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Guest Opinion: A better way to save vital city services

Original post made on May 22, 2020

The COVID emergency is forcing our city government to face the most difficult challenges it has encountered in decades. Valued services that define our Palo Alto community are proposed to be cut severely: our police and fire departments, parks and open space, libraries, community centers, transportation and youth services. Less visible, but deeply valued, regulatory functions such as code enforcement, parking management and development review/oversight, are also on the chopping block.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Friday, May 22, 2020, 12:00 AM

Comments (31)

64 people like this
Posted by Sensible
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 22, 2020 at 7:33 am

This seems a sensible rational path that our city council should take.
It’s gets the city the funds we need.
It does no long term harm given the circumstances.
It’s fair to all parties.

The current whimsy-based direction is needlessly cutting less expensive resident services, even to our teens and children, yet saving very expensive projects that actually can be delayed.

It’s time to change course as stated in this Opinion.
Email city council now before it meets on the 26th:
city.council@cityofpaloalto.org


27 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 22, 2020 at 8:16 am

"This is a difficult time with tough decisions for our city leaders, but with smart choices, we can...."

Excellent points except the CC had other more pressing priorities: saving us from the horrors of grandpa buying flavored pipe tobacco and a few teens illegally buying vape products from local smoke shops. So they're throwing the baby out with the bath water with their nanny-ban in the middle of a huge economic downturn -- even if it closes one of the town's oldest sales-tax-generating businesses AND deprives ADULTS of their legal right to buy legal products

Since they don't think grandpa and the kids are smart enough to shop online or make the arduous journey to a nearby town, I despair of PA ever making the "smart" choices.

I don't smoke cherry-flavored pipe tobacco or vape but I am horrified that the CC -- including CC members I supported -- could make this nanny-ban a priority NOW rather than cutting the huge capital expenditures budget described above.

Smart cost-effective government would be special but it's evidently a pipe dream here.


7 people like this
Posted by Volunteerism
a resident of Barron Park
on May 22, 2020 at 9:12 am

Many municipal services could be maintained if Palo Alto residents (based on individual skill levels) got off their duffs and volunteered to assist and compensate for the various cutbacks.

VOLUNTEER for routine park and golf course maintenance, protective services & first response (i.e. on-call reserve fire, police & paramedic staffing with proper training of course), picking up street litter/garbage, minor animal control issues & utility services etc.

For parks, the golf course, garbage/litter/animal control...social distancing could be maintained by assigning individual areas of concentration.

It would provide an opportunity for those who feel confined to get outdoors by providing a function that serves the community...also a good individual work project for Boy Scouts seeking a community services project to fulfill their Eagle Scout requirement.

As SIP mandates are gradually lifted, this concept becomes more feasible.


19 people like this
Posted by Save our city
a resident of Community Center
on May 22, 2020 at 10:28 am

This sounds like a reasonable framework to protect city services, but is it still possible for the city council to pull back on the planned cuts? I watched Adrian Fine claim that the budget is essentially settled, except for ”a few tweeks” on Tuesday.


11 people like this
Posted by NeilsonBuchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on May 22, 2020 at 10:39 am

I can support most of the recommendations. I am more concerned about three things:
1. Wrap up decisions and move ahead with greater transparency.
2. Assure citizens that staff will flex city expenses as department workloads become more certain. Who really knows the workloads, for example, on the Development Center or PAPD?
3. Find a real-time way to anticipate the quarterly cash flow from sales tax and hotel taxes. A small, +/- variance here could have major impact. Additionally, has the Council and Staff anticipated the possibility of major property tax reassessments of recent new construction? Class A office property tax reassessments in the region may be startling.


32 people like this
Posted by W. Reller
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 22, 2020 at 12:52 pm

Well written article by two highly respected people.

Proceed!


22 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 22, 2020 at 1:14 pm

Excellent proposal.


34 people like this
Posted by Excellent framework.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 22, 2020 at 3:35 pm

This piece provides an excellent framework for considering proposed cuts. I hope Council and staff will give more comprehensive consideration to downstream effects of the cuts they are considering. The writers are quite right about the capital projects.

