Who should decide the timing of public-facilities development and the spending schedule for city funds in Menlo Park? On its face, that doesn't seem like a complicated or controversial question. Residents have the right to expect that their elected officials, with the guidance of staff, will determine the most effective timetable and spending plan for building public facilities and other infrastructure, based on the needs of the community.
But the recent offer of a local philanthropist to contribute at least $25 million toward the rebuilding of the city's main library in the Civic Center muddies the answer to that seemingly facile question.
Local real estate billionaire John Arrillaga, whose past multimillion-dollar gifts to the city over the past nine years have resulted in the creation of three new buildings in the Civic Center, hinges his deal on the city's agreement to pay the initial $20 million of the project and costs associated with staff time, according to city staff.
And, according to City Manager Alex McIntyre, Mr. Arrillaga has required that the money be spent on the main library -- a spacious and functional building that admittedly could benefit from renovation -- rather than the Belle Haven Library branch, which is indisputably inadequate in serving the needs of the Belle Haven community.
The City Council last month accepted the deal, although many of the logistical details about the project have yet to be worked out.
What does the acceptance of Mr. Arrillaga's gift mean to the community? For one thing, it should lead to a grand new two-story library with about one-third more space than the existing facility. It could also result in a below-ground parking area, which would ease the sometimes difficult parking situation library patrons now face.
But it also is likely to result in the delay of other projects, some urgent, such as housing programs and transportation planning, because staff time is finite. And $20 million-plus that had not been allocated for a new library until last month will now be unavailable for other needs formerly considered higher priorities.
Also, by agreeing to Mr. Arrillaga's requirements, the city now will embark on a project that was not considered a priority and that hasn't been subject to the typical community review, which would have included the question: Does the city really even need a brand new library at that location?
Before Mr. Arrillaga's funding offer was made and accepted, the City Council appeared to consider a Belle Haven Library improvement or rebuilding project a much higher priority, based on need, than a main library rebuild. With the city's acceptance of the gift, the decision on setting priorities for library services in Menlo Park was, in effect, made by a wealthy private citizen.
As can be expected, supporters of accepting Mr. Arrillaga's offer state their reluctance to "look a gift horse in the mouth," which in this case could literally be a losing proposition. But something important is lost as well when the direction of city projects and the resulting allocation of city resources are determined by the lure of a wealthy citizen's gift.
With the acceptance of this unexpected donation from a familiar city benefactor, it appears Menlo Park will have another jewel in its Civic Center crown. But now, the city needs to devote the staff time necessary to forge a policy setting reasonable boundaries for how much control of the direction of community projects private donors can expect to have attached to their gifts in the future.