Constructive, Informative Debate? Is it out there? Not here...
Original post made by Kathleen Liston, Menlo Park: Sharon Heights, on Nov 3, 2006
I am a Menlo mom, run my own business out of my home in Menlo Park, PhD student, and I am a public supporter of Boyle, Duboc, and Winkler. I've listened to all candidates and see more common ground between them than their avid supporters (primarily those on this website). They are all passionate about issues facing our city and capable of representing our citizens and have the potential to engage in healthy, constructive debate on a variety of issues if the citizens would listen. I don't feel as some who have chosen sides that any slate or candidate will do unjust harm or will do anything without believing they were serving the best interests of our city. I just hope that post election the eyes will open and the ears will start listening.
Below are my comments on specific issues raised by various posters primarily focused on the Burgess Pool situation:
1) Outsourcing process is undemocratic, illegal. The ideal process would have been a competitive bid. Several factors contributed to the non-typical process which took four months (not as rushed as communicated in the press) and involved the city manager, council, commissions, and city staff. If the city chose to go through the competitive-bid process, the city would have had to expedite the process to open the pool for the summer or hire city staff, fund the startup costs (like any business) and eventually make it more challenging and difficult to layoff those employees if a contractor was chosen. This alone, though, is not a reason to expedite the process, but a contributing factor. Second, like any newly built facility, warranties and warranty coverage start at completion of construction and last for one year. Delaying the opening would risk warranty coverage. Third, our city continues to face a budget shortfall and a community survey cited reduction of pool services as an item to possibly reduce expenditures. (Some argue with the validity of the survey as some posters argue with the pool user survey then you must argue with any survey the city uses on recreation programs).
City staff reports and budgets do show historical ratios of costs/revenue ranging from 9/1 or 4/6 (estimated for Burgess) requiring monies from the general fund. These issues combined with input from the city and staff contributed to the atypical process. Commissions reviewed the proposal and the city council voted on the proposal. Counter that with the Derry Project, that did go through three years of typical process (highly democratic) and is now forced to a referendum vote. Which is more democratic or legal? Both were democratic and legal and while I disagree with the referendum I have to respect those citizens who support it and let the process unfold.
The minority council candidates have a valid point to raise with the process yet should acknowledge the unusual circumstances that led to the atypical process and actions that the council majority believed were in the best financial and fiduciary interest of he citizens and not use it as a source of divisiveness as many of their supporters do.
2) It's not a fair contract and only Menlo Swim profits. Several posters say the contract is lopsided and favors the contractor because the contractor pays no rent. This same contract, though, gives the city the right to revoke the contract at any time for non-compliance. Any business owner would recognize this as highly risky for a small-business and advantageous to the city. The rent issue is an interesting one. This stems from the perception that the contractor is profiting immensely from this deal and the city should share that profit since the taxpayers invested in the facility. This is a valid argument and should be addressed in the future. If the city now views the pool as an investment (it was a liability prior to this outsourcing) the city is acting as a prudent investor ensuring conditions do not predispose the contractor to fail. Companies don't typically make a profit for years and the startup costs of the pool facility are likely high as are investments in equipment, staff, marketing, etc. all costs the city in all likelihood did not consider when they estimated a 3X jump in revenue. If indeed the city wants to share in the profits, is the city prepared to share the losses?
Obviously, some citizens are roiled by the very idea someone can profit from community investment, yet this occurs every day in ours and other communities. Isn't the whole point of community investment to spur business and community activities? Other recreation programs are run by for-profit groups like Kidz Love Soccer and use the playing fields we invested in. We solicit fees from these groups to cover maintenance whereas Menlo Sport pays those fees directly at their own risk. Furthermore, Menlo Park evaluates many of its city programs in terms of "community profit" or well-being of staff and citizens. In this category, Menlo Park is profiting and the city staff and council recognize this.
3) Availability of pool and fees. Posters cite that the pool is open less than surrounding pools and fees are higher and says it's "country club" fees or available to hard core swimmers. I compared surrounding pools and found that Burgess was available on average 80 hrs/week during the summer, Rinconada was open 64 hrs/week, Mountain View 31 hrs/week and Los Altos does not have a public pool. When one factors in the number of lanes which are 17 at Burgess, and 13 at Rinconada, plus the 86 degree pool availability is much higher. The poster's information is inaccurate or outdated.
On the fee front, the Burgess fees are $1 more than Rinconada but the family swim pass and monthly pass (if used 10-12 times per month) is equal or less than Rinconada's ticket books and fees. These are good issues to debate if citizens use appropriate facts and comparisons in a constructive manner. Menlo Swim discussed this in the September city council meeting. The citizens need to remember that the facility is larger than surrounding facilities and more accessible and Menlo Swim will work with the community to find the optimal availability to the pool. It is inappropriate to say that the pool has been taken from our citizens or children.