The budget is not "settled." It has been through review meetings and one hearing. The final budget hearing is May 26. I hope both staff and Council will ask more probing questions to identify cuts that do not create more problems than they solve.

Thanks, former Mayor Burt and former Commissioner Markevitch, for framing this so thoughtfully.

Fellow citizens, you can find the budget here Web Link
You can write to City Council with your comments here city.council@cityofpaloalto.org
You can find Zoom links to the virtual hearings (with agendas and staff reports here Web Link . Thse are usually posted on the Thursday prior to the meeting date.


8 people like this
Posted by Be realistic
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on May 22, 2020 at 5:30 pm

Great. Now, who really thinks that the CC will slow down and consider the proposal?
Thank you, I thought so.


16 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 22, 2020 at 6:12 pm

It's a nice long weekend so plenty of time to email the article and your comments to the CC before it meets on the 26th:
city.council@cityofpaloalto.org

(For those on NextDoor, it's interesting to read the budget discussions there. People -- way beyond the usual suspects -- are upset with some even talking recall if the CC doesn't start listening to the residents.)


23 people like this
Posted by Kathy
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 22, 2020 at 6:29 pm

Great ideas! City Council, are you listening? If the budget is nearly finished throw it out and start again. Wrapping things up is not as important as getting it right. Jobs and the well-being and safety of our city are at stake.


24 people like this
Posted by TuppenceT
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 22, 2020 at 6:58 pm

Thank you Pat and Pat for this sobering opinion. It is amazing to me that many on Council prioritize investing in luxury capital projects that sink the City in additional debt, while eliminating community services that make the social and supportive fabric of living in Palo Alto.


4 people like this
Posted by chris
a resident of University South
on May 22, 2020 at 10:16 pm

The managers and professionals have reduced their salaries by $3.5 million which will help balance the budget. The police, fire and other Nixon members have not been heard from yet. They could save many of their colleagues jobs if they take a similar reduction.

I agree it makes no sense to proceed with the police station as if nothing has happened. If there is this severe and continuing decimation of the city’s revenues, there is a good chance that the national economic situation will be such that infrastructure funding will be available for shovel-ready projects.
After some students were killed crossing the railroad tracks near Alma on Embarcadero about 100 years ago, the residents procrastinated on building an underpass at the crossing. Voila, after 15 years of procrastination, the Depression and then the New Deal came along. In 1936, the city opened a new underpass, financed by the a Federal government.


32 people like this
Posted by Pat Burt
a resident of Community Center
on May 23, 2020 at 2:23 pm

The staff report for the Tuesday Council meeting, Web Link, provides the latest budget changes. It includes the few restorations to services that a majority of the council agreed to last week. The Capital Plan is still at all-time record spending levels while severe cuts to public safety, community services, parks, transportation and other areas remain in place.
The city manager contends that “the CIP provides a minimal, while responsible, investment in the City’s essential infrastructure.” That claim is mystifying on several fronts.
First, many of the projects are for facilities that the staff has cut and claim they are “discretionary” or non-essential. How can facilities be essential if they support non-essential services?
Second, each year there are many capital projects which don’t get done as budgeted due to project delays of one sort or another. The Capital Budget reports over $37 million in funds that are being rolled-over from last year to this year’s FY2021 budget or to future years. Not all of the budgeted expenditures can be the minimum required if tens of millions of those dollars will not actually be spent this year.
Lastly, the Capital Plan, Web Link, has many projects that are important, but not critical to be done this year.
These Capital Plans are dense, but I am very familiar with them from 18 years of reviewing and approving them as a Planning Commissioner and Council Member. It is clear that there are more than enough projects that can be deferred so that key services can be retained while maintaining a very strong Infrastructure Plan.


13 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 23, 2020 at 6:46 pm

Thanks, Pat. Could you break out those big cap ex projects so we can include those in our emails to CC?

It's really disheartening to see the CC yet again ignoring resident sentiment and even more so at this critical time.

For what it's worth, I only got one response from one CC member -- Eric Filseth -- to the email I sent several days ago about the need to defer the cap ex projects. This is also disheartening, a major understatement.


