Even though Menlo Park's agency was formed to fight blight in the Belle Haven area and along Willow Road, where most of its money was spent, the City Council can find a way to keep at least some of the eastside neighborhood's key agencies in business. To do otherwise would send a terrible message to the residents there, who are not nearly as affluent as those living in many other parts of the city.
Using a mix of strategic cuts and revenue increases, the council should be able to patch together ways to bring the $3 million shortfall down to manageable size, if not wipe it out entirely, at least for this budget year.
A major step on that path was taken last week when the council voted 4-1 (with Andy Cohen dissenting) to close the Housing Department, which could save up to $1.7 million, depending on how a transition is restructured. The department was in charge of the below-market-rate housing program, among other things. Three staff members will be laid off if they don't find other jobs within the city.
There are other possibilities. In preliminary discussions last week, the council was presented with a list of possible savings and ways to increase revenue. Many cuts, like the $110,000 from eliminating funding for community agencies, would ripple across the city. Eliminating the business development manager (a post vacant after David Johnson resigned) would save $160,000 now but could limit the city's economic growth in future years.
A stop-gap option before the council is the already planned sale of a property on Terminal Avenue in Belle Haven, which would bring in a one-time payment of $850,000. This is the former site of a Habitat for Humanity housing project that the city abandoned after neighbors objected. The Beechwood School next door has coveted the property for years, and is planning to purchase it.
The council should strongly consider adding 2 percentage points to the Transit Occupancy Tax, which could generate as much as an additional $500,000 a year. The city's rate is currently 10 percent, but many nearby communities are at 12 percent, including Redwood City, Half Moon Bay, San Mateo and San Bruno.
Another option, to raise the current 1 percent Utility User Tax (UUT), would have a much larger impact, bringing in nearly $1 million with every 1 percentage point increase. At the current 1 percent rate, the average monthly cost for residential consumers is only $1.79, while commercial users pay $25.
There are many more possible cuts throughout other city departments, including options focused entirely on Belle Haven that could eliminate some of the most popular and successful programs in that community: closing the Onetta Harris Community Center would save $340,000; closing the Belle Haven library, $265,000; closing the after school and summer camp (which could be saved with help from the Boys & Girls Club), $340,000; and closing the Senior Center, $350,000.
We believe it would be unwise for the council to enact any cuts that would focus on Belle Haven, although it might be possible to reshape the Onetta Harris Community Center and Senior Center into one facility. That is something we hope Belle Haven citizens and the new city manager, who will arrive in March, can work on together. Losing the redevelopment agency was a blow, but despite the hardship, the city has plenty of ways to overcome a major blow to its budget.