The usual process of increasing fees for city services each year in Menlo Park goes like this: The staff compiles a new list of prices, the City Council looks it over, there might be some comment about how much child care programs cost, and then the council votes to approve it.
The process didn't quite run like clockwork this year. Although council members Kirsten Keith and Rich Cline moved to approve the changes without comment during the April 29 meeting, their colleagues decided to talk about a few things first.
"Why are we raising fees right now?" Mayor Ray Mueller asked, nearly kicking off a policy debate. He said he didn't support raising prices whenever the staff got raises, but acknowledged later that the formula was more complex than that.
"This is balancing our budget. It's important that these fees be here," said City Manager Alex McIntyre. While the fees weren't raised to balance the budget, he explained, they contributed to reaching that goal.
"It seems funny to me that we get this in such a fashion that we can't change things if we see something we'd like to change," Vice Mayor Cat Carlton commented later. She advocated raising rates for businesses making a profit by renting the city's sports fields. "That's where I'd like to see us bring in the money we need to bring in" instead of raising prices for families.
Community Services Director Cherise Brandell noted that previous council direction had been to maximize cost recovery, particularly for child care, and that had framed the staff's work on the proposed budget for fiscal year 2014-15, including the fee adjustments. That policy would need to change, she said, if the council now wants to look for alternatives.
Finally, as the hour crept towards midnight, Mayor Mueller announced that he would support the fee changes "because I'm told we won't have a balanced budget otherwise," but emphasized that he wants to examine the cost recovery policy at a later date.
The fee increases passed with a 5-0 vote, with the changes scheduled to take effect July 1, when the next fiscal year starts. The staff estimated that community services revenue will go up by $171,300 as a result.
Among other changes: Programs at the Menlo Children's Center will cost 1 to 7 percent more; the gymnastics programs gets a 5 percent bump; and rental fees for recreation facilities as well as birthday party packages will rise 13 to 29 percent.
Some child care programs appeared to show a 13 to 23 percent hike as a result of an error, however. Ms. Brandell explained that those fees actually did not rise this time, but were reflecting a prior increase that had been left out of previous lists.
Review the staff report online for a complete list of fee adjustments.
How much more nonresidents should pay to participate in the city's recreation programs surfaced briefly during the fee discussion.
The staff report included a recommendation that the council leave the surcharge at 35 percent, much to the confusion of community members who were told by the staff that it wouldn't be discussed at last night's meeting.
Community Services Manager Cherise Brandell told the Almanac in an email prior to the meeting that the recommendation was "boiler plate language that appears every year in the master fee schedule staff report." The topic would not be discussed at the council meeting, she said, and the staff was not recommending any changes.
Should the issue "be explicitly brought up by a Council member or a community member tonight, we are prepared to say that the subject is under review by the Parks and Rec Commission and that we will be returning in the fall with their recommendation," Ms. Brandell wrote.
It did come up. Councilman Peter Ohtaki thanked staff for explaining in the report that the surcharge is necessary, and asked whether there was a way to study changing the one-week registration delay for nonresidents so that people living in unincorporated Menlo Park could register sooner, "but still have to pay the higher fee."
Staff said that industry practice was to provide priority registration for residents, but that policy will be reviewed by the Parks and Recreation Commission this fall.
Later, Mr. Cline asked, "(For) our nearby residents, who aren't citizens: Is it a fair deal if you're two blocks out of the city to pay that much more?" He suggested the city provide an analysis of the rationale for that decision for the benefit of the public's understanding.
Still later, as the thrust of the conversation segued into a discussion of how the city knows when Menlo Park's fees have hit the right level to compete in the marketplace, Mr. McIntyre noted, "When nonresidents are upset because they can't get into our services, that's a great position to be in."
Jon Kossow, who lives in unincorporated Menlo Park, has asked the city to reconsider its surcharge and waiting period policy. He wasn't able to attend or watch the council meeting, he said, but told the Almanac on Wednesday that his level of frustration was high, given that people were told the next step was a review by the Parks and Recreation Commission this fall, "and then to be blindsided by this topic (arising) last night."
"My concern is that no one really wants to engage in a discussion on if there are any better solutions to the issue, as it's just easier for everyone to stay with the status quo," Mr. Kossow said. Interest appears minimal in doing an actual financial analysis of alternatives that could lead to increased revenue for the city, he added.
"I have offered myself up several times to dig in and help out and no one seems interested in continuing or broadening the dialogue."
Erin Glanville, who has blogged about the surcharge policy, said inequities in how the extra fees are applied hurt contractors who run recreation programs and lower participation, since some families can't afford the cost. "I don't know why anyone from the city would feel that is 'great.'"
She hopes the city accepts Mr. Kossow's offer to find a "win-win" solution that could bring in more money for Menlo Park.
As for transparency: After asking for clarification as to whether the nonresident surcharge would be discussed at the council meeting, Ms. Glanville said she trusted the staff's response that it wouldn't be, and that the council would be informed, if the topic arose, that the Parks and Recreation Commission was investigating the issue.
"Well, the issue was discussed. (The) council only got to hear from staff on the issue because the community was not engaged," Ms. Glanville said. "It is very disappointing. I think that people who raise issues to civic leaders deserve better."