Editorial: Menlo Park library decision should be revisited


Decisions by city councils on allocating limited funds for the enormous range of city services and capital projects inevitably require hard choices arrived at through carefully setting priorities and weighing one need against another. There's nothing new about that concept.

What's new -- unprecedented, even -- in Menlo Park is that the city is poised to embark on a major capital project that will require the spending of more than $20 million in public funds without having first identified that project as a priority and, equally troubling, without a meaningful public discussion: Do residents of Menlo Park -- all of Menlo Park, not just the more affluent area -- believe that the spacious main branch of the Menlo Park Library needs to be rebuilt if it means putting higher-priority projects on the back burner?

The question has arisen because of an offer from billionaire philanthropist John Arrillaga: He will donate the bulk of costs for a brand new main library if the city agrees to pay the first $20 million, plus ancillary costs that have not been clearly identified.

The City Council just last March balked at the estimated cost of a proposed new facility that would expand library space in the Civic Center by one-third, in part because of the obvious need for significantly improving inadequate library services in the less-affluent Belle Haven neighborhood, east of U.S.-101. But the lure of a gift that may exceed $30 million turned at least four council members around. Last month the council voted 4-0 (with Ray Mueller absent) to accept the offer, fast-tracking a costly project without a public conversation about the merits of such a project.

Last week, the city's Finance and Audit Committee offered a range of suggestions about how the city might fund its share of the library rebuild, citing options from selling city assets such as the water company, to issuing bonds that might also help finance other projects, to tapping into the city's reserves. But committee members noted that too much information was missing to make firm recommendations, and that more public comment is needed.

Menlo Park residents and taxpayers can't be faulted for thinking that this is a process turned on its head. When Mr. Arrillaga offered his financial support for rebuilding the library, some people expressed reluctance to "look a gift horse in the mouth" by responding, "Thanks, but no thanks." But another old equine-related saying is looking ever more convincing as the financial realities and lack of a clear vision emerge: Don't put the cart before the horse.

The Almanac earlier this month urged the City Council to create a policy on accepting gifts -- one that would ensure that decisions on project priorities would remain with the council, not be turned over to the benefactor. But as concerns grow about how to finance the city's portion of the rebuild -- and about more pressing needs that might not be addressed in the near future as a result of the $20-plus million project -- the council should pause, revisit its July decision, and ask residents whether they support rebuilding the main library at such cost.

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18 people like this
Posted by Belle Haven Resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Aug 16, 2017 at 12:36 pm

It wouldn't be the first or last time that people were so dazzled by the prospect of 'free money' that they forgot to look at the cost. Every day people fall for emails saying to send $250 or $500 or $1000 in order to collect their Irish Sweepstakes winnings. I for one will not vote in favor of taking on any debt to finance this project, or approve of any selling of public assets or reduction in needed reserves.

13 people like this
Posted by Seriously?
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Aug 16, 2017 at 3:04 pm

Here is one of piece of information that is not being reported and should be investigated. One current version of the new library will tear down the Menlo Children's Center and not replace it. This would eliminate childcare for hundreds of Menlo Park children. People need to know this.

14 people like this
Posted by Joseph E. Davis
a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Aug 16, 2017 at 3:40 pm

This idea is so wrongheaded and weakly justified that only our "public servants" could possibly be in favor of it. There are 20 million things that would be a better use of these funds.

8 people like this
Posted by Observer
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Aug 16, 2017 at 4:55 pm

I'm wondering if libraries are starting to become irrelevant. People aren't buying or using books as much and most have computers at home. Perhaps they should rethink what the needs of the residents need addressed.

12 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 16, 2017 at 5:09 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

The City needs to come into the digital age and revisualize the entire community's information needs and the entire community's need for common meeting spaces rather than just building a new and bigger library West of 101.

8 people like this
Posted by George Fisher
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Aug 16, 2017 at 5:28 pm

Stuart Soffer's blog Web Link, and comments thereto, are right on.

1. Where is accounting of Measure T parcel tax funds?.
2. Why is Council so secretive, e.g, Mayor pocket vetoing Mueller transparency motion? Not even any public Council discussion.
3. How do Belle Haven residents get heard on Council? Public comment is restricted at meetings and discussion of any issue is generally only self serving leading questions and responses back and forth between Council member and staff.

