Election reflections Diana Diamond's Blog, posted by Diana Diamond, Palo Alto Online blogger, on Nov 7, 2007 at 11:05 am Diana Diamond is a member (registered user) of Palo Alto Online
There were a couple of disturbing things about the local elections in Palo Alto.
First was the unprecedented amount of union support for two of the city council candidates — Sid Espinosa and Yiaway Yeh.
The powerful South Bay Labor Council, an alliance of more than 70 unions (primarily public employees), became unusually and untraditionally active in support of these two of the 11 council candidates. The labor council got involved in phone drives (I received two, myself), precinct walks and mailings of fliers for Espinosa and Yeh.
I can only speculate that they want to fight two issues that emerged this past year in Palo Alto — privatization and prevailing wages.
The city already is asking some private gardening companies to help maintain the parks, instead of assigning the task to city employees (who are also union members). The city saves money by going the privatizing route, since it doesn’t have to worry about health and retirement benefits. And an examination of the parks by City Auditor Sharon Erickson showed no discernable difference in how well park lands are maintained.
But the union doesn’t like privatizing.
Unions also want a prevailing wage policy for the city, which means that any private firm must pay wages on par with the legally defined prevailing wages. However, charter cities, such as Palo Alto, aren’t required to pay the state-mandated prevailing wages for projects that are considered “municipal,” rather than regional. Typically prevailing wages are higher and cost the city more money.
Two years ago local unions supported two council candidates, both of whom were elected — John Barton and Peter Drekmeier.
One of the winners this year, Pat Burt, did not accept any union donations. Good for him!
It was a low voter turnout Tuesday, especially for the council race. Espinosa, who had the overwhelming support of the local “establishment,” garnered the most votes — 6,408. But top vote-getter in the school board race was Barbara Klausner, who had 8,922 votes – 2,500 more. Those numbers reflect the ho-hum attitude in this city toward the council race — few issues emerged, and people kept on asking each other who they were voting for, since the choice was murky.
Of interest to me was Measure N on the ballot, which asked Palo Altans if city officials should approve a 2.5-million-gallon, 150-foot diameter underground reservoir under a portion of El Camino Park, across from Stanford Shopping Center. Some 9,436 voters said yes, and only 865 said no. The vote was advisory
What disturbed me were three things: 1) there was no mention of cost, but if the council adopts this, our water bills will go up, as in way up. 2) a mailing from the city with information about the measure only listed the advantages, and absolutely no disadvantages, and 3) the mailing made it sound like the only issue was location of the reservoir, not whether we should build a reservoir near the downtown. The mailing was misleading.
I don’t think our tax dollars should be used by the city to push a point of view on something ultimately we residents will have to pay for.
I also hope the council does not interpret this vote as overwhelming approval for the reservoir, since money was not mentioned.
Posted by Gail Monti, a resident of the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood, on Nov 7, 2007 at 12:28 pm
Right on, Diana!! It was stated in black and white in the analysis in our voter's pamphlet that the cost would be paid by residents and commercial establishments. I guess not many people read thoroughly enough before voting!!
Posted by Mike, a resident of the College Terrace neighborhood, on Nov 7, 2007 at 12:56 pm
I tend to agree with Diana on these points, especially on the low voter turnout for Council. It's becoming more difficult to differentiate and distinguish oneself in a race that is mostly dominated by incumbent and past incumbent endorsements, and where only "lone wolf" candidates with different ideas can venture (only to be assured a loss, and often costing the city an otherwise more refined and diverse candidate choice.
I will withhold judgement on the winning Council candidates, but my fear is that at least two of them will be very "retro" when it comes to enabling sustainable policy that takes us solidly into the future in a *leading* way, instead of a continuation of the Palo Alto Process.
As for the reservoir, I agree that this project has costs that have not been thoroughly vetted. In addition to this project, we _will_ be facing significant increases for water here in Palo Alto, in a way that is going to surprise us. These increases may be similar in dagree and kind that we saw coming from the sudden surge in electricity prices, and will have more to do with water shortages in general, than any single on emunicipal policy, or infrastructure build.
Warren Buffet and others have been buying private groudwater supplies; that should make citizens perk up re: where the cost of water is going.
Posted by Diana Diamond, Palo Alto Online blogger, on Nov 7, 2007 at 1:55 pm Diana Diamond is a member (registered user) of Palo Alto Online
You are right, the fact that Stanford and Los Altos Hills can vote for the school board candidates could explain the difference. The 10,577 vote for the hotel tax probably comes closer to the number of Palo Altans who voted, and obviously not all of the residents voted for Sid Espinosa, the top vote getter.
Posted by Maria, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Nov 7, 2007 at 2:40 pm
As someone who has been without health insurance for myself and my children (due to a spouse's layoff,) I know how frightening that can be. I hope the City of Palo Alto continues to offer jobs to keep the city running that provide health insurance. Diana, you and others should really think how it would be to make ordinary wages in this area and not even have health insurance. Looking only at "the bottom line" is not always the best thing in the long run.
Posted by Publicus, a resident of another community, on Nov 7, 2007 at 6:01 pm
You put the case very concisely as to why Libertarianism (like Anarchism) is an uptopian pipe dream. Ron Paul may have great courage, especially when he's the "elephant in the living room" on the Iraq War during those monochrome, highly scripted Republican presidential candidate "debates". But he would fail if he stuck to his Libertarian guns in the highly unlikely event he actually got elected.
