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.