20 people like this
Posted by Pat & Pat Got It Right
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 23, 2020 at 11:46 pm

I hope City Council will rethink the direction they are moving on the budget. Good comments and a good framework are offered in this piece.

Email City Council here city.council@cityofpaloalto.org

Find the staff report for Monday's meeting here Web Link

No Finance Committee meetings and very little substantive discussion on the questions raised in this article. What's the rush?


26 people like this
Posted by Pat Burt
a resident of Community Center
on May 24, 2020 at 4:40 pm

@Online Name
There are lots of capital projects that look like candidates to be deferred, but there is not enough info under each item in the Capital Budget to draw clear conclusions.Here are a couple of examples.
$5.5 million is budgeted for street maintenance. By 2009, our street maintenance had fallen to a mediocre Pavement Condition Index (PCI) score of ~72. We doubled that amount in 2010 which allowed us to “keep-up”and even start to “catch-up”. We then increased to ~$.5 million the following year with a goal of improved our PCI to 80 which would be tops in the county. We are now at a PCI of 85, but the current budget allocates $5.5 million to streets. Reducing that investment to $4.5 million would likely exceed the amount need to keep-up at our high PCI.
Another example is the over $400,000 budgeted to replacing seats at the Lucie Stern Theatre. The seats are due for replacement, but they are not falling apart and could likely wait a year or two.
It’s also unclear which Operating Budget cuts are attributable to actual service cuts and which are due to just not filling 67 vacant positions. And what cuts are due to actual efficiencies or reductions to services which can't be provided currently due to the pandemic.
My recommendation is that the council request staff to provide a clear summary of the costs of actual service cuts that the council wants to restore and then direct staff to come back with the best deferrals to the capital projects equal to that amount.


10 people like this
Posted by Susan
a resident of Midtown
on May 24, 2020 at 7:04 pm

Pat, I remember when capital projects, like sidewalk maintenance were delayed, year after year . I believe it was Vic Ojakian who stood up to demand that sidewalks matter ( I personally know of a woman who was killed when she tripped over an uplifted sidewalk by a tree root). He was determined, and finally got a major improvement. Our sidewalks are, again, showing some important maintenance issues. Why are we not cutting things like the sustainability and global warming alarmist bureaucrats? And why do we need a bicycle bridge over HWY 101 at this time (after sponsoring a design contest which caused the price to increase)? I know budget cuts are never easy for governments, especially local ones but delayed capital infrastructure simply cannot be the full answer.


11 people like this
Posted by Concerned Mom
a resident of College Terrace
on May 25, 2020 at 10:37 am

I think that the suggestions in this Guest Opinion piece are 100% correct and I hope that City Council members are reading these as a gauge of what the residents who elected them really want. Services like libraries, parks, and public safety are far more critical to the quality of life in Palo Alto than "big ticket" Capital Improvements,the cost of which may substantially come down if they are rebid.After reading online the reams of letters written on behalf of saving College Terrace Library from closure for two years for a meager savings of $168,000, if the City Council axes this cost from their revised budget I can only conclude that they care nothing for their residents opinions and wishes.


12 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 25, 2020 at 10:52 am

@Concerned Mom, most of the CC don't read these pieces which is why you have to email them with copies of this Guest Opinion urging them to read the comments.


5 people like this
Posted by Changable politician
a resident of Downtown North
on May 25, 2020 at 3:43 pm

No question that Burt is well informed and articulate. BUT

his resident-friendly positions evaporate after he gets elected. Many times.
for example,
He voted to give the Chamber of Commerce *BELOW Market Rate Office space* in the building at 355 Alma, corner Lytton. That building is also underparked.

He voted FOR Michael Alcheck to be a member of the Planning Commission.

He voted NOT to reappoint Susan Fineberg to the Planning Commission.

He voted YES for development advocate, real estate lawyer, Scharff to be Vice Mayor. Burt was the fifth vote, joining development advocates Wolbach, Kniss, Berman and Scharff.

His current publicity blitz has more to do with the forthcoming election than with a sincere desire to support residents.