Posted by Graham Anderson, a resident of the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood, on Nov 8, 2007 at 4:56 pm
I could be mistaken, but it sounds like you support the city choosing private gardening companies so that it "doesn’t have to worry about health and retirement benefits." How do you justify leaving the employees who maintain our parks without health and retirement benefits? As a potential follow-up question, do you have health and retirement benefits from your job?
Posted by Anna, a resident of the Southgate neighborhood, on Nov 9, 2007 at 9:35 am
If private contractors can do the work of maintaining our parks (or any other work) at a lower cost than city employees, it is incumbent on city management (and the council) to look into hiring them. Right now, it is possible for city employees to retire in their 50's with pensions and health benefits paid for by families struggling to stay up with the cost of living here - including taxes, while the city is looking into cutting services because employee expenses are eating up an ever-rising percentage of the budget.
Do Graham Anderson and Tim above support a policy which results in young families, who may have only 401k and social security income to support their own retirement, paying for gold-plated pensions for the city's unionized employees while the city looks to cut services that these families thought they were getting when they struggled to buy a house in Palo Alto?
Posted by The Real Anna, a resident of the South of Midtown neighborhood, on Nov 9, 2007 at 10:01 am
Anna, Your's is a specious argument. What about the employees who took a positino here based on the promises made to them by our citizens?
One of the things that continues to amaze me about those who are on this constant one-note harangue about employee benefits, is that most of themm are berift of solutions that would genuinely raise revenue.
Don't get all goosebumpy because we were able to outsource gardening services. That's low-hanging fruit that all the "cut government employee benefits" yahoos want to generalize to the entire government workforce. It's a clueless, monotone strategy that sounds more Scrooge-like every time it comes up.
btw, Regarding revenue-generating ideas, I'm not talking about things like "adding new hotels" (wow, what an original idea! NOT!) that will struggle to compete - because we *missed that boat* when we let ourselves be aced out of the most strategic hotel settings (by EPA, Menlo Park, and Stanford (the latter, as usual, generating more revenue for Palo Alto with its good ideas - *executed efficiently* (the hotel at the Mall), in spite of our maltreatment of Stanford).
Posted by Anna, a resident of the Southgate neighborhood, on Nov 9, 2007 at 10:14 am
I suppose that TR Anna and I just have a different conception of the nature of city government.
I think the primary purpose of city government is to provide services to its residents and taxpayers in the most economical way possible. TR Anna apparently believes we're running a combination of employment agency/pension plan/welfare agency along the way.
No one is suggesting we violate any contractual promises to anyone. But if consistent with the union contract (which many residents, including former mayors, term a giveaway), we can outsource some city work at lower cost, we should do that.
As far as I know, there is nothing but the raw power of the union to prevent outsourcing of more services than already has been successfully done. TR Anna is right that we can't do it for every city position. We can't do it for police. We can do it for gardeners. There's a lot of territory in between those two job descriptions.
Posted by Anna, a resident of the Southgate neighborhood, on Nov 9, 2007 at 10:17 am
And I'm happy to raise revenue. If we can do that fine. But that's not a substitute for running the city more efficiently, or an excuse for piling on more benefits to our generously conpensated city workforce.
We have plenty of uses for any additional revenue beyond increasing pension benefits for relatively young retirees of the city.
Posted by Last Resort, a resident of the College Terrace neighborhood, on Nov 9, 2007 at 10:21 am
The Real Anna and others seem to think the role of government is to supply well paid jobs (with generous benefits) to those who might earn less in the private sector. I doubt many city workers have contractual rights so I gather you believe the status quo ante becomes a lifetime floor - can't pay any less than what workers were "promised" in the past.
Of course, if the citizens of Palo Alto want to overpay their employees at the expense of other city services, that is their right. But don't come crying for more money to fund the things you now can't pay for. And don't ask for bond money to replenish the infrastructure fund which was raided to pay operating costs.
Posted by Sherlock, a resident of the The Greenhouse neighborhood, on Nov 9, 2007 at 10:25 am
Nothing in the union contract prevents layoffs. Individual union members have no contract with the city. Whether it's politically possible to layoff union workers in favor of lower proced contractors is questionable. Whether it's within the bounds of the contract is not.
Posted by Dave, a resident of the Professorville neighborhood, on Nov 9, 2007 at 11:01 am
Let's see. Some creative options that might satisfy the Real Anna? Well... We could have a 50% special assessment on all 401k plans of Palo Alto residents, and use the money to enhance the pensions of all our hard working city employees.
Posted by Carly, a resident of the Palo Alto Hills neighborhood, on Nov 9, 2007 at 11:09 am
I don't think shoring up the pensions of city workers is the right thing to do with the money. They currently get Fridays off. Why don't we give them Mondays off too, since the three day weekends aren't long enough to allow proper recuperation from their arduous workweeks.
Posted by Last Resort, a resident of the College Terrace neighborhood, on Nov 9, 2007 at 11:19 am
The Real Anna doesn't see the connection between infrastructure and operating expenditures. I wonder if she repairs and maintains her own house or perhaps finds it hard to come up with the money after a weekend of shopping and eating out. Maybe she figures the restaurant and boutique workers have a contractual right to her continued business.
Posted by Anna, a resident of the Southgate neighborhood, on Nov 9, 2007 at 11:24 am
Last Resort makes a good point. It's hard to argue that with employee costs approaching 85% of the budget, that one of the reasons we find ourselves in financial difficulty - unable to keep up with maintenance and improvements to our infrastructure - is that we are spending on ongoing wages and contributions to benefit plans money that could have gone into infrastructure.