23 people like this
Posted by horse out of the barn
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Aug 16, 2017 at 5:45 pm

Editor - thank you for speaking common sense.
It is important to look in the mouth of the gift horse.

A billionaire "gives" construction help. This is not true philanthropy. He can shield other of his profits with a deduction of these costs valued at market rates (i.e., that include profit margin). At the same time, he really only spends the actual costs of his workers and materials at the favorable rates he can negotiate, likely less than "market", and excluding profit.
When Menlo Park pays for the rest of the project at market rates, with profit, he makes money on the rest of the project, assuming the contract goes to this guy.
Do we know how much control the city would have on the design and layout? Arrillaga is (in)famous for doing things his way.

Anyway, he gets his name on yet another building further confusing which Arrillaga facility is the site of an event, gets a tax deduction for the donated part, and a profit on the rest. Menlo Park gets a nice new library it didn't think was needed at this time and was not as high a priority as other budget items. A good deal?

We can't judge fully until we know not only what control the city has over the project, what the options are for funding, and most critically what does this mean for specific other projects that were part of the plan before this showed up -- their timing, their funding, and so on.

Is anyone sure that the offer wouldn't be made again in the future?

Like this comment
Posted by PVer
a resident of Portola Valley: Brookside Park
on Aug 16, 2017 at 11:31 pm

Hmm. Sounds like Menlo Park doesn't deserve this generous gift... Mr Arrillaga, please consider giving the money instead for enhanced security at PV borders.

21 people like this
Posted by What's the Rush?
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Aug 17, 2017 at 12:44 am

John Arrillaga is a canny businessman, and as such doesn't do anything out of the goodness of his heart, or for purely philanthropic reasons. As another poster said, Arrillaga is sure to profit from this deal, one way or another.

A new main library wasn't even on the horizon of planned city projects until Arrillaga dangled his strings-attached $20 million in front of Council. Since when does John Arrillaga dictate the budget and city planning priorities of Menlo Park? If he offered to give $20 million to the city to spend on whatever projects were most pressing and would serve the greatest number of people, then great! I'd say take the money and make it work hard for Menlo Park. But to offer it in this manner, with so many conditions and restrictions (which would multiply exponentially once construction actually began) says to me ~ and should say to Council, loud and clear ~ that Arrillage is getting something out of the deal, and probably more than the city is getting.

It's fundamentally unfair that a perfectly functional main branch would be torn down and rebuilt, at a public cost of tens of millions (which the city would have to scramble to find), while the Belle Haven branch expansion, and so many other projects, would go unfunded ~ all at the whim of John Arrillaga.

City Council is doing the residents, voters, and taxpayers of Menlo Park a grave disservice by jumping at this "free" money without a close examination of the implications (financial and otherwise) of taking on this costly project. Council needs to re-examine this deal, and make a carefully considered decision AFTER getting a considerable amount of public input.

3 people like this
Posted by Dagwood
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Aug 17, 2017 at 5:53 am

The current construction estimate may be an underseteinste also, meaning the city contribution could be much more. In any case this isn't how to make this decision. The main need may be for more administrative space also, in contrast to library users.

16 people like this
Posted by Herbert
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Aug 17, 2017 at 12:40 pm

This "gift" is wrong and many of us at the Council Meeting when it was announced were surprised. First, the Council members bobbed and weaved about it; ignored the plea from Belle Haven about the lack of resources at their Library, and the hope that any financial resources would be used to help them. The current main Library is not even open every day, there are inadequate human resources available and the city is going to build a new and bigger Library ? Who pays for this ? Who pays the increased operating costs ?

This is wrong in every way and residents should do whatever we can to oppose this.

4 people like this
Posted by Menlo resident
a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Aug 17, 2017 at 12:41 pm

Where is our parking structure? Libraries are a thing of the past with technology.

