With an estimated $12 million shortfall expected in Menlo Park in the upcoming fiscal year, the City Council took its first stab Tuesday at figuring out how to slash about a quarter of the city's budget.
Council members are set to resume their virtual discussions of what budget cuts to make at 1 p.m. on Friday, May 22. The public can access the meeting agenda here.
The council members are tasked with approving a balanced budget by the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.
While the city's unrepresented management employees have agreed to cut 25% from their costs through salary freezes and not filling vacant positions, the city's organized labor groups are requiring the city to honor its contracts mandating employee raises.
The raises were agreed to more than a year ago, when times were good, following a comparative study of how much other cities were paying similar employees, said Councilwoman Catherine Carlton. "We have done the research and we try very hard to make sure we're in the median," she said.
Those raises are expected to cost the city about $799,000, with a number of departmental cuts factored in.
Among the two most controversial programs up for consideration to be cut or frozen until regular activities can resume are the city's Gymnastics Center and two child care facilities, the Menlo Children's Center at the city's Civic Center campus and the Belle Haven Child Development Center on Ivy Drive.
A majority of council members favored keeping the child care programs. Yet, doing so creates new logistical challenges. Child care in the time of COVID-19 will require adapting to new state regulations that would cut capacity at the Belle Haven center by 50% and at the Menlo Children's Center by 40%.
Councilwoman Betsy Nash said she favored stopping subsidizing the Menlo Children's Center, but continuing to subsidize the Belle Haven Children's Development Center. Doing so would raise costs for families participating in the Menlo Children's Center program. She suggested perhaps setting costs on a sliding scale based on a family's income.
Carlton wasn't ready to cut subsidies to the Menlo Children's Center program, noting that the facility provides some of the only affordable child care for the entire community. "Belle Haven doesn't have a patent on people struggling," she said.
The child care centers are now authorized to reopen, and staff are finalizing a reactivation plan, according to Community Services Director Derek Schweigart.
What's not clear is whether families will feel comfortable taking their kids back to the child care programs.
According to a survey by the city, 73% of the parents whose children attend the Belle Haven center are essential frontline workers who need child care to return to work, while only 23% of the parents whose children attend the Menlo Children's Center fall into this category.
In other places where child care has been reopened, many families haven't sent their kids to child care programs unless they absolutely needed to, said Councilman Ray Mueller.
He added that he supported keeping the centers because he feared that if the child care jobs were cut, then they would be lost from the community. Child care workers are already in very short supply in the area because many move away because of the high cost of living, he said.
The council said it wanted to keep enhancements to open data and crime analysis, set to cost $144,000. The council also rejected a cost-saving proposal to roll back dispatcher staffing for the police department's 911 and non-emergency lines, increasing wait times for 911, which would have saved $450,000.
In addition, the council discussed the following changes to reduce costs:
● Eliminate the police department's traffic unit. The step would save the city about $1 million, according to a staff report. Traffic rises and falls in accordance with the city's economic activity, argued councilman Ray Mueller, so with the economy in its current depressed state, the need for traffic enforcement has also decreased. Historically, he said, the city has cut traffic enforcement when the economy turned downward.
The city's police needs also depend somewhat on when and how Facebook's workforce returns to its campus in Menlo Park. The city hired a new police unit to help patrol the ballooning daytime population of workers, along with the expected growth in residents as the city's Bayside develops under the ConnectMenlo plan. But if the bulk of Facebook's workers – as well as other workers in the office and industrial areas there – stay home through the rest of the year, those patrol needs are diminished. With the proposed cuts, the most junior police officers – including those in training, who are already considered part of the city's Police Officers Association, would be the first to be laid off.
● Reduce library hours. Hours at both the Menlo Park and Belle Haven branch libraries would be cut by about 25%, triggering layoffs of up to 31 full, part-time and temporary workers, according to Library Services Director Sean Reinhart. But it's also not clear when libraries will be allowed to reopen, especially the Belle Haven branch library, because it's located on a school campus that's under the control of the Ravenswood City School District and might face different restrictions. Reopening might require additional equipment, like plexiglass barriers, personal protective equipment and sanitizing materials, said Mueller. The library department is having discussions about starting a curbside book pickup program, said Reinhart. All of those steps, plus cutting the library's budget for purchasing materials by 75%, could save the city about $625,000.
Another debate is what to do with the facilities at the Belle Haven Community Center Complex, including the pool and senior center. Facebook has proposed to rebuild the complex, and city officials were already planning to close down the facilities in October in anticipation of the development project. But does it make sense to plan to reopen them before the planned October closure? There wasn't a clear consensus on the council as of Tuesday night.
● Halt participation in the Peninsula Library System to save about $270,000. A large portion of those funds – about $100,000, goes toward administrative overhead costs, according to Reinhart. Menlo Park loans out about 14,000 more items than it borrows from other libraries in the system, according to Reinhart. It's a difficult cut to make, but is believed to have a relatively low impact on the community, he said.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story reported the council continued its discussion to Thursday, May 21. It was rescheduled to Friday, May 22.