Successive councils have given away the store so many times that it's begun to have visible effects on the way our city works and looks. Other cities don't have anything near the employee costs that Palo Alto does. And their financial difficulties are proportionately smaller.
Posted by The Real Anna, a resident of the South of Midtown neighborhood, on Nov 9, 2007 at 11:50 am
"Other cities don't have anything near the employee costs that Palo Alto does. And their financial difficulties are proportionately smaller."
That's true, and our costs have begun to be reigned in by less generous contracts. Your point?
Essentially, we see the same posters here that argue against repairing infrastructure, improving mass trasport, etc. etc.
I suggest the lot of you go out and start a parallel government, and outsource everything, including building a moat around each one of your homes. Be sure to buy hip boots, and lots of disinfectent, because you will lose your hookups to the city.
Posted by Last Resort, a resident of the College Terrace neighborhood, on Nov 9, 2007 at 12:10 pm
The Real Anna finally gets it. Certain things are best handled by local government - police, fire, road, septic and other infrastructure. Certain items are best contracted out - construction of a new library?
In the middle of this spectrum fall items which have tradtionally been done by governments but which may no longer be appropriate, especially given the cost differential.
My difference of opinion with The Real Anna stems from her statments that we need to continue to pay public employees - seemingly regardless of cost - because they have come to expect it.
So it would not be a good idea to privatize our sanitary system. I think we learned that lesson from the London bubonic plague of 1660. But I don't equate that with mowing the lawn and don't expect public funds to be used purely as wealth redistribution as The Real Anna does.
Posted by a holistic approach, a resident of the Professorville neighborhood, on Nov 9, 2007 at 4:43 pm
From my perspective I see much of the talk and solutions provided for cutting the cost of benefits for city employees to be about solely treating the symptoms and not the disease itself. As I understand it the part of the benefits package which is skyrocking is healthcare. What is the city doing (council, staff, residents) doing to address this problem? Cost cutting will only take you so far - at some point you need to get at the real problem and resolve it.
Posted by Real Question for Real Anna, a resident of the Ventura neighborhood, on Nov 9, 2007 at 5:12 pm
We have a budget of $140,000,000 in town. About 85% of that, or $119,000,000 is labor costs: wages and benefits.
Is there ANY of this amount that Real Anna thinks can be saved? By reducing benefit growth? By cutting the number of employees? By outsourcing? By increasing hours worked? Any amount? One dollar? One penny?
Posted by Realist, a resident of the Professorville neighborhood, on Nov 9, 2007 at 7:56 pm
Real Question for Real Anna,
You need a new calculator because the budget document (look at it online) page 30 - total budget $139,184,980 - salary and benefits $89,853,757 - equals 64.5% How do you get 85%?
There is a reason why people are flocking to Palo Alto. Yes, the schools are a BIG reason, but you know there are others. Diana wants to draw contraversy to bring in ad money and interest to the blog. Why would you just focus on funding when you should look at the availability of water in case of an emergency. Yes, cost is important, but don't undermine the overall issue - public safety. If the cost is too high - then don't vote for it, but know what the consequences are going to be! Move to another city so you can see how good you have it! Check your property value and stop complaining.
Posted by Tim, a resident of the Crescent Park neighborhood, on Nov 9, 2007 at 9:58 pm
How many of those "gold pensions" employess live in Palo Alto. I asked a Firefighter today. He stated that of the 115 firefighters and 80 or so police officers, maybe 10 live in Palo Alto. He said there has not been a firefighter who could buy a home in PA in the last 20+ years. I guess young firefighters familes are out of luck too.
Posted by Dave, a resident of the Professorville neighborhood, on Nov 10, 2007 at 8:40 am
With the average house cost in PA approaching $1 million, we would have to pay our police and firefighters upwards of $250,000 per year. How would Tim propose we afford this, along with the increased pension costs (pensions are indexed to wages)?
Posted by A parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood, on Nov 10, 2007 at 3:57 pm
The most disturbing thing I saw about the last election was Camille Townsend squeaking by Wynn Hauser for the school board, largely on the single-issue and "oblivious" vote. (Townsend was the only incumbent, and yet still barely squeaked by with the least amount of votes of the elected, and barely beating Hauser who had pneumonia the last month of the campaign.) Her remaining on the school board promises to keep a level of inefficiency on the board and rancor in the community, which could have been healed if Hauser had won.
I'm still keeping my fingers crossed for an 11th hour miracle with the final votes still to be counted and only 187 votes separating them, but it's highly unlikely that things will change.
Posted by Tim, a resident of the Crescent Park neighborhood, on Nov 10, 2007 at 5:54 pm
Your out of touch with home prices in PA. I bet the avg. price for a home is now closer to 2 million dollars. I was just responding to Anna and how she is crying that families can't buy in PA because of the pension and health care costs for city employees. Well the city employees can't either. Oh, by the way, the city went outside for workers to care for the parks years ago. They ended up going back to the city workers because the work sucked and they kept having to switch companies.
Posted by the Real Anna, a resident of the South of Midtown neighborhood, on Nov 12, 2007 at 12:24 pm
Real question says: "We have a budget of $140,000,000 in town. About 85% of that, or $119,000,000 is labor costs: wages and benefits.
Is there ANY of this amount that Real Anna thinks can be saved? By reducing benefit growth? By cutting the number of employees? By outsourcing? By increasing hours worked? Any amount? One dollar? One penny?"
