Facing an expected shortfall of $12.7 million in a sea of uncertainty in the upcoming fiscal year, the Menlo Park City Council, tasked with creating a balanced budget by the end of June, grappled Tuesday with deciding what should get nixed.
The council didn't come to any formal decisions during a discussion Tuesday night, partly because they wanted to wait for the full council to be there to work through the difficult budget cuts together.
Councilwoman Betsy Nash was not in attendance due to a death in the family.
One of the proposed cuts that raised the largest community outcry is the possibility of closing Menlo Park's two child care centers, the Menlo Children's Center and the Belle Haven Child Development Center.
Spoken and written comments from local parents and child care professionals and advocates flooded the City Council in opposition to cutting city funding for the child care centers. Many spoke about how the child care offered there has been a critical support for young families in the city who have few options for accessing child care at all, let alone care that's affordable.
"Frankly, we feel that we couldn't survive in this community without these important services," Morgan Diolaiti, a Menlo Children's Center parent, told the council, urging members to look at the numbers again.
Kim Bourne, executive director at GeoKids, an early childhood care center near USGS, told the council that her facility retains a waitlist of 100 children each for 2, 3 and 4 year olds.
"Where are the children from (Menlo Children's Center) or Belle Haven supposed to go if their schools were to close? How are Menlo Park parents supposed to return to work when there is no place for their children to receive quality care?" she wrote in a letter. "Without accessible, quality childcare, our community cannot thrive."
Menlo Park, like many other communities in the region, doesn't have enough spots in child care facilities to meet the needs of the community. Even before the pandemic struck, there was a shortage of 1,471 child care spots, according to Dayna Chung and Heather Hopkins of the Community Equity Collaborative, an organization focused on educational equity in early learning.
"Closing these schools would be devastating for working families, especially families who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, including those who make up the child care workforce (primarily women of color). A lack of child care access increases both housing and nutrition insecurity. COVID-19 has already had a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities," they said in a letter.
The two centers alone make up 13% of Menlo Park's overall early child care spots, they added.
The child care centers receive grants that cover a significant portion of operating costs, but with the city's child care centers shut down and little certainty about how operations will be impacted by COVID-19 for the foreseeable future, the centers could grow very costly very fast, without bringing in the usual revenue.
Preliminary estimates are that the city's preschool child care programs could lose between $1.1 million and $2.2 million next year, according to staff, though if no revenue or grants come in, the number could rise to $3 million, the council discussed.
The capacity at both centers is expected to be roughly halved by new social distancing requirements, and requirements for two staff members for every 12 children, according to Derek Schweigart, the city's community services director.
Even if the centers reopen, parents may have their own fears about bringing children in to day care. Or they may not be able or willing to pay the difference in what will most certainly be an increase in the costs for the facilities to operate under the new rules, said Nick Pegueros, assistant city manager.
The council talked about possibly contracting out the facilities to third-party care providers, but without city subsidies and state and county grants it's not clear whether the programs would remain affordable. Mayor Cecilia Taylor and Councilwoman Catherine Carlton said the programs would need to remain so to earn their support.
Carlton also said she was interested in temporarily laying off staff who are currently unable to work at the child care centers, and rehiring them once reopening the centers is viable.
However, because of the shortage of child care providers in the area and high demand for their services, it's not a given that people would be available to be rehired once that takes place, said Schweigart.
Vice Mayor Drew Combs and Councilman Ray Mueller asked for clearer numbers as to what the most likely expected contribution of the city would be to keep the centers going before moving forward with a decision.
"How are we going to make this center sustainable is really the question before us," Mueller said. "We are paying every day for a service not being utilized by anyone and we don't know when it's coming back."
Other cuts under consideration
The many proposed budget cuts also included a total of 46 city staff members that could be laid off, as well as 48 temporary employees. The city could cut the police department's traffic enforcement division.
The proposed cuts were ranked based on expected impact to the city and its efforts to provide equitable services. Among the easier cuts would be things like ending the city's holiday decoration and lighting program – a savings of more than $86,000 – withdrawing from the Peninsula Library System to save $270,000 and stopping providing Caltrain GoPasses for city employees to save more than $71,000. The mid-range cuts would include deferring long-range planning projects to save $600,000 and reducing the city's transportation demand management and safe routes to school programs, as well as cutting capacity in the city's transportation division to save another $350,000.
Among the high-impact decisions the council still faces are proposals for the police department to stop proactively enforcing the city's parking ordinances or investigating some lower-level property crimes, cutting by 75% the library's budget for books and online resources, reducing hours by 25% at both the Main and Belle Haven Branch libraries, and closing the Onetta Harris Community Center and Belle Haven pool until the new Belle Haven Community Center and Library is completed.
According to a tentative city timeline, the plan is for the city to release a proposed budget May 22 online for discussion May 26, with plans to finalize and adopt the city budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year on June 23.