Finally, Team Sheeper is a Masters program and Rinconada and Mountain View all rely on similar Masters program to support/subsidize the pool. If being "hard core" means that one enjoys recreation and life to its fullest then the term is appropriate for Masters swimmers and many other recreation users. You'll find your neighbors, moms, students, business owners, from a range of backgrounds using a recreation facility program like many provided in our city. Many public pools offer these programs alongside lap swimming, lessons, etc.
4) Cities can run profitable city aquatic programs. A poster states that Palo Alto runs their pools profitably. Palo Alto does not breakout the operations of the pool in any public budget or financial statement. If the poster is aware of such a report I would appreciate the opportunity to review it. Likewise, Mountain View and Redwood city do not separate aquatics from the entire recreation program. Both Palo Alto and Mountain View have a rich history of aquatics programs that include partnerships with Masters programs. Team Sheeper was in the process of negotiating a similar deal with the City of Menlo Park prior to the outsourcing process and the Master's program used Burgess in the 1990's. Private, outside swim programs are critical to supporting pool operations. Our community is arguing over a great aquatics facility and program, when communities like San Jose is struggling to maintain and operate public pools.
5) Costs are inaccurately reported or stated. Review the city budget online. It's well-organized and revenue is broken out. Unfortunately, in the aquatics section it's unclear to tell if the numbers are for Belle Haven, Burgess, or the costs for using Menlo-Atherton during the Burgess closure. Back of the hand math, though, shows that revenue alone from fees can cover operations and the estimated costs are low. The city budgeted $450K for aquatics for 2006-2007 of which they estimated $283K in revenue (3x increase over Burgess revenue), $256K in operating expenses (inline with the Menlo swim paid $54K to the city for just maintenance and operations expenses over a three month period yet doesn't include insurance or equipment purchases), $180K in personnel, and $283K in revenue, in 2004-2005 revenue was $32K for Belle Haven and Burgess generated $100K in revenue). This indicates, contrary to a poster, that revenue estimates are high and costs are low. On the expense side alone, estimates are low since $180K barely covers 3-4 40 hr/week staff members and in 2004-2005 when only Belle Haven was operating the personnel costs were $251K. Yet, Menlo Swim had 60 plus staff.
On the revenue side, it's more difficult to evaluate. Summer is the busiest, and 40,000 swimmers enjoyed Burgess this summer. Assume a $4/person average and revenue during the busiest time period would be $160K. However, many of those swimmers were children, camp goers, and monthly pass users who pay far less on average and winter sees a large dropoff in daily swimmers. Other revenue sources are swim lessons, camps, local swim programs like SOLO, and aquatics programs which were all users of Burgess so it's unclear how the revenue would increase threefold particularly if fees remained the same (as some of stated as a requirement). The city council could easily request the detailed breakdown of Burgess costs prior to its closure and Belle Haven for some comparison and request information from neighboring cities.
6) Childcare and pointing fingers. It's unfortunate that efforts by council to explore options with childcare has turned to singling out those candidates as anti-kids. None of the candidates are anti-kids and all have different ideas on how best to serve the youth in our community. One poster says the program is not subsidized and quotes the Almanac article, but the city budget for 2006-2007, shows 30% of fees at $500K will be used (and were used in past years) from the general fund and services for fees covered 33%. Is this inaccurate? Am I missing some information? Additionally I searched neighboring communities (if we can compare communities on the pool, then it's appropriate to compare here) and Palo Alto, Mountain View, and Redwood City do not use local taxes to fund childcare. Subsidies are provided from the state for those in need.
Why can't we have health debate on this issue without assuming that the questions raised are not whether the program is good or childcare is good, but whether it is the best use of our tax money for all citizens. This issue alone concerns me. I want to live in a community where we can have healthy debate on this issue with numbers and options. It is likely that in the end the current program is the best, but limiting our options or opportunity to consider them is not good practice.
After watching this debate unfold I realize the issue isn't the outcome, or the process, but the politics. We've all chosen to support political candidates and use evidence to support our views I'm sure that's what many opposing my view will do. However, few use facts or are doing the appropriate homework to wade through the issues. Sound bytes simply don't suffice. We'd rather criticize, politicize, and scrutinize than search for common ground and focus on creative ideas or alternatives. I see and understand some of the anger, but shocked by the lack of respect for individuals, or organizations like Menlo Swim who are servicing our community and the notion that privatization or "for-profit" are dirty words.
I would appreciate any comments that correct facts or statements made, are not anonymous, and represent first-person experiences.