How about increasing revenue and tax base? how about creating inter-municpal business and efficiency opportunities that generate revenue?
btw - service sector enterprises *normally* see 80-90% of their costs sunk into labor; thus, our service sector labor costs are in the normal range.
Posted by Not too thirsty, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood, on Nov 12, 2007 at 8:19 pm
Regarding Measure N- I don't think asking for EIGHT hours of water supply during an emergency is too much! The delivery system from Hetch Hetchy could be down for months post-earthquake. We don't have adequate water to handle fire fighting in an emergency in most areas of Palo Alto (esp. Baron Park)
Rehabilitating wells and adding storage is expected to cost $40M according to the
Posted by Donna Fisher, a resident of the South of Midtown neighborhood, on Nov 13, 2007 at 9:33 am
Coo Thread. The sub textual argumentation about city labor costs is especially interesting. There seems to be a big divide between those who think there are substantial savings to be had through economizing on wage and benefit costs or through efficiencies on the one hand - and those who refuse even to contemplate the idea.
The Real Anna, challenged to provide a single instance where the city could save money on labor costs, instead launches into a diversion about ways to raise revenues. This seems like a fine idea, but really is beside the point: it does seem that if we can save on labor costs, we should do so regardless of revenue strategies. And it does seem pretty far-fetched to think that there is absolutely no economizing to be had with a workforce the size of the city's.
Those on the other side of the Real Anna seem to be exaggerating the size of the savings to be had by looking hard at labor costs. There would seem to be a happy medium however, and intellectual intransigence like that of The Real Anna seems hardly helpful to the ongoing debate here.
Posted by The Real Anna, a resident of the South of Midtown neighborhood, on Nov 13, 2007 at 10:55 am
Donna: you said.."The Real Anna, challenged to provide a single instance where the city could save money on labor costs, instead launches into a diversion about ways to raise revenues. This seems like a fine idea, but really is beside the point: it does seem that if we can save on labor costs, we should do so regardless of revenue strategies. And it does seem pretty far-fetched to think that there is absolutely no economizing to be had with a workforce the size of the city's"
Raising revenues is not a diversion; it's something we badly need to do. YOu say it's a "fine idea, but beside the point". I would ask what your point is.
I have never claimed that internal efficiencies could not be had within City Hall. In fact, recent employment contracts have reduced our exposure to retirement benefits in the far future.
Certainly, there are some headcount efficiencies that could be gained through reassignment, and restructuring. Attrition is another means to reduction.
In all this, I would like to ask you a question. "Where do you stand on the level of city services that Palo Alto deploys?"
What amazes me about those who always see employee costs as the primary line item for cutting, is that they make no concerted connection between the high service levels we receive in our city (compared to others), and the somewhat higher costs to maintain those services.
I think Palo Altan's like their service array, and most of them want to keep it.
Another thing that amazes me is how ignorant most cost cutters are about just how lean city hall is already running - it's a busy place, with lots to do, and lots of stress. We're certainly not plump with excess staffers, running around for 2 hour lunches and playing poker in the back room. To hear some in these thread, one would think that City Hall employees are slackers. That's clearly not the case. Anyone who disagrees, clearly hasn't dealt with City Hall, in depth.
Posted by Nowhining, a resident of another community, on Nov 15, 2007 at 3:28 pm
Why don't just import some slaves? ( they don't need benefits, they can sleep in shelters and work long hours) all the menial services assured and therefore save a LOT by not having city employees. And to answer your queries why not outsource to Jamaica? Coming to think of it would be cheaper to support the Planning department in Peoria (send faxes with your plans) and the Police and firefighters could be replaced by bona fide citizens on their extended breaks and nights out ( no benefits, don't need them they would have a good chance of dying and the dead need nothing....)
Posted by Alyssa, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Nov 15, 2007 at 6:21 pm
Outsourcing things like plan checking to less expensive labor markets actually sounds like a good idea. Plan checking is largely an admistrative task that can be done by any trained functionaries. There is no reason to pay Bay Area wage and benefit rates for this (and other similar tasks) in an era with the Internet and other modern communication methods. We need creative solutions to Palo Alto's budgetary problems and Nowhining has, perhaps unwittingly, stumbled upon one.
Posted by Unions are Always Bad, a resident of the Crescent Park neighborhood, on Nov 19, 2007 at 11:26 am
I agree with Diana. Unions are ALWAYS bad and have DONE NOTHING to help our country. We should try to weaken them at every opportunity, as Diana always does. If a union gives money to a candidate, that should be illegal -- because they are only doing it to get what they want. We have to stop the unions! I believe everyone should look out for themselves and if they were not born into a family where they can be comfortable it probably means god wanted them to suffer. Go Diana!
Posted by pat, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Nov 19, 2007 at 10:45 pm
Real Anna writes: "What amazes me about those who always see employee costs as the primary line item for cutting, is that they make no concerted connection between the high service levels we receive in our city (compared to others), and the somewhat higher costs to maintain those services."
Residents often make this argument, but never specify exactly what we have in Palo Alto that other cities -- with fewer employees -- don't have. Do you have a list, Real Anna?
Posted by French, a resident of the Meadow Park neighborhood, on Nov 21, 2007 at 9:14 am
Paying attention to what is happening in France right now would be a good lesson in slippery slopes. The whole country, transportation and education, has ground to a halt because some union employees want to retain their "right" to retire with full pension at....get this...50 years old...I just crack up!
Even the French have had enough, voting in a more "free-market" President.
I feel like the ghost of Christmas future is showing us what will happen to us if we don't get with the program!!