6 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 17, 2017 at 9:16 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Sure looks like all the wheels have been greased on a new main library:
"Staff recommends that City Council consider and approve the following items related to the construction of
a new main library on the Civic Center Campus:
1. Modify the City Council Work Plan to include the construction of a new main library building on the Civic
Center Campus including necessary modifications to the City Council’s Work Plan for fiscal year 2017-
2. Appoint a Library Project City Council subcommittee to serve in an advisory role to staff and expedite
the public process, facilitate design and review project finances
3. Establish a new special revenue fund titled “Main Library Construction Fund” to be used for all costs
associated with a new main library facility
4. Amend the fiscal year 2017-18 adopted budget to include an initial transfer of $1 million from the
General Fund’s unassigned fund balance to the new Main Library Construction Fund
5. Increase the City Manager’s contract award authority from $66,000 to $250,000 and waive purchasing
requirements for all contracted services required by the Main Library Construction Fund to expedite the
6. Authorize an increase in the number of authorized unrepresented management full time equivalent
personnel from 22 to 23 to provide for the ability to augment existing management personnel to oversee
construction of the new main library"

While Belle Haven can just wait and wait:
The City of Menlo Park has released a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a library assessment. The purpose
of this Neighborhood Library Needs Assessment is to identify the current and anticipated library service
needs of residents in the Belle Haven neighborhood through the year 2037, particularly as they relate to a
potential new branch library. The consultant who is chosen will work with library and city staff, community
members, and neighborhood organizations. A combination of demographic analysis, current library use
statistics, study of relevant documents, surveys, interviews and focus groups will be among the tools used.
The results of the work will include a written report that will contain an analysis of the community’s current
and anticipated future library service needs and public presentations of the report.
The Request for Proposals was released Aug. 3, 2017. Deadline for proposal submission is Sept. 15, 2017,
and the successful firm will be chosen Oct. 24, 2017. Work will be completed by June 20, 2018."

10 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 18, 2017 at 2:33 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

It takes real audacity to put two items that support such disparate treatment of the East side and the West side of Menlo Park on the same agenda and particularly since the Belle Haven library issue is agendized as an information only item which probably precludes the Council from taking any action on that issue.

Will the Belle Haven residents tolerate this blatant injustice?

9 people like this
Posted by Mper
a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Aug 18, 2017 at 3:30 pm

Wait- what?! They're taking out the child care? First I've heard of it. That's not right.
Also, I fully expect that anything mr arillaga donates comes with huge strings and is hugely beneficial, not just to MP, but to him. What I don't understand... why do our city project priorities have to change? Why can't this project be added to the bottom of the list of already scheduled projects?

4 people like this
Posted by Lynne Bramlett
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Aug 19, 2017 at 11:30 am

Does everyone know about this webpage Web Link with how you can email the entire City Council (and senior staff) and also link to the City Council email log? I recently wrote Council on the topic of library equity and I will mostly replicate my email below. The report is readily available by Googling the title.

The City of San Diego recently faced a similar challenge as is now facing
Menlo Park -- specifically library resource equity. In short, in the "Performance Audit of the San Diego Public Library System," the author noted that "library resources [weren't] distributed equitably...and part of the blame [went to] a 'matching funds' policy for donations." Libraries in wealthy areas were being built up whereas those in lower income areas were falling behind. In response, the Library agreed to adopt the auditor's recommnedations that the San Diego's Library Director should:

- Develop and document a resource model that will evaluate resource
equity between branches and the SDPL.
- Take action to address any resource equity issues identified between
- Develop SDPL guidance that requires the resource model to be updated,
results reviewed, and appropriate action taken based upon the results

Would it be possible for Council to make the issue of library resource
equity a formal agenda topic at a future meeting? Discussion of this
important topic could lead to a formal policy being established and/or an
ordinance that would include the yearly reporting and transparency aspect.
I think a discussion leading to a motion is needed as general guidance from
Council (even if you all seem to agree) may not be interpreted as a policy
direction that City staff should now follow.

4 people like this
Posted by whstever
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Aug 19, 2017 at 1:01 pm

Put it to a city-wide vote. And to save money include some recall voting.

