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Open Letter to City Hall: Please Release the Full Budget

Original post made by Jeremy Erman, Midtown, on May 8, 2021

Dear City Council and Staff,

Several of you have referred to adjusting the proposed city budget as a "zero-sum game," where restoring any service would be offset by an equal cut elsewhere. This does not make sense because all items in the budget are not of equal societal value; if you decrease, say, the number of consultants you hire, this will not have the same impact of closing Children's Library to the public. So what you cut changes the impact on the public, even if the dollar amounts remain the same.

More problematically, though, the "zero-sum game" mentality seems driven by the fact that city staff has basically provided council with one set of options, with little ability to select any other. The proposed operating budget does NOT say, "Here are three separate proposals for closing the budget gap. Pick one, or mix and match line-items between them until the budget balances."

Not only are different options not suggested, but the proposed operating budget is extremely incomplete. It is mostly a list of cuts from what was included in this year's budget alongside lists of the expenses and revenues of each large department and sub-department. The costs of individual programs and facilities within those departments are rarely included. For example, the budgets of the Children's Theatre, Children's Library, Art Center, Cubberley Community Center, and Lucie Stern Theatre are nowhere to be found.

For these programs and most others, the only line-items that appear are the one's staff has suggested cutting, so if council wants to make different cuts, they can't do it from the provided documents because the specifics are not there, and most of the details that are provided, such as the number of full-time-equivalent positions in each department, lack explanations or context that would enable councilmembers to adjust them. Such explanations and context are only given for the proposed cuts, which offer limited glimpses of the missing information by referring to programs, positions, and expenses not mentioned elsewhere, such as Children's Theatre performances and the staffing levels and expenses of individual libraries.

The missing information can hardly be secret, since much of it from the last few years, including the current FY 2021, is available online through the Administrative Services Department's Open Budget web app, and just yesterday, May 7, 2021, information from the proposed 2022 budget was added, including potentially hundreds of line-items not included in the budget documents submitted to the council. But the app does not describe each item beyond its name, the items are not necessarily grouped by programs, and they are not arranged in a format that allows for easy review and comparison. Critically, since this information does not seem to be part of the official documents given to the council, and it lacks context to make it useful, I fear that it will not be used by the council during budget deliberations.

Therefore, I urge the city staff to provide the complete budget to the council and public in a clear and straight-forward format so that multiple options can be considered and informed decisions made. This is difficult to do with the currently-provided "operating budget," which limits council's options by providing them--and the public--with a limited range of information and choices.

Thank you,

Jeremy Erman

Comments (5)

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 9, 2021 at 12:46 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Thank you, I heartily agree and was very offended by the deceptive budget survey. Here's most of my open letter to CC and CM edited for length.

"I was dismayed by the biased questions/choices in the City Manager's Budget Priority Survey, most notably Impose a Business Tax and/or impose new Charges on Utility Users.

Why not a clean IMPOSE A BUSINESS TAX -- no qualifiers? The Business Tax is long overdue and the deceptive wording lets the city spin the survey results and the idea of additional utility charges is galling and arrogant given the city's history of $20,000,000 annual Utility overcharges, class-action lawsuits against such practices and the cost of the city's and appeals.

Where are the questions about cutting city staff and NOT expanding the "executive leadership team" which is already top-heavy? Where are the questions about improving power outrage reporting and reliability, police transparency and firing bad cops to avoid multi-million dollar brutality legal settlements? Where are the questions about preserving RETAIL that generates sales tax revenue and not replacing it with offices and housing that decimate our sales-tax revenues?

Where were the questions about DFUNDING NEW, costly and controversial programs like Fiber-to-The-Home and Climate/Sustainability when valued EXISTING "Community" services are being cut? These new programs involve significant hiring, more consultants and -- most important -- are opposed by many don't want to spend 3 or 4 times as much for less reliable electric power and appliances. Do we really need to impede through traffic more with costly new road furniture and traffic "calming" devices WHILE increasing the resident and commuter populations?

Bring the whole Climate/Sustainability Program to a citywide vote! Declare a moratorium on office construction."


Posted by Jeremy Erman
a resident of Midtown
on May 10, 2021 at 12:50 am

Jeremy Erman is a registered user.

I just took the budget survey, and thought it strange that the city asked us to rank what we wanted to restore to the budget without saying how much each item costs--some of the suggested cuts are hundreds of thousands of dollars, while others are tens of thousands or less. They aren't equal--some would be relatively easy to restore, like the $68,224 which funds the Children's Theatre's entire costume department plus part of the front desk staff.

If the City wants to cut $68,000 from the Children's Theatre or the Arts and Sciences Division generally, it seems it would better and relatively easy to cut a little bit from different funds rather than cut the costume department wholesale, since that's so integral to theater and theater education.


Posted by Jeremy Erman
a resident of Midtown
on May 10, 2021 at 12:58 am

Jeremy Erman is a registered user.

If anyone wants to explore and try to make sense of the information in the city's Open Budget Web App, here's the link: Web Link

When viewing an item, it's possible to set the Filter to "Revenues vs Expenses", which seems very useful, but since explanations are missing, it's often hard to know exactly what you're viewing or how accurate the information is.


Posted by S. Underwood
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 10, 2021 at 7:20 am

S. Underwood is a registered user.

Thank you so much for the this letter.

Council doesn't realize how much weaseling goes into all the information they get. That's what happens when you have a taxpayer/council funded "Communications" team whose job is to propagandize back at them... in service of the bureaucrats. Cut all the new communications roles we've invented in the past ten years. If senior managers making $300k a year can't drive their own communication, show them the door.

The City Manager's office needs to be halved, and the City Manager (Ed Shikada) and Community Services Director (Kristen O'Kane) need to be given their cushy severance packages and shown the door. [Portion removed.]

After that, let's see where we're at regarding business tax. [Portion removed.]


Posted by Jeremy Erman
a resident of Midtown
on May 16, 2021 at 6:23 pm

Jeremy Erman is a registered user.

Last week the Finance Committee recommended using federal funds and budget reserves to avoid most of the community services, library, and public safety cuts in the proposed 2021-2022 budget. The full council will discuss the budget Monday night.

This is a step in the right direction, but nearly all of the devastating cuts from last year are still in effect, and as councilmembers keep pointing out, we really haven't felt the impact of those cuts yet because so many servcies are still shut because of COVID-19 restrictions. At this point, it's not even clear if there will be a single summer show at the Children's Theatre, for example.

Because staff has not provided the council with the full budget, the council has few options except to accept the City Manager's recommendations or offset the cuts with one-time funds. If the council--and public--were allowed to see every line-item in the city budget, then they could suggest alternative cuts, but no one on the city staff has addressed this issue.


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