Posted by The Real Anna, a resident of the South of Midtown neighborhood, on Nov 21, 2007 at 10:43 am
French, comparing what's going on in France with our situation here is pretty absurd. There is an entirely different tradition around labor in Europe than there is in America.
Keep in mind that Europeans have FAR more social service support than we do, and that they are not as obsessed with work as we are.
btw, The Euro is cleaning the dollar's clock - how is that, with all those European benefits, and everything? :)
Pat, if you want a comparison - just look at the service array that Palo Alto offers, compared to almost any Peninsula city. Parks, libraries, museums, etc. etc. This is a great city; we need to keep it that way.
Cutting employee pay and benefits to the bone doesn't cut it. If you want that, an offshore toy company might be the place for you.
Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood, on Nov 22, 2007 at 2:43 pm
Real Anna - or anyone else - can we list ten PA services that other Peninsula residents don't have from any source?
To my eye our park and library facilities are behind our neighbors, only museums I can think of are at Stanford... County's doing a great job with open space. Plenty of hotels with a nicer ballroom than Lucie Stern. Lots of golf within ten miles. All I can think of that's unique is community gardens, Art Center, lawn bowling and the airport. But they're around 5% of the total budget!
Posted by The Real Anna, a resident of the South of Midtown neighborhood, on Nov 22, 2007 at 11:08 pm
Name one community on the Peninsula that is more desirable, with better schools, than Palo Alto. Further, if you can name that community, why aren't more people flocking there?
We pay a price for *quality* of service delivery.
Palo Alto is a challenging place to manage, and make policy in - mostly because of our highly educated demographic, and our recent history of mostly dumb luck success (with exceptions made for the 200-300 people who were at the apex of making this city and region what it is today.
1) A unique branch library system
2) Superb schools (yes, their excellence is supported by the quality of our city's management, and the quality of person that our city attracts)
3) A superb park system that is unique (Foothill Park) and many attractive and clean parks *all over* the city.
4) Lucy Stern Center
5) Stanford Mall
6) Walkable neighborhoods (great public safety and city planning make that possible)
7) Very low crime rates
8) Our own utility
9) One of the best, if not THE best, credit rating on the Peninsula.
10) City with the largest reserve on the Peninsula
11) Palo Alto airport
12) Superb city employees - responsive to a fault
13) Beautiful architecture (certainly more interesting than any other Peninsula city)
14) A wonderful mix of eateries
15) Wonderful athletic fields
16) Proximity to Stanford (it takes resources to manage this proximity)
17) Clean streets - cleaner than most
18) Many community-sponsored events
I could go on and on...
Open your eyes, and look around; you're *lucky* to be here - it's time to appreciate what you have
Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood, on Nov 23, 2007 at 9:24 pm
Thank you for making my point. Open your eyes and consider what's unique to us or a consequence of our $120M city budget. You're lucky there are plenty of new residents to pay for your conceits! Oh well, perhaps we'll fix this in 2030 when the nostalgia wears thin.
Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood, on Nov 24, 2007 at 8:41 am
If you prefer we can do it point by point.
1. Libraries. The professionals think the branches are redundant; but what do they know?
2. Schools aren't a City function.
3. Parks. Pretty beat up, and County now covers open space.
4. Lucie Stern. What's the point? It's very beat up and hard to imagine an event one would want to host there (I've tried). Theater is way behind Mountain View.
5. Stanford Mall. Not sure what this has to do with size of City.
6. Walkable neighborhoods. Nice legacy from the '20s.
7. Low crime rates. Don't have the statistics to comment. Trend seems to be negative.
8. Our own utility. Historically nice but problematic going forward.
9. Credit rating. Good point!
10. Reserves. From what I know about GASB, it's hard to take this one seriously.
11. Airport. Good one.
12. City Employees. We have the usual range for City employees, and huge management problems.
13. Architecture. Are you talking about City buildings? The pre-war residences are mostly pattern-book efforts.
14. Eateries? Very middle of the road. I prefer Santa Clara, Fremont and Union City on the low end and San Francisco on the high end.
15. Fields. Well, Mayfield is good. Little League seems to do ok. Other than that, pretty ragged fields.
16. Stanford? They're not going anywhere. I don't see much City skill at managing a relationship with Stanford. Stanford is focused with a mission.
17. Clean Streets? City Auditor says there's a $30M street repair backlog. I'll grant you we're good at sweeping leaves out of the potholes.
18. Community sponsored events. Do you mean City sponsored? Stuff I liked - concerts in the parks, snow festival - have all gone away. Rec department classes are pretty redundant.
My point - we can do a whole lot better than we do today. I'd be happy to pay twice what we pay today for unique services. Many of the services we offer were unique when they were introduced, but rather than shifting away from our home grown versions when a substitute is available, we insist that ours is unique and better. There's no shame in - for example - saying "Now that the County has stepped up on open space, we no longer need to do it ourselves," or "Just like Community Cable Co-op didn't have the know-how and resources to transition to a modern 2-way digital system, PAU hasn't yet shown and may not have the skills and resources to transition to a modern green utility."
Then we can shift our resources to initiatives that _are_ relevant to the 21st century.
Posted by The Real Anna, a resident of the South of Midtown neighborhood, on Nov 24, 2007 at 10:37 pm
"1. Libraries. The professionals think the branches are redundant; but what do they know?"
Our librarians love our branches, and every poll shows our citizens want to maintain teh branch system.
"2. Schools aren't a City function"
Schools are inextricably related to how well the rest of the city runs. If you don't believe that, ask any realtor. Great services drives housing value. For instance, libraries play an important part in our education system.
