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November 30, 2005

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Publication Date: Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Editorial: Menlo survey finds budget's soft spots Editorial: Menlo survey finds budget's soft spots (November 30, 2005)

It is not every day that city councils agree to spend serious money just to find out what services their constituents could do without.

But the Menlo Park City Council did just that in May, voting to bankroll a professional mail-out survey, asking respondents to decide what taxes and fees should be raised and what services should be cut to make up a projected approximate $3 million budget shortfall. The firm conducting the survey backed up the results (1,400 received) with about 200 control surveys to make sure the results were not skewed, and found no appreciable difference.

But while the results of the survey or from upcoming public discussions in February are not binding, it will be difficult for the council to ignore what respondents suggested as members make their final decision to cut $2.9 million (9 percent) from a total projected budget of $32 million, add enough revenue (in new taxes or fees), or implement a combination of both, to make up the difference.

Most survey respondents elected to split their decision, opting for about $1.8 million in budget cuts and $1 million in additional taxes. The departments hit the hardest were the biggest targets, with $614,500 coming from public safety, $724,100 from community services and $325,000 from public works. Together, the three make up 83 percent of the city's budget, meaning that while the proposed cuts will be painful, they will not be terminal.

And surprisingly, more than 70 percent of respondents supported new taxes, with levies on utility bills and real estate parcels the first choices. Business or special assessment taxes were the least favored.

Now, with survey results in hand, the tough job for the city will be to make peace with the users of the services that might be lost in this budget process. For example, the hundreds of swimmers who use Burgess and Belle Haven pools are not going to be happy to see a 23 percent cut ($180,000 of $794,000 total) in aquatics programs. But 71 percent of those taking the survey recommended a substantial cut in the program.

And the more than 3,000 residents who attend classes at Burgess Recreation Center or the Onetta Harris Community Center won't be happy to see a 25 percent cut ($94,000 of $368,000) in their programs, although 63 percent of those taking the survey advised making the cutback.

The Public Safety Department also was a big cost-cutting target, losing $614,000 in three areas -- patrol, traffic and community outreach. The suggested cuts of $208,000 in patrol response and $139,000 in traffic enforcement were 3 and 10 percent respectively; community outreach would lose nearly $200,000, about 20 percent of the annual net cost.

For the last three years, Menlo Park's shrinking sales tax revenues have forced the city to make painful budget choices, although administrators found ways to make ends meet without drastic reductions. But those days are over now, and the "extra" services enjoyed by residents will either have to pay their way or be canceled. Some choices will be difficult, but until more sales tax-generating businesses can be attracted to the city, residents are going to have to do without the "extras" that they used to take for granted.

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