As the City Council formulates the Palo Alto budget, members should remember: The question is not "What services can Palo Alto frantically cut short term to save money?" The question is "How can we improve our city long term?"
Nothing I have seen from the council directly addresses that most obvious goal. I know the job is incredibly difficult, but council members were elected to do a difficult job.
The council needs to remember that the city manager and the unions represent city staff. The council members represent us. They need to consider this when thinking about how the budget should be cut.
At the very least, they should consider combining the administration of our police department with other cities or with the Sheriff's Department and combining our fire department with Santa Clara County's department as other proud cities have done. We would save millions of dollars every year in administrative costs and lose NOTHING in service because the contracts we negotiate can reflect our unique goals.
Study the case of the city of San Carlos in San Mateo County and see how personal the police force is, how seamlessly consolidation with the sheriff was achieved, and how easy it was to fiddle with the contract until it was just right.
Our police department does not deserve the council's unquestioned loyalty as proved by the tapes involving Palo Alto police officers in the case of Gustavo Alverez, the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park resident who sued the city after he was violently arrested in February 2018. Sgt. Wayne Benitez, the principal offender, was allowed to retire with full pension, and the city was successfully sued for $572,500. One of the officers involved — but never charged — in that incident went on to allegedly commit another act of violence, which may involve Palo Alto in a $3.8-million lawsuit. Ouch.
The police problem is not new, you know. The culture of the oh-so-powerful police union in Palo Alto will not fundamentally change. It must finally be defrocked.
As for fire, Santa Clara County (not counting San Jose) has a population of just 900,000 and six fire departments, with six expensive administrations to support them. Is that really necessary?
Fire services are on the brink of consolidation. Come on, Palo Alto. Take us all the way. Note:
— We already have one countywide 911 dispatch service.
— We already have a mutual-aid agreement with Cal Fire and other cities.
— Four Santa Clara cities already contract with the county for fire protection.
— Ambulance transport service is provided countywide by AMR (with just one exception, the city of Palo Alto.)
The council needs to ask: Is there opportunity for consolidation here? Are there big bucks to be saved in our most expensive departments? Is it worth at least investigating?
Councilwoman Lydia Kou sent an email asking what services we could tolerate cutting. Why should we cut service? Why not outsource it? The result? Service might improve! And remember, the people to whom we outsource those jobs also want to work.
I remind you that in February 2019, Pets In Need took over the operation of the Palo Alto Animal Shelter from the city, which by all accounts has been a big success. And we hired Team Sheeper for operational oversight of Rinconada Pool's aquatics programming. Of course, we are free to not renew that agreement should his excellent track record not be sustained, which is one huge advantage to outsourcing. This move proved that outsourcing brings service as well as fiscal benefits.
Every opportunity to streamline city staff and reduce the administrative glut helps to extricate us from the huge burden of CalPERS (California's Public Employees' Retirement System). Our CalPERS debt is one of the largest among cities in the entire state and is doomed to substantially increase because CalPERS is increasingly underfunded — and was substantially underfunded even before our current economic woes. In fact, the only real solution to even taming that debt is to reduce the size of our full-time workforce — on which those pension obligations are based — and to not just cut un-pensioned, lower paid, part-time staff, as you are doing.
Council members need to ask themselves, "Do we really need five PR people on staff?" The answer is "No." "Do we really need five recruiters in our HR department, plus support staff?" Of course not. And we won't for the foreseeable future.
Did I really need five separate inspections from the city when I had a washer and non-draining dryer installed in the unit where I live? And have I just scratched the surface of the opportunities for cost-saving reform? Probably.
So I implore the City Council to start thinking about the big picture; work on reshaping the city to save us money, without curtailing services; hire a consultant to design a new organizational model; and please, take this opportunity to at least begin extricating the city from our enormous CalPERS debt. Thank you.
Mickie Winkler is a former Menlo Park mayor and one current frustrated Palo Alto resident. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.