"3. Parks. Pretty beat up, and County now covers open space."
Is that why I see our parks full every summer, and most Palo Altans defending Foothill Park to the last breath?
"4. Lucie Stern. What's the point? It's very beat up and hard to imagine an event one would want to host there (I've tried). Theater is way behind Mountain View."
Really? How is it that Palo Alto Players have won some pretty impressive awards, and that theatre reviewers regularly give performances in that venue great reviews. YOu need to go see what is happening at Lucie Stern. It's a treasure. If you don't think it is, try suggesting is go away, and see what happens.
"5. Stanford Mall. Not sure what this has to do with size of City."
It's a unique part of our city, for which our city is responsible for providing certain services. these services make Stanford Mall a clean and safe place.
"6. Walkable neighborhoods. Nice legacy from the '20s."
Walkable neighborhoods. Nice way to leverage a lower carbon footprint, reduce stress, and increase exercise in an every more obese culture.
"7. Low crime rates. Don't have the statistics to comment. Trend seems to be negative."
Look again, we're a VERY safe city.
"8. Our own utility. Historically nice but problematic going forward."
Provides great service, cheaper than competitors.
"9. Credit rating. Good point!"
Finally, the truth!
"10. Reserves. From what I know about GASB, it's hard to take this one seriously."
Find a city on the Peninsula that's in better financial condition.
"11. Airport. Good one."
Fly me to the moon!
"12. City Employees. We have the usual range for City employees, and huge management problems."
Our city is well managed, and employees are largely happy. Citizens rank our city employees very high.
"13. Architecture. Are you talking about City buildings? The pre-war residences are mostly pattern-book efforts."
Find a more interesting range of architecture in any other Peninsula city, and I will buy you a sub to Architecture Magazine.
"14. Eateries? Very middle of the road. I prefer Santa Clara, Fremont and Union City on the low end and San Francisco on the high end."
Yeah, but we've got it ALL. Find a better mix of eateries in any Peninsula city, and I'll buy you lunch (salmon, it's good brain food)
"15. Fields. Well, Mayfield is good. Little League seems to do ok. Other than that, pretty ragged fields."
Find a better sports field array on the Peninsula.
"16. Stanford? They're not going anywhere. I don't see much City skill at managing a relationship with Stanford. Stanford is focused with a mission."
Stanford is a unique part of our city. That's what you were asking for. We are partly unique because of our proximity and relationship with Stanford, which will improve as we learn to truly partner with Stanford, instead of treating it like a rich neighbor that we envy.
"17. Clean Streets? City Auditor says there's a $30M street repair backlog. I'll grant you we're good at sweeping leaves out of the potholes."
We're not that far behind any other city in California. About average.
"18. Community sponsored events. Do you mean City sponsored? Stuff I liked - concerts in the parks, snow festival - have all gone away. Rec department classes are pretty redundant."
City events are FULL, and desired. Where have you been?
Sure, we can do better, and we WILL. That will make us better than we are now, which is better than any other municipality on the Peninsula.
Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood, on Nov 25, 2007 at 12:03 pm
A full discussion comes back to the question whether you are driven by optimism or nostalgia. I am driven by hope for the future, not nostalgia for the past. I also take a regional view of programs and facilities. It would be foolish to try to compete with San Francisco's museums and it would be smart to try to collaborate more with our neighboring towns and Cities on the Peninsula.
All that said, I thought we were discussing whether the size of the City budget has any causal link to good things in Palo Alto!
When I look at our facilities and programs I see things that were generally a good idea and innovative when they started, but other places have caught up and much of what we still do municipally is available through other channels. If we were future-oriented, we would constantly try new things and shift away from providing programs facilities and services as they are made available elsewhere. Instead we have advocacy that says, "We are special because we did this thing first and we must continue to do it forever."
Unfortunately all these things cost money. The only way we can raise more money - short of agreeing to pay substantially more taxes - is to find a new way to tax services. There just aren't any other meaningful revenue sources out there. What stands in the way of support for raising taxes is that we're unable to prioritize, and we see example after example of Council and Staff promoting their enthusiasms over basic government functions. Flag lot development, homeless advocacy and jobs-housing imbalance programs are just three meaningful examples of enthusiasms that backfired.
How to move forward is straightforward but politically hard because each legacy program has employees and advocates. It's not enough to provide anecdotes that a few hundred people like something. I'm sure the fifty people who get community garden plots feel passionately about them, but the 59,000 who don't may be a tiny bit less enthusiastic!
My original challenge was to come up with ten unique City programs, not ten things you like about living here. I appreciate the list you provided, but your list actually shows the weak link between current City programs and residential desirability. If you spend time reviewing the City budget you will not conclude our problems are operational inefficiency or fraud. You will not conclude our staff are spectacularly overpaid. You may conclude some of the benefits are out of whack. You may start to ask questions like, "Why does Palo Alto spend as much on Police and Fire as Menlo Park's entire City budget?" or "Does the Utility buying administrative services from the City promote accounting transparency and ensure that the Utility is always paying the right price?"
Oh, I'd prefer dinner at one of the Peninsula's Michelin one star restaurants - if you don't mind traveling to Mountain View or Los Gatos!