11 people like this
Posted by Jen Wolosin
a resident of Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on Aug 20, 2017 at 10:59 pm

Dear City Council Members,

Please send your comments about the Main Library project directly to City Council ( Whether you are for or against the project, please be civically engaged and give your input to City Council. My email to City Council is below:

As a concerned citizen of Menlo Park, I strongly urge you to graciously turn down Mr. Arrillaga's current library offer. While free money is tempting to accept, please consider the following:

In addition to the other consequences of accepting Mr. Arrillaga's proposal outlined in the Staff Report, pursuing the library project at this time puts Menlo Park's kids in continued danger. In order for staff capacity to be created for the unanticipated library project, at least two major Safe Routes-related projects will need to be further postponed. The Willows Complete Streets (aka Laurel Safe Routes Study) and the Middlefield/Ringwood/Ravenswood improvement project will be pushed back. Every day kids traveling to and from our City's schools contend with dangerous street conditions. How can we take on a nice-to-have library project when children's safety (and that of all of ours in town) is "postponed"?

What does it say about our City's values that we are willing to add more staff to our City's payroll to respond to a billionaire, but we are not willing to do so to address our transportation and Safe Routes issues? If Menlo Park is willing to increase staff capacity (which I think is absolutely needed), shouldn't we use that added capacity to address issues that are really affecting the day to day lives of our town's citizens instead of fast tracking a replacement to our currently adequate library?

The process and speed that this project is demanding are troubling.
- A new main library was not a City priority until this offer was presented.
- One City Council meeting was held to consider the offer. This City Council meeting took place in the middle of summer and many of the members of public who spoke on the topic were concerned that the main library would be funded and pursued before the Belle Haven library was improved. From what I witnessed, there was no overwhelming mandate from the citizens of Menlo Park to pursue the project. Most of the residents who spoke either lived in Belle Haven or were affiliated with the library in some way. Did you receive feedback from other residents of Menlo Park if they wanted to pursue this project? Did they understand the trade-offs associated with the acceptance of this proposal?
- The Staff Report recommends increasing the City Manager's contract award authority from $66k to $250k. Considering that City Council must approve many changes around town (see consent calendars), how is it that oversight will be waived for this huge project?
- The Staff Report recommends initially taking $1 million from the General Fund's unassigned fund balance without looking at other possible uses for that money. There is no consideration of what other projects could be pursued with $20 million. The library project is being evaluated in a vacuum.
- While "community input" will be solicited to share and seek some information/feedback about the project, it is the pursuit of the project itself that should have undergone significant community input.

Furthermore, the Staff Report mentions that there are significant staff vacancies in the Public Works Department. What impact does the constant re-prioritizing of projects have, not only on our town's ability to complete important previously prioritized initiatives, but also on staff morale?

The proposal from Mr. Arrillaga is tempting, but it is not something that should be pursued without a thoughtful consideration of the trade-offs and sacrifices that it entails. What good would a state-of-the-art library do if most of us in Menlo Park are unable to visit it because we are stuck in traffic? Wouldn't we rather have the ability to bike, walk and drive safely to our existing library, rather than have a fancy building that no one can get to safely?

Menlo Park is currently experiencing a transportation and housing crisis. The only library crisis facing our community is in Belle Haven. To spend City resources on a nice-to-have main library is to ignore the true needs of our community. We don't need a fancy new library right now. We need safe streets. We need more affordable housing. We need social justice.

Please do the right thing. Please consider this proposal at the proper time and place. If updating the main library, at this level, is truly needed, the community will let you know and we will find a way. Please don't let a seductive proposition guide our town.

Thank you for your consideration.


Jen Wolosin
Menlo Park Resident

1 person likes this
Posted by Stu Soffer
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Aug 22, 2017 at 1:07 pm

This is a busting blank check city management.

Like this comment
Posted by Stu soffer
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Aug 22, 2017 at 1:08 pm

Budget busting.

Thumbs on an iPhone.

4 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 22, 2017 at 7:41 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Jen Wolosin raises a very pertinent question on the City's priorities.

At Jen Wolosin's urging the Fire Board unanimously approved paying for 50% of the cost of new Hawk signals in front of Station 1 to both protect pedestrians and bicyclists crossing Middlefield and to permit safer egress of fire apparatus from the station. The Fire Board even offered to lend the City of Menlo Park the other 50% so that the project could be done now since such a project was not in the City's current budget.

The City's response is that this project would have to wait its turn - probably late 2018 or 2019.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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