Almanac

Viewpoint - February 20, 2013

Editorial: A good way to control planning costs

Although we understand why Menlo Park City Manager Alex McIntyre wants to add nine full-time employees to the planning staff in advance of possibly the busiest five years in the department's history, he should not be surprised that the City Council put the brakes on his request, giving him considerably less than he asked for last week, at least for the next few months.

Perhaps the council was reflecting residents' strong aversion to adding full-time employees as shown in the 2010 passage of Measure L, which garnered 72 percent of the vote and decreased pension benefits for city employees. Planning Commissioner Henry Riggs, who co-chaired the pension reduction campaign, asked the council last week, "Are we making long-term commitments for cyclical needs?"

The city's staff report showed that project fees cover a large portion of the salaries for some planning and public works staff, and that actuarial pension costs are low for new employees. But the council discussed the request until well after midnight before voting 5-0 to limit immediate expenditures for new planners and office set-up to $300,000, rather than approving the $1.2 million requested. The city manager will decide how to spend the money on some combination of two new provisional employees, extending the service of the department's current two provisional staffers beyond June, when their contracts expire, and furnishing office space. The council asked Mr. McIntyre to return with a proposal to hire a mix of contract, provisional and permanent staff members, instead of only full-time employees, to meet the city's needs.

We understand the city manager's reluctance to risk coming up short-handed, with known projects like the Facebook west campus and the Stanford/Arrillaga development on El Camino Real on the way. Planners don't grow on trees, and it's a slow process to get any new employee up to speed. But we believe it makes more sense to contract staff, rather than saddle the city with the costs of nine new full-time employees.

Not surprisingly, Facebook officials and developer Steve Pierce of Greenheart Land Company, whose firm plans to develop the Derry site on Oak Grove Avenue near the train station, strongly supported adding full-time staff. Mr. Pierce said his project "is very dependent on the history that goes along with the specific plan, which includes all the intricacies of CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act)." He said a contract employee could not "jump into that and really be efficient."

We see Mr. Pierce's point, but the city can always make sure a planner with the proper background is assigned to any project that has special needs. As the workload increases, it makes sense to use a mix of contract, provisional and full-time staff that allows the flexibility to adjust the amount of staff as the workload changes. Managing this mix may not be as easy for Mr. McIntyre, but it's a fiscally responsible way to meet Menlo Park's needs.

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