Posted by The Real Anna, a resident of the South of Midtown neighborhood, on Nov 25, 2007 at 1:14 pm
"The only way we can raise more money - short of agreeing to pay substantially more taxes - is to find a new way to tax services. There just aren't any other meaningful revenue sources out there"
Please support this assumption, as it underlies almost every claim made against the continuance of our current service array.
btw, I'm a believer in more service collaboration among municipalities, but we and neighboring communities are not structurally set up (in terms of governance structures) to make that happen anytime soon - not unless more than 30-40 City Council members from our neighboring municipalities can agree on focused goals. What do you think the chances are of that happening? :)
btw, the Michelin reviews are completely biased towards French cuisine. Chez Panisse and many other restaurants that run circles around certain French three-star restaurants regularly get overlooked. Look at this year's ratings, and tell me they're anywhere near reality. We need to stop fawning after a France-based automobile tire company's reviewers, whose main task was to get people to drive to French restaurants in *France*. They're mostly clueless.
Is Michelin an innovator? Do the Michelin restaurant reviewers favor innovation? Nope.
We don't need Michelin to tell us where the good grub is, no more than we need to believe that there is no way that we can't innovate our way out of some of our constraints, including raising sufficient revenues to do so, without raising taxes substantially. (btw, what's the return on those taxes? - I don't hear word one about that) Are services valuable, or not? Our residents seem to think so. I don't see a Palo Alto Tea party on the horizon, do you.
Perhaps you can buy me lunch at any one of the two dozen Palo Alto eateries that - by themselves - comprise the best of the core of fine and casual dining on the Peninsula. YOu're very far from winning your own prize. :)
Again, please support your main assumption, pointed out earlier.
Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood, on Nov 26, 2007 at 9:13 am
You're doing something that's very typical Palo Alto - when a global leader assesses our local institutions and says, "Nothing special," you mock the global leader. Michelin isn't perfect, but it's outlook is much broader than you report. I hope you didn't rate the municipal bonds yourself!
Revenue questions. Reference material is the 2006/7 Operating Budget and the 2000/2001 Budget Summary (both are probably on the City web site somewhere).
Current sources of revenue (rounded off) are:
Sales Tax $21.1M
Property Tax $20.3M
Transient Occupancy Tax $6.4M
Utility Users Tax $9.1M
Other Taxes/Fines $7.4M
Charges for Services $19M note: Stanford and others to City
Permits and Licenses $4.2M
Return on Investment $2M
Rental Income $12M note: Utility payments to City
From other Agencies $.1M
Charges to other Funds $9M note: Utility payments to City
Other Revenue $1.3M note: School district to City
Operating Transfers in $15.8M note: Utility payments to City
Quick analysis shows taxes total $64.3M or about half the budget. Utility pays in $36.8M. Other fees and income total $26.6M. (Gap is due to rounding errors).
Comparing this to 2000, Sales tax is essentially flat ($21.3M in 2000 vs $21.1M in 2006). Property taxes have nearly doubled ($10.5M vs $20.3M). Rental income and Utility User tax are up slightly, while Transient Occupancy Tax and Permits and Fees are down slightly. Transient Occupancy revenue will increase a few million since we approved Measure M.
We've probably played out the growth in property taxes as residential property values have flattened out. We could probably gain a few million in sales tax with aggressive growth at Stanford Shopping Center and by regaining some auto dealers, but unlikely to add more than another few million. Supermarkets and big box retail creates relatively low tax revenue per square foot.
What's left for revenue sources? We can approve Prop 13 overrides and move residential property taxes closer to market values. We can find a new way to tax the kind of businesses we have, which are largely service - financial management, consulting and legal services and software businesses.
Private foundations are unlikely to prioritize projects in affluent communities.
That's why I claim that substantial revenue growth is not a feasible choice. But my mind is open if there're new revenue sources no one has thought of yet!
Posted by The Real Anna, a resident of the South of Midtown neighborhood, on Nov 26, 2007 at 11:02 am
"Private foundations are unlikely to prioritize projects in affluent communities."
True, but the counterweight is that affluent communities have a greater source of *built-in* capacity for private funding. My guess is that we are going to be pleasantly surprised in the coming years, as our local philanthropic efforts become more sophisticated, and planned giving to institutional infrastructure and other "public good" causes become more a way to local status than "just having money". There is a very large trend in this direction (look at Gates, Buffett, Turner, etc. etc. etc. [potr as exceptional examples).
Property taxes will continue to climb, as housing starts will maintain their current pace for quite some time.
We're probably going to see an increase in height limit for condos, apartments, and other dwellings, with more ground floor retail/housing arrangements (the latter a partial solution for both increased housing space, walkable/accessible retail, and increased retail sales tax revenues.
PAU, although a fine part of our municipal infrastructure, should be analyzed for a possible sale. Perhaps a sale wouldn't make sense, but my guess is that there would be long-term strategic advantage to a sale (if the sale price was sufficient to bankroll a large-scale conversion to residential solar in Palo Alto). Why we're not looking into asset turnover in a more direct way, is beyond me.
We both agree that more can be done with inter-municipal efficiencies, but probably disagree on which ones. We shuold keep our parks and libraries.
My sense is that police/fie could be migrated to a shared system, per Sunnyvale's. Why not? Note: I say *migrated*, as there are many hard-working individuals who should be permitted to live out their original employment agreements. We could make this happen via attrition.
*Aggressive* solicitation of more high profile startups, and R&D. I don't think we're doing enough with this. Our development group is top notch, but doesn't have the bandwidth to do large-scale business development. one thing we should be looking at is a shared regional development group, with shared tax-base pay out for ALL regional members.
We should be charging (and sharing) regional revenue derived from on-peak increases in downtown and other hotspot parking, as well as placing cameras at ALL intersections to better control traffic, and generate income from driving scofflaws (recent early morning commutes have convinced me that cameras would generate *considerable* income per annum).
