“What? What? What!” -- those words repeat themselves in that stupid TV commercial where a man sees on his smartphone that a burglar is stealing and then driving away with his car –What! “It’s my job!” the burglar responds. Is this at all relevant to what is happening with Palo Alto's budget?
And I am asking what is happening.
Keep with me on the following numbers – they are important – because either our city is totally overspending, or hiring too many employees, or spending our money to finance their favorite projects.
The city’s general fund, which pays for most city expenses except utilities, is going up from $210.7 million last year to $230.7 million this year, as of July 1 – a 9.5 percent increase, according to the Palo Alto Weekly. Less than a decade ago the city’s annual budget was $140 million. That’s $90 million more than the city now spends.
A large part of that increase is for our employee salaries -- $123.8 million for 2018-19, compared to $97.6 million the previous year -- $26.2 million more this year. BUT – and this is a big WHAT! -- Palo Alto has 113 fewer employees this year. As the Daily Post reported, the city is paying 26.8 percent more on salaries this year.
Back a decade ago, we had about 1,106 employees. Last year we had 1,552 -- 450 more. The city’s population, however, rose less than 10,000 during the decade -- 57,000 to about 65,000 this year.
An equally important point, at the very same time, is that while our city budget is soaring, the city’s Utilities Department (with council approval) has imposed a 5 percent rate increase on our utility charges, effective this past July 1, pushing the average resident’s utility bills to more than $300 a month, or $190 a year.
But wait, there’s more to come in terms of higher utility taxes we residents will have to pay – an anticipated 5 percent in fiscal year 2021 and 2022 (compounded, of course), and 4 percent in each of 2023 and 2024. Therefore, instead of an average $300 a month, the new total will come to $376 a month average, or $4,716 a year, compared to the $3,764 we had been paying. In other words, in five or so years, the average resident will be charged $1,000 more in utilities.
Another major problem – our utilities rates keep rising BUT each year the Utilities Department turns over about $20 million (of the rates we pay) to the city’s general fund. It’s been described to me as a long-time fee, rationalized by acknowledging that since the city created its own Utilities Department and it’s their return-on-investment – through the bills we residents pay.
What have we gotten in terms of public benefits?
What improvements have occurred in town for an extra $90 million this past decade? California Avenue has been improved, as have many streets, street trees have been trimmed, the first floor of City Hall has been renovated, etc. But much is still not done – a Public Safety Building, proposed a decade (or was it two?) ago, has just broken ground; the San Francisquito bridge that contributed to the flood years n 1987 is now a drawing on paper, the El Camino-Embarcadero Road intersection is still clogged up (since 2009), the new bike bridge across 101 has not yet started. But the city’s Transportation Department has hired several new employees to work on this and other problems.
The only thing that may possibly make our city officials try to control these constant rate hikes is for residents to complain loudly. If you care: Write letters, go to council meetings, attend Finance Committee meetings, create a “Control our Budget” movement – and protest. Suggest an outside auditor be hired to sift through the budget, including overruns and overtime salaries. If council members know residents are upset, they may take a look at other sources of funds in their great big budgets – without constantly forking their hands out to us. Even more of a way to prompt them, let them know that if they don’t better control spending, we may not re-elect them. That will scare them.