In one fell swoop, council approves spending millions. Does the city really care about money? | An Alternative View | Diana Diamond | Almanac Online |


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By Diana Diamond

In one fell swoop, council approves spending millions. Does the city really care about money?

Uploaded: Jun 23, 2020

We all were told that Palo Alto had a $40 million budget deficit and needed to cut all sorts of programs and services to balance the budget. And Monday night council did – members eliminated $41.8 million -- $4.9 million from community services and libraries, $.7.3 million from public safety, $3.26 million from planning and transportation, including the city’s shuttle, and most important of all, got rid of 74 full-time positions.

Normally I would say this is great, because we had way too many on staff, and a budget cleanse is routinely needed to keep all of us in fine financial shape.

BUT!

Just minutes earlier the council unanimously approved millions of dollars on the city’s consent calendar – a routine list of items that are lumped into one voting package. There were 31 items on the calendar (and four more on Tuesday’s agenda) –an unusually large number because City Manager Ed Shikada said this was the last meeting of the 2019-2020 fiscal year – the next one is Aug. 3. While the vote was unanimous, both councilmembers Lydia Kou and Greg Tanaka voted no on several measures, and Tom Dubois did on one.

Did they realize how much money they were spending? The consent agenda discussion lasted all of 20 minutes, and included the proposal to lower the Human Relations Commission from seven to five members, a bit about how much salary cuts employees were really occurring (!5 or 8 percent), and a $20 million expenditure to improve the city’s airport, which Mayor Adrian Fine explained that some money is coming from the FAA to handle the costs. But in one fell swoop, the consent agenda was approved.

Look, I know many of us glaze over numbers and budgets and don’t care to read about them because it[s really not interesting, or sexy, or pertain to what we care about. But the money the city is spending comes from us, the taxpayers, and given the economy and the struggle many businesses here are experiencing, I predict our deficit will increase, which may result in our taxes increasing. There’s already talk about putting a city tax increase on the November ballot. Now are you more interested?

I tried to count up the expenditures approved for this coming year in the consent calendar and got to $32,822,000 – but the counting got complicated. Some expenditure items were only for the upcoming year, some were three-year contracts, some were six-year contracts, some amounts were “up to” so I don’t know whether those expenditures will reach the maximum amount allotted, etc.

Strange, isn’t it. Cutting lots of programs and employees at the council meeting and then without much notice approving multi-million-dollar contracts in the consent calendar at the beginning of that very same meeting for things that really haven’t been discussed in public.

So here are just some of the things approved in the consent calendar by our council for fiscal year 2020-21 (edited by me for brevity):
• $300,000 with consultants to develop a sea level rise assessment plan.
• Up to $710,000 in 2020-21 for excess dental/vision employee benefit claims.
• $1 million this year (three 5-year contracts) for electrical engineering consulting services on an as-needed basis. Up to $5 million allocated.
• $1.9 million (plus $100K for change orders) for a power line construction for the Caltrain Facility Relocation Project and Wood Pole Replacement Project. Total not to exceed $2.097 million.
• $1.5 million this year ($6M total for four years with six companies) for “On-Call Inspection and Plan Review Services.” (whatever that encompasses)
• $205,952 for professional services for Wastewater Collection System Management Software.
• Up to $930,230 to Integrated Design 360 for development and support of several programs in the city including sustainability implementation plan, green building program, etc.
• $2,954,031 to O’Grady Paving, Inc. for a street resurfacing program (this comes out of the capital improvement fund). (Which streets are not designated.)
• $13.8 million for the Airport Apron Reconstruction Phase III (capital improvement budget) plus an unspecified budget amendment for next year).
• $480,000 for IT Project Support Services; $350,000 SAP on-call support services. (Part of five-year contracts not to exceed $2.4 million and $1.75 million.
• Three six-year contracts for library materials, print services and media and digital services not to exceed $3.1 million.
And on the June 23 consent agenda:
• $2,733,280 a year for 54 months to rent parts of Cubberley from the school district.
• $2,794,658 for continued and expanding services for connecting Palo Alto Rail Grade Separation.

That’s a lot of dollars.

I’m not saying some of these expenditures aren’t desirable, and some do try to keep things in shape, while some are planning for the future, but is this the time to spend all this money and doing so in one vote for the consent calendar? And then an hour later deciding to cut the budget in ways that hurts a lot of services and programs for residents?

What are our city’s philosophical priorities? Spending money on consultants to aid our city employees? Reducing services? Getting rid of space at Cubberley to save $2.7 million? Closing Children’s Theater and the Palo Alto Art Center? Cutting down on police? And then spending millions approving a consent calendars? This seems duplicitous at worst, or simply lazy thinking, or maybe, just doing whatever the city manager wants the council to do.

Just asking.

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