It's an expenditure that could raise eyebrows in the best of times — seven dinosaur sculptures and giant fossils that would tower over visitors to the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo and cost the city more than $400,000 in total spending.
And the eve of an Election Day in which voters are being asked to approve two separate tax measures to preserve basic city services is not the best of times, the City Council acknowledged Monday night. Worried about the impacts — and optics — of commissioning an expansive dinosaur exhibit without having a clear picture of future revenues, council members moved to delay their vote on the planned dinosaur exhibit to a future date.
The contract with the firm Blue Rhino Studio wasn't expected to be controversial. The outdoor exhibit has long been viewed as an element in the recent renovation of the children's museum and zoo at 1451 Middlefield Road. The council had already approved a $214,706 contract with Blue Rhino in April 2021 to fabricate three large dinosaurs for the exhibit. Palo Alto also received $250,000 in matching funds from the Institute of Museum and Library Services' Museums of America program and $300,000 from the nonprofit Friends of the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo for the creation of a permanent outdoor exhibit known as California Dinosaur Garden, which has a total budget of $980,000.
The proposed contract with Blue Rhino would supplement the three large dinosaur sculptures that had already been approved with four smaller ones as well as large replica fossil skeletons to create a "fossil dig experience," according to a report from the Community Services Department.
But even though the $234,758 contract was listed on the council's consent calendar, a list of items that typically get approved by a single vote with no debate, council members opted in the last minute not to go ahead with the approval just yet. In a rare move, the council voted to approve the project on consent and then, after hearing from several concerned members, redid the vote and fell one vote short of approval. Mayor Pat Burt, Vice Mayor Lydia Kou and council member Greg Tanaka all supported delaying the vote, and while it usually takes four council members to approve a policy, only three are required to pull an item off the consent calendar and revisit it at a future date.
Filseth, who serves on the council's Finance Committee, initially voted against the expenditure. He noted the new zoo's recent struggles to meet its revenue targets, a challenge that has prompted fresh conversations about raising ticket prices. The museum is costing the city about $1.2 million to operate annually. And while the city had projected the museum to recover 65% of its costs through ticket sales, the actual recovery level between its opening date last November and the end of June was about 54% and the number of visitors has been well below the city's projections.
Faced with rising costs, the Finance Committee considered various scenarios in September for raising ticket prices from the current level of $10, though it did not make any recommendations to do so. A past proposal to set prices at $18 was scuttled last year after facing heavy criticism from residents and members of the Friends group, which had raised $25 million for the museum's reconstruction.
Given the museum's challenges, Filseth posited that approving four additional dinosaurs on the eve of the election may not be the best move. He noted that if Measure L, which reaffirms the city's practice of transferring money from the gas utility to the general fund, doesn't pass, the city would be facing budget cuts that may require scaling back library services and other popular programs.
"We're going to prioritize the expansion of a dinosaur exhibit at the time that we're cutting the College Terrace library or the next terrible thing that the next council will have to do," said Filseth, who is terming out at the end of this year. "That's a hard thing to look at now."
Filseth said that he would have voted in favor of the contract if he knew that Measure L was passing. That, however, was not the position the council found itself in on Monday night.
Council members Tom DuBois and Burt largely agreed and both called the item on the dinosaur garden a "close call." But while DuBois favored moving ahead despite his reservations, Burt suggested delaying the vote on the contract until after the election.
"Given all the issues in flux in the sustainability of the Junior Museum and Zoo budget, I think I want to have this reconsidered," Burt said. "I'm not certain that not going forward is the right approach but I do want to look at it in the context where we stand on what looks like an unsustainable budget on the JMZ."
Cormack suggested that the city's expenditure is a contractual obligation and argued that the capital expenditures for the dinosaur exhibit were already budgeted and are separate from the operating funds needed to keep the museum running.
"The funds are available and were intended for this purpose," Cormack said.