20 people like this
Posted by Stick to the topic
a resident of Professorville
on May 25, 2020 at 5:45 pm

@Changeable Politician

Wow! Way to go off topic and into personal attacks. How about engaging on the topic at hand?

Pat Burt AND Pat Markevich clearly have a handle on what's going on with this budget. They lay out thoughtful ideas to complex issues facing our City.

Throwing rocks at those who are taking a lead in trying to solve Palo Alto's problems is childish.

Burt spent 8 years on Planning and Transportation Committee and another 8 years on Council. After that much time in politics, it isn't hard to find a few key votes, take them out of context, and then accuse someone of being "changeable."

The only time a critic is 100% satisfied with the way a person serving in public office votes on all the issues is when the critic steps up and serve themselves. If you can do better, than run for office.

On thing is clear, if Pat Burt runs again for Council, his Op/Ed shows he's the right person for the job.


13 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 25, 2020 at 7:31 pm

See also Diana Diamond's excellent piece today entitled "Why I am suspicious about Budget Cuts" which asks many of the right questions.

Web Link


12 people like this
Posted by Great Op Ed
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 25, 2020 at 11:35 pm

I have been following city planning and transportation and finance for many years. Pat Burt and Pat Markevitch are both dedicated civic volunteers. They do their homework and have deep experience. One one or two occasions we have disagreed, but I always respect the thought process that got them to a position.

I completely agree with the thrust of this piece. It lays out an excellent framework for the difficult work involved in choosing cuts.



21 people like this
Posted by Liveability not density pipe dreams
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 26, 2020 at 9:24 am

This proposal makes real sense. Unfortunately, the council majority has long been controlled by density/urbanization zealots like Fine, whose scorn for residents is everpresent (starting with the way he hid campaign contributions from developers which was judged to have been misleading by the elections commission).

The pandemic is a holistic check on the real-world implications of density ideology:
Web Link
The story in NPR discusses how the pandemic has shown the major sources of air pollution now are not cars, but trucks and buses, construction, industry and power plants, and shipping -- all things spurred by overdensification and overdevelopment, to allow tech whales to pack in their workers.

Environmental activists have been completely nullified by this ideology, putting their weight behind hard-to-undo damage to civic quality of life, diversity, vitality, and now we know, resilience in the face of infectious disease that was not an unforeseeable endpoint, in order to fall in behind the gospel of densification.

Another local article discusses how a lot of Facebook's employees are going to work from home -- and this means they are likely to move away. This was ALWAYS the better way, for tech whales to encourage satellite growth to improve employment in towns that wanted some growth, where affordable housing already exists. Notice the article points out that younger workers are less prone to prioritize quality of life, i.e., it was never a good thing to prioritize turning our towns into big dorms for them, and it certainly wasn't environmentally friendly, as we have been wrongly told.

And now that the density itself plays into the pandemic and everything has been disrupted, where are the volunteers from these newest residents that everyone else has been taken from (in quality of life, time b/c of traffic and loss of civic assets and businesses, daylight plane and liveability, city funds, etc)? Where are they in solving problems and contributing to ensure our city can weather this storm? There was always going to be an economic downturn and it was always going to hit us harder because of the density and the ways the development-zealous city council was already burdening the regular residents.

And the development-zealous members now seem completely focused on returning everything the way it was instead of taking stock and realizing the fallacies. The pandemic should be a check on what was always a polluted, unpleasant, expensive road that wasn't for the benefit of residents. (I still want to hear how much Tesla contributes to the local economy that I should care if they move and take the cut through traffic with them. I do not see them anywhere on the business property tax roles. I'm open to believing they contribute, I just don't see it. City Council members who have celebrity-tech-cult stars in their eyes to the exclusion of serving residents, should at least not be replaced by other overdevelopment-zealous in the next election.)

This editorial makes tremendous sense. I do not think the criticism of Pat Burt above is undue, sorry Pat, you were never a residentialist, only called that because of how far the council majority had gone from serving regular residents. That was then. This sensible, protective-of-civic-life-and-future proposal is just what we need.

Residents: the only way this gets any legs is if you, personally, take the responsibility to take a moment and write a note of support to city.council@cityofpaloalto.org

Tell them to prioritize residents and services. Things have changed, and Palo Alto can be better for it if we have leaders willing to shift to priorities that should have been priorities all along. Council needs to hear from you, and if you don't take the time now, they won't make the effort to act in out town's best interests.


2 people like this
Posted by Cynic
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 26, 2020 at 8:57 pm

I know Pat and Pat and they are fine people. A re-evaluation is certainly in order. 2 questions: 1:)What are these highly valued services we speak of? Seriously. 2) What do most of the people at City Hall do, other than clock in and vest a defined benefit pension (at above market wages).
We don’t need a new police station; there should be ample room at City Hall after the trivial, highly valued service providers move along.


Like this comment
Posted by Laruie
a resident of Green Acres
on May 26, 2020 at 9:19 pm

The one key part I see missing is our schools and mental health services. Saying kids programs is too broad. We have been saying for years if we are going to have healthy kids we need high quality schools, attuned to students diversity and learning differences and mental health needs. I and my colleagues are seeing a huge number of school age students and teens and college students seeking support during the Covid-19 especially related to working from home and missing out on their high school and college experiences.


4 people like this
Posted by Schools and the city and affordable services .
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
17 hours ago

The city does not fund or control the public schools. The schools are a completely separate government agency, Palo Alto Unified School District.

Nonetheless, the city does a lot to work with the schools. They provide supplemental athletic programs, the city and school district share playing fields and the costs of field maintenance, they support the Safe Routes to School program and Project Safety Net as well as YCS and Children's Theatre, among many other things. All of these enriching programs contribute to our quality of life.

Other city services include our parks, open spaces, golf course, airport(which require management and maintenance), our excellent libraries, community centers and art center, providing affordable spaces for orchestras, singing, dance and other music groups to practice. They also provide space for Avenidas affordable (senior)programs and non-profit recovery programs for people recovering from strokes and heart surgeries. The list is very long. We all benefit because these kinds of programs could not otherwise be in Palo Alto in spaces controlled by local developers who would charge them market rate rents. Non-profits cannot compete with office space rents.

I don't know about you, but I value these services. They make Palo Alto a great place to live--especially for those who are not rich. Young middle class families really struggle here. They pay MUCH higher tax rates (not to mention higher mortgage payments) than people who have been here for many years because of Prop 13. Remember that, Alison Cormack, when you are deciding what to cut.


Like this comment
Posted by Changeable politician
a resident of Downtown North
9 hours ago

Livability explains it:
> I do not think the criticism of Pat Burt above is undue, sorry Pat, you were never a residentialist, only called that because of how far the council majority had gone from serving regular residents. That was then. This sensible, protective-of-civic-life-and-future proposal is just what we need.

Stick to topic thinks an accurate recording of a politician's votes is:
>Throwing rocks at those who are taking a lead in trying to solve Palo Alto's problems is childish.

Stick to topic, you need to be able to hold two ideas in your brain at the same time. Like a grown up.


2 people like this
Posted by It's all about balance.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
6 hours ago

I've watched Pat Burt in his service to the the city for about two decades. You're right. He's not a residentialist. He's not a rabid growth advocate either. He's balanced. He looks at a situation in its entirety and makes reasoned decisions based on facts. I don't always agree with him, but I usually respect his approach and his values. He values the things that make our community great--excellent schools, parks, libraries, community services, a safe and beautiful environment with open spaces that are close by.

He also understands that our quality of life depends on sound finances and thoughtful planning. On the whole, I don't agree with every single decision he made, but I agree with most of them. Given the complexity of the issues Council faces, that seems like a pretty good record to me--better than many council members I have seen over the years.

Let's get back to the subject at hand...Shall we? I'm sorry this council did not pay more attention to the framework this opinion piece suggests.


2 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
6 hours ago

" I'm sorry this council did not pay more attention to the framework this opinion piece suggests."

As are many of us! How do we rectify this, get them to listen and get them to act in accordance with the facts and community sentiment?


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