial chicken has come home to roost. We either pay for the services or cut back or eliminate them. Look at all the services Palo Alto asks for. Which do you want to either pay for or get rid of? We must do one or the other in this climate of decreasing revenue.

Posted by Charlie, a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 16, 2010 at 10:01 am

The city will spend 1.8 mil in exploring the green watse idea. It's stated in the budget.

Posted by Betty, a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 18, 2010 at 10:52 pm

Many seniors and students who's not driving relies heavily on the shuttle, instead of cutting the already few services to the seniors and students, look at all the other fluff we are having. Why waste the money on renewing the Greer Park? Repining and everything, it's crazy wasteful use of our money.

Posted by Jack, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Apr 18, 2010 at 11:17 pm

Police. It's not a popular opinion, but I think it's the right one and here's why.

Police are typically "feel good" expenses. It's an illusion as far as I'm concerned. Some police are needed, but to stop crime, the answer is not more police. The answer is following up on crimes, learning about people who are criminals, and stopping them.

In every city I've been in, the police only really do a few things. Arrest people with warrants and write traffic violations. And go "fishing" with incidental stops.
The militarization, special favors, and being above the law has gone too far.

If your car gets broken into, or you are mugged at gunpoint, you typically fill out a police report which gets filed away, never to be seen again.

To illustrate my point, how many times have the police made your day better? How many times have the police helped you when a crime has been committed against you?
How many times have the police made your day worse? How many times do you feel you've deserved it?

"Incidental stops" need to go. I know how to handle myself now by not volunteering myself, but it's a really scary situation when you're WALKING on the sidewalk, and an officer stops you asks for ID, searches you.
"Incidental stops" during traffic stops need to go. "I stopped you because your tail light was out, do you have any drugs or weapons in the car? Have you ever been arrested? Do you have a warrant?" And these things have to do with my tail light? I for one am tired of that nonsense and want to see that kind of thing go far far away to get closer to my utopian vision. Which is why I'm posting this here and share my opinion with the masses.

The job of the police is to enforce the law, not help you. Their job is to keep you in line, not protect you. If you're innocent and you're talking to the police, keep that in mind. Their job is not to help you, their job is to do what their boss says and report back to them.

Every incident I've ever had from now on, I relay back to the watch commander. If it was good, bad or other, I report it back. It may make me seem like a kook, but I'd rather have more than one side of the story presented.

Fund the libraries. Fund the parks. Fund the police if they actually help people when it comes to the average person losing out. People generally protect nice things and respect nice things. Generally.
I for one am a big believer in the "Broken window theory". Look up Fixing Broken Windows. Bubblegum Alley in San Luis Obispo is a perfect example of people doing what they feel is acceptable. Beautification is strangely the strongest crime prevention technique.

Posted by Senor Blogger, a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 19, 2010 at 1:57 pm

Ask the Firemen who are circulating the petitions if they are on duty or not.
Then ask them where they live.
Then ask them where they are sleeping tonight. In the firehouse?

Posted by My VOTE, YES, a resident of Community Center
on Apr 20, 2010 at 5:05 am

To City Manager Keene:

You have my VOTE.

Go for it. You got it this right. The noise you will hear is from the people who get affected. However the "volume" of the noise may make you feel it is a majority. It is NOT.

Posted by j, a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 1, 2010 at 10:23 pm

Do you know that our recycling is being stolen everyday from folks? Everyday they are taking away funds that can be used in other area's to help FD, PD, Parks etc. Apartments, bin's on the street, store's are being plilage everyday. Yes, they need funds too, but these little things help Palo Alto...

Posted by Trim the Fat, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 3, 2010 at 10:20 am

Start with the 7th floor, and pare back the million+ dollar City Manager's office.
Are all these Assistants to the City Manager necessary - really?

Posted by Steve, a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 17, 2010 at 9:39 pm

How about not blowing $3,500,000 in city funds to buy Ole's Garage at over market-value. And subsidizing Eden Housing's ultra-low income housing project?

Posted by peter carpenter, a resident of Atherton
on Jun 17, 2010 at 9:56 pm

peter carpenter is a registered user.

Palo Alto needs to do zero based budgeting - start from scratch and decide what the citizens need. Then the City should decide whether to "make or buy" each of these essential services.

Here are some examples of things Palo Alto could "buy' much less expensively than it could "make" (i.e. produce themselves):

1 - Outsource police services to the Sheriff.
2 - Consolidate the Fire Department with the MPFPD with which PA has a very long common geographical boundary.
3 - Outsource all public works activities to qualified contractors on a competitive bid basis
4 - Outsource all building permits and inspections to a pre-qualified list of private inspectors with the full costs being borne by the permittee.
5 - Consolidate the City's human resource function with the human resources functions of one or more nearby communities.
6 - Consolidate the City's finance function with the finance functions of one or more nearby communities.
7 - Consolidate the City's purchasing function with the purchasing functions of one or more nearby communities.

Posted by Barbara Platt, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jul 5, 2010 at 8:33 am

Street sweeping should be reduced from once weekly to a lesser frequency.

Thanks for your consideration,

Barbara Platt

Posted by Palo Alto Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 1, 2016 at 3:53 pm

1 - Cut salaries.
2 - Negotiate a reduction in pension payments.
3 - If that doesn't solve the problem, declare bankruptcy.
4 - Elect as many new city council people as possible.
5 - Start over.

Posted by Uhhhh??, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 1, 2016 at 7:03 pm

@ Palo Alto Resident

You realize that this article is 6 years old, right?

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