Palo Alto would keep the College Terrace Library open, partially restore funding for teen and arts programs and limit its cuts to the Police Department under a revised budget proposal that City Manager Ed Shikada released Thursday night.
The new proposal, which is based on the City Council's direction from meetings on May 11, 12 and 13, includes a nearly 20% expense reduction when compared with the budget that the city was preparing before the COVID-19 pandemic. It reflects a 15% reduction from the current year and incorporates the council's assumption that the city will face a revenue drop of about $38.8 million next year, with sales- and hotel-tax revenues running dry because of the county's shelter-in-place order.
The revised budget, which the council will discuss this Tuesday, May 26, restores some of the most contentious cuts from the prior version. Instead of closing the College Terrace Library, staff now proposes to keep all five libraries open but dividing them into two "full-service libraries," which would be open for six days a week (Rinconada and Mitchell Park), and "neighborhood libraries," which would be open for three days a week (Downtown, College Terrace and Children's libraries).
The Baylands Interpretive Center, which was set for closure, would now be open for 50% of its prior hours. The city is also reaching out to nonprofit groups to support keeping the center open.
Another area that will see partial restoration in funding is support for teen services. Initially, the city was looking to cut $400,000 from the budget; now, it is looking to reduce expenses by about $200,000. The prior budget would have eliminated funding for the Teen Arts Council, the Teen Advisory Board, MakeX and the Think Fund. The revised budget restores this funding. The prior budget included a $50,000 cut to Youth Connectedness Initiative, a Youth Community Service program; the new one restores $25,000 for the program.
The budget also restores limited funding for the Palo Alto Art Center and the Children's Theatre. City funding for the theater would still be reduced by $721,254, but while the prior budget eliminated all theater productions, the revised one allows for two major productions and nine minor ones.
The Art Center would still see more than $450,000 in expense reductions, which would require it to reduce its frequency of exhibitions and educational offerings. It will, however, retain its studio programs and classes. Staff is also expecting private funds to support Art Center programs from the Palo Alto Art Center Foundation, assistance that foundation members offered during budget hearings earlier this month.
In public safety, the revised budget restores funding for investigations, animal services and information management. The report states that potential gaps in service in those areas will "no longer be filled by police officers on an ad hoc basis so they can focus on emergency response."
The restoration in funding was prompted by council guidance, community feedback and salary cuts in the city's "managers and professionals" group, which includes about 235 employees. The 15% compensation reduction, according to staff, would generate about $5.4 million in savings across all funds, including utilities. In the general fund, which pays for most public services that don't include utilities, the salary cuts would free up $3.5 million, according to staff.
The budget would reduce the city's workforce by 7%, with 74.25 full-time-equivalent on the chopping block, as well as 26.18 full-time-equivalent positions filled by part-time staff. Staffing level would drop from 1,033 to 959.6 full-time-equivalent positions, a reduction of 74.25 positions.
As such, residents will see service reductions. The Fire Department would lose five firefighter/EMT positions, which would hinder the city's ability to staff units with overtime when firefighters are on lead. The budget notes that "response times and ability to handle concurrent calls will be reduced evenings and weekends, resulting in some calls being handled by the County mutual aid partners." Fire Chief Geo Blackshire told the council on May 12 that county ambulances on average take twice as long as the Fire Department's to get to an incident.
The Police Department would still see a significant funding reduction, with cuts including nine positions in the patrol division, five full-time positions in dispatch services and a communications manager.
The new budget is still banking on saving $2.5 million annually on the city's lease agreement with the Palo Alto Unified School District over Cubberley Community Center. Shikada told the council that the city plans to achieve this savings by switching from the current model, where the city leases about 27 acres of Cubberley from the district, to an "a la carte" system in which the council limits its leases to particular facilities such as the theater or playing fields.
And the Palo Alto Shuttle, which has been providing free rides along two routes for the past 20 years, remains on the chopping block.
The new report from Shikada acknowledges that the budget includes "significant service impacts."
"We recognize that times are unprecedented, and the details contained in this staff report are tough choices that we would prefer not to be outlining," the report states. "The City has been forced to prioritize essential services and pare back discretionary services. The City acknowledges that many of these discretionary services have contributed to the unique character of the Palo Alto community. From a citywide standpoint, these service level reduction options include creative strategies, changes in how we approach City services and different staffing models, and efficiencies, where possible."
For a detailed look at how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the local economy, employment, education and more, see "Life in Quarantine: How the COVID-19 pandemic has changed Silicon Valley," a series of interactive by-the-number graphics.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.