Better relations with Stanford could lead to large scale upticks in income. We lost the Performing Arts Center opportunity, and we've lost other opportunities as well, because we've failed to partner with Stanford in a way that leads to win-win scenarios *in general* (instead of the occasional win-win,, that is puffed up to make it looks like we have maximized opportunity between Stanford and PA...not so)
Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood, on Nov 26, 2007 at 12:35 pm
I think we agree about more of this than was originally evident. We agree that examining the scope of City services makes sense. We seem to agree that it's largely not the City services that make Palo Alto a nice place to live, but other factors. We agree that parks and libraries are good things (even though those two line items account for only 9% of the City budget)! We agree that PAU is a great idea whose time has passed. We agree that with Police and Fire consuming 37% of the City budget, it's a great area to examine for efficiencies. We agree that we should aim higher than we've aimed for a generation. We haven't discussed the capital spending backlog - which is easily an additional $35M per year line item if we really wanted to distinguish ourselves. I don't know if we agree that some across-the-board property tax increases would be helpful.
To my mind the revenue gap we need to close - through new revenue and cost savings - is in the $20M to $30M per year range.
Some of your ideas - like increased traffic enforcement - are probably good for a few $100K and may be neutral when you factor in added costs, but are worth exploring.
Other items, like Stanford and startups are murkier. Startups do a lot of good things, but paying taxes isn't one of them. R&D goes in the currently untaxed services category. Even when they transition to revenue and product it's rare a taxable sale occurs at the R&D or headquarters site. I am skeptical about the kind of large (+/- $10M) private donations that make a difference, but someone may choose to step up.
Since we agree that departmental consolidation might make sense, one idea to ponder: our staff all have employment contracts with a specific term. That's why we renegotiate them every few years. If there are dramatic cost-savings from departmental consolidation, we should explore taking them at the next contract negotiation rather than waiting a generation. Attrition, early retirement, even some buyouts could all be on the table. It's a bit unfair to our future taxpayers to saddle them with legacy costs, and undignified for our employees to keep them around if there isn't meaningful work for them to do.
With that, I'm done for now. Thanks for the stimulating questions!
Posted by The Real Anna, a resident of the South of Midtown neighborhood, on Nov 26, 2007 at 3:10 pm
"We seem to agree that it's largely not the City services that make Palo Alto a nice place to live, but other factors"
No, we don't :)
"I don't know if we agree that some across-the-board property tax increases would be helpful."
Property taxes should remain stable for the next few decades, at least - until we have a complete demographic turnover - which is what we're heading for.
"R&D goes in the currently untaxed services category. Even when they transition to revenue and product it's rare a taxable sale occurs at the R&D or headquarters site. "
That's true, but there are many *stages* of R&D, and startup endeavors. Palo Alto should be using its cache to draw in revenue-producing startups. They're out there, and many unique incentives could be brought to bear on companies that promise near-long-term payoffs.
" If there are dramatic cost-savings from departmental consolidation, we should explore taking them at the next contract negotiation rather than waiting a generation. Attrition, early retirement, even some buyouts could all be on the table. It's a bit unfair to our future taxpayers to saddle them with legacy costs, and undignified for our employees to keep them around if there isn't meaningful work for them to do."
We need to be looking deeper into *forward* milestones. We disagree about the value of current employees. My sense is that they are all necessary, to maintain current service levels. We need to treat these hard-working people well.
That said, we should create incentive-based milestones to stimulate efficiencies, in addition to exploring more private/public partnerships, where the "private" part remains unattached to the actual operational strategy and tactics of the department in question.
Palo Alto has a bright future if we treat City employees well, and we *really* innovate. The latter will involve risk-taking and political will; it will require extraordinary collaboration; it will require new paradigms of regional cooperation.
Posted by MPKid, a resident of Menlo Park, on Dec 14, 2007 at 7:55 am
Diamond seems irrationally anti-union.
It's always interesting to hear Diamond rattle on about union money in local elections. It is true that Unions did recently step up contributions significantly in Menlo Park elections, but perhaps only to help unseat an unpopular council.
Once upon a time having people walk precincts and make phone calls was called "grassroots" support.
Its also noteworthy that Diamond always turns a blind eye to the largest special interest donor in local campaigns, developers.
In Menlo Park we keep historical donor data bases for local elections, and the huge wash of develop cash dwarfs union contributions, but Diamond has never once written about it despite the stated concern overthe influence of money on decisions.
Nor to my knowledge has Diamond ever done any real analysis of the votes of those who receive union support to determine whether and how pro-union they are. Recently in Menlo Park, the new council, two of whom were the beneficiaries of an expensive union campaign against incumbents, shortly thereafter negotiated a contract with the union, which was quite favorable to the city and which union members eventually came to grouse about.
Explain that Diana.
Diamonds "news" coverage at the Daily loudly listed union donations to candidates but never loudly itemized developer contributions, and when Diamond was editor, the Daily tried to make Peter Drekmeier's huge grassroots base look like "out of town" money and "union" money.
But what took the cake: When Palo Alto city employees voted against joining a manager's union, Diamond explained it as the future fear of Larry Klein, then only a candidate for city council.
Somehow she was able to twist her editorial and splice the facts that Klein did not receive union money and that the employees did not vote to join a union as a endorsement for Klein's future tough stance against unions. In Diana's bizarre world they were somehow related and Larry's position caused the vote even though he wasnt yet elected.