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By Sean Howell
Almanac Staff Writer
To date, the city of Menlo Park's paddle around the whirlpool of the global economic recession has been fairly graceful. Though tax receipts have sloughed since the fall of 2008, residents haven't seen much of a change in services, and the city hasn't been forced to dive, Scrooge McDuck-like, into its giant pile of general fund reserves to cover its losses very often.
That paddling is starting get a little choppier, however, as the city works to escape a projected $1.3 million deficit in the fiscal year beginning July 1. Patrons of Menlo Park libraries, parks, and other facilities may start to notice the budget strain this year, with the city already stretched thin due to cutbacks over the past year-plus.
"I think we did a good job for the last two years of holding the line on subsidized programs," Mayor Rich Cline said at the council's April 20 meeting, flipping through a list of recommendations from city management on reducing city services. "I remember going through these on some late nights, and avoiding a lot of these types of cuts. And I don't think we can do it again."
The city has deferred capital improvement projects in each of the past two years, when mid-year revenue came in below projections.
This year, management's recommendations include a reduction of six-and-a-half full-time city positions, including a police officer, a librarian, and a teacher at the Belle Haven child care center. The city also plans to close the senior center and the underused Belle Haven library one day per week, to cut morning hours at the Onetta Harris Community Center, and to decrease park maintenance, among other things.
Those measures are still relatively mild, and might only be temporary. But if things don't turn around, residents could see more drastic cuts in the future: the closure of the main library one day per week, the elimination of the city-run child care program in the Civic Center, and the shuttering of the Belle Haven library, which primarily serves students in the Ravenswood City School District.
"Those are the ideas we came up with this year because of what's going on in the organization," said City Manager Glen Rojas in an interview, stressing that the library and the child care program won't necessarily be the first city programs to fall under the budget ax, if it falls. "We were trying to get a handle on the areas we could cut that would have the least amount of impact on the general community. Next year, whether it's the same situation or whether it's worse, we may be in a different position."
Mr. Rojas' goal is for the city to reach long-term financial sustainability within five years. Though Menlo Park often ran surpluses before the recession, the city has long maintained that it has a structural budget deficit.
The first task is to determine how much of the city's deficit is the result of the recession, and how much of it can be attributed to structural issues, according to Mr. Rojas. He said he hopes to have an answer for the council this time next year, presenting council members with a baseline they can work from to winnow the long-term gap between revenue and expenses. Many of the city's cuts thus far have been reversible, so that the city is prepared for a recovery, if and when it comes.
In May, the council is scheduled to discuss the possibility of initiating a ballot measure to raise the tax on hotel guests. It is also set to debate the future of the Burgess child care center, which has been in limbo for the past year and a half, as the city gauges whether it can recoup enough of its costs to justify operating the program.
At the April 20 meeting, council members said they were not inclined to eliminate the $100,000 or so the city gives annually to community groups, or to hike the utility tax.
"If we increase (the utility tax), I think it's going to feel like we're piling on," Councilman Heyward Robinson said, referring to the fact that water and garbage rates are increasing sharply due to factors outside the city's control.
While many of the cuts seem to be centered in the Belle Haven neighborhood, Mr. Rojas pointed out that programs in that neighborhood receive the highest rate of subsidization from the city. Rather than increase fees for community members who may not be able to afford them, the city looked to trim services that were underutilized, he said.
"We agonized over these recommendations," he said at the council meeting. In the interview, he stressed that the city's still in decent shape, all things considered.
"We're not burning though our reserves, by any means," he said. "I think we've done a really good job, the council and the staff, of working together to adjust the budget each year. We're getting better at it, and we're shrinking the organization to what we believe is an ongoing, sustainable level."
Councilman Andy Cohen said that, while he supported management's decision to hold off on the more severe service reductions it had contemplated, the city appears to be headed for deeper cuts in the coming years. He hinted that next year he may press the City Council and executive management to take voluntary pay cuts, a suggestion he has been making in private since early 2009.
"This is not over yet, and we are not on the verge of anything like a recovery, but that's just my opinion," he said.
Noting that preliminary budgets for the past several years have shown expenses rising faster than revenue, Councilman John Boyle said the city's structural budget gap is "heading in the wrong direction."
Council members said they were reluctant to slash funding for programs used by people most in need of city services, but voiced general support for management's recommendations.
"After many cuts, here we are, left with the children and the seniors, and maybe that's just a regrettable situation in the cut cycle," Councilwoman Kelly Fergusson said.
The council will approve a final budget in June.