News

Menlo Park Council OKs bringing back 22.5 staff positions in new city budget

Lengthy debate over expenses for 2021-22 fiscal year mulls future of holiday tree-lighting event

Menlo Park City Hall on April 16, 2020. The City Council approved the city's 2022 budget ahead of the July 1 start of the new fiscal year. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

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Educational Revenue Augmentation Fund; historically, the city only budgets for half of that because the funds could be rescinded by the state to use for education purposes.

Help sustain the local news you depend on.

Your contribution matters. Become a member today.

Join

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.

Stay informed

Get the latest local news and information sent straight to your inbox.

Stay informed

Get the latest local news and information sent straight to your inbox.

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.

Craving a new voice in Peninsula dining?

Sign up for the Peninsula Foodist newsletter.

Sign up now

Follow AlmanacNews.com and The Almanac on Twitter @almanacnews, Facebook and on Instagram @almanacnews for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

Your support is vital to us continuing to bring you city government news. Become a member today.

Menlo Park Council OKs bringing back 22.5 staff positions in new city budget

Lengthy debate over expenses for 2021-22 fiscal year mulls future of holiday tree-lighting event

by / Almanac

Uploaded: Wed, Jun 30, 2021, 11:56 am

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.

Comments

Jim B
Registered user
Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 30, 2021 at 1:21 pm
Jim B, Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
Registered user
on Jun 30, 2021 at 1:21 pm

I am sorry to read about the controversy over funding for festive lighting downtown during the winter months. I may be an atheist, but I find the cheery lights uplifting during the winter darkness.


Observer
Registered user
Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 30, 2021 at 3:19 pm
Observer, Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
Registered user
on Jun 30, 2021 at 3:19 pm

No need for anyone to be a Scrooge and ruin the much needed festive atmosphere. Just have a menorah lighting ceremony at Fremont Park in addition to the tree lighting. And offer the same opportunity to other cultures.


Observer
Registered user
Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 30, 2021 at 3:22 pm
Observer, Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
Registered user
on Jun 30, 2021 at 3:22 pm

Why did Taylor dissent on the vote to approve? Didn't notice any mention of reason(s) in the article.


Debbie Hall
Registered user
Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 30, 2021 at 3:57 pm
Debbie Hall, Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
Registered user
on Jun 30, 2021 at 3:57 pm

Why don't we leave the lights ON the trees in Fremont Park and in Belle Haven, and simply turn them on for the lighting ceremony? I recall we spent something like $30k last year having the lights put up and taken down.


Observer
Registered user
Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jun 30, 2021 at 5:07 pm
Observer, Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
Registered user
on Jun 30, 2021 at 5:07 pm

Thank you, Jen Wolosin, for voicing the feelings of so many of us who do not celebrate Christmas.

This community prides itself on being inclusive, yet those of us who observe a religion other than Christianity will continue to be openly marginalized. I'm sure you all have friends who are Jewish or Muslim "and they love the trees!" but many more of us are, as Jen noted, uncomfortable. Invoking Scrooge is downright anti-Semitic, but we non-Christians know we are in the minority so we mostly keep quiet.

Comparing the celebrations for the Fourth with money spent on Christmas is a false equivalence. The Fourth is an American holiday; Christmas is a religious celebration. There are many ways to brighten the darkest days of winter without spending an excessive amount of public funds in favor of one religion.


Belle Haven Resident
Registered user
Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Jun 30, 2021 at 8:23 pm
Belle Haven Resident, Menlo Park: Belle Haven
Registered user
on Jun 30, 2021 at 8:23 pm

Lighting a Chanukah menorah (sometime between Thanksgiving and New Years's Eve, whenever Chanukah happens to fall) in Menlo Park might be a nice idea but it would be only a very small step in the direction of inclusivity, as there are many Menlo Park residents who are neither Christian nor Jewish. In order to plan truly inclusive public events, there is no quick fix, rather a lot to think through.


Enough
Registered user
Menlo Park: other
on Jun 30, 2021 at 9:11 pm
Enough, Menlo Park: other
Registered user
on Jun 30, 2021 at 9:11 pm

"The Fourth is an American holiday; Christmas is a religious celebration."

Mind you it has been decades since I attended church services or read the bible but I can't recall anywhere in Christian literature that calls for the decoration or lighting of trees to celebrate what really is a pagan holiday repurposed for the Christion religion. Lighting a tree around the winter solstice is not really a "Christian thing". It is like friends of mine that would have a "Hanukkah bush" simply because they liked the lights and decorations. Lighting a Menorah for Hanukkah would be good if the Jewish community were interested in doing so.

I do like the idea of putting up lights and leaving them up if they can get lights that can withstand the weather for several years...


Observer
Registered user
Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 30, 2021 at 9:38 pm
Observer, Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
Registered user
on Jun 30, 2021 at 9:38 pm

Re my earlier reference to Scrooge
Never really thought of the character as anything but an unChristian Christian. Every culture has cheap, face
to the grindstone bosses.
But I guess cancel culture seeps into everything, including colorful lights to encourage good will and lots of shopping. Guess some want to cancel the White House Easter Egg Hunt and lighting of the tree at shopping time. There are a zillion more crucial things to deal with in society. Oh and before anyone goes and calls me an antisemite ... think twice... bar mitzvahed and married under a hoopa and do yarzheit every year for the scores of relatives slaughtered by the Nazis, while the rest of the world did nothing to save them. But I do love a good ham and cheese and BLT and fresh steamed Dungeness crab.


Menlo Voter.
Registered user
Menlo Park: other
on Jul 1, 2021 at 7:59 am
Menlo Voter., Menlo Park: other
Registered user
on Jul 1, 2021 at 7:59 am

Most "christian" holidays aren't christian. They were pagan celebrations hijacked by christian churches. Christmas? Christ wasn't born in December. It's pagan celebration of the winter solstice hijacked by christians. Easter? Hijacked from pagans for spring celebration and hopes for a fruitful growing season. Christ died around then, but the whole celebration originally had nothing to do with Christ. The list goes on. People need to get over themselves. These aren't "christian" holidays. This cancel culture BS has gone too far. If lights are put up on trees in the winter it's not to exclude jews, muslims or hindus. It's an American tradition that is festive and people enjoy.


kbehroozi
Registered user
Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Jul 1, 2021 at 9:29 am
kbehroozi, Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
Registered user
on Jul 1, 2021 at 9:29 am

It's not cancel culture, it's moderation. We are coming out of a year with a projected $12 million budget deficit. $45K buys us lights in Fremont Park (which is the downtown shopping draw) + a tree somewhere TBD in Belle Haven, just like last year. We could spend twice that (plus the cost of electricity, which is unaddressed in this equation) for additional trees in other places (Ravenswood/ECR, Burgess). Would those really double your enjoyment?

Moreover, I appreciate Councilmember Wolosin's bravery in sharing her experience of our holiday/Christmas celebration. We can fix this–-not by tacking on a Menorah to what is obviously a Christmas celebration--but by expanding our repertoire of community celebrations.

As a kid, I took for granted how our schools and towns celebrated Christmas (although I don't remember any public Easter stuff–that seemed to be a church thing). I never really thought about what my peers who were Jewish might be feeling, or whether that Dreidel song really did it for them. As an adult, and a practicing Christian at that, it does give me pause. We have cocoa and Santa at Christmas; Easter eggs in Burgess Park during the spring. Regardless of the pagan origins of some of these traditions, they are not for everyone. The Jewish kids I grew up with didn't get Easter baskets or enjoy Christmas trees. They went to Chinese food and the movies on Christmas Day, built a Sukkah in their backyard during Sukkot, and baked hamentashen for Purim. Could I have respectfully joined these experiences and appreciated them? Sure. But was the city spending money to create them? No. I'm okay with spending public money to celebrate cultural and religious traditions; less okay, though, with celebrating only one tradition and claiming that it's for everyone. Instead of spending $90K on Christmas lights, take half of it and invite other faiths to help design and sponsor public