Days before a new fiscal year starts July 1, the Menlo Park City Council approved its budget and capital improvement plan to run until June 30, 2022.
Through a 4-1 vote, with Councilwoman Cecilia Taylor dissenting, the council opted to move forward with a budget expected to bring in $176 million and spend $185 million, according to a staff report. The general fund is expected to bring in $61.49 million and spend about $61.49 million.
The approved budget also brings back the equivalent of 22.5 full-time employees to the city's roster.
However, according to Assistant City Manager Nick Pegueros, while the formerly laid-off employees will have the first right of refusal based on union terms, a number of staffers removed from the city's roster after last year's pandemic-related budget cuts have likely already moved on to other positions. That means that searching for and hiring people to fill these positions and then training them will take some time, he noted.
One shift from previous budgets was for the city to plan to receive 100% of what's called ERAF, the Educational Revenue Augmentation Fund; historically, the city only budgets for half of that because the funds could be rescinded by the state to use for education purposes.
In addition, the council agreed to use $1.46 million from its strategic pension reserve to tackle pension obligations ahead of the minimum amount due.
Residents will continue to pay reduced utility user tax rates of 1%.
The council also planned to use between $2 million and $3 million of an expected $8.5 million in federal funds designated for the city through the American Rescue Plan Act to balance the city's general fund.
During the council's discussion, members hashed out which possible budget items to fund out of a list of unresolved possibilities. Among them were to hire four people to implement the city's updated heritage tree ordinance and work on maintaining the city's downtown area and hiring six people to restore library and community services and three people to speed up the city's turnaround time to check building plans and issue permits.
In addition, the council agreed to direct the Parks and Recreation Commission to study which celebrations the city hosts and how to make them more inclusive to people of other faiths or cultural preferences and to ask the Complete Streets Commission to study the city's Safe Routes to School program.
In particular, council members discussed a $90,000 line item to fund the city's holiday tree lighting program at length. They ultimately agreed only to fund the program as much as it received last year for only the tree in Fremont Park and one in Belle Haven. Councilwoman Jen Wolosin argued that as a Jewish Menlo Park resident, she felt that the city's holiday tree lighting event is not inclusive of families from non-Christian faith traditions and favored not funding it at the full amount proposed. The city-sponsored annual tree-lighting ceremony, when not canceled due to a global pandemic, includes a chance for children to visit with Santa Claus, and features other activities traditionally associated with the Christmas holiday, along with more secular seasonal offerings like free hot chocolate.
"I've never been (to the tree-lighting ceremony) because it doesn't feel like it's for me," she said.
"The scale and excessiveness of this amount I have a hard time with," she added.
Vice Mayor Nash and Taylor also opposed the proposed funding amount. Mayor Drew Combs and Councilman Ray Mueller said that the tree-lighting ceremony is appreciated by people of various faith traditions and it helps attract visitors to downtown businesses. Also, Mueller noted, many cities pay more for 4th of July fireworks celebrations, for instance, than Menlo Park would for tree lights. The Parks and Recreation Commission will be tasked with evaluating the city's celebrations and coming up with ideas to make them more inclusive.
In addition, the council also agreed to not move forward with a number of staff-recommended hires, asking staff to instead come forward later with staffing proposals for additional needed library, community services, finance and sustainability-focused employees.
One other matter that the council directed the city attorney to start looking into was what environmental analyses will be needed to retain the city's downtown street closures after the statewide emergency declaration ends. After that emergency declaration lifts, Mueller said, the standard environmental clearances generally required for projects like street closures will be mandated once again, so if the city wants to make the closures permanent, then it should start looking into how to do so sooner rather than later. "I think it's ... a high priority project to a lot of residents," he said.
For now, just the preliminary steps will be studied. The council planned to determine whether and how much funding to allocate to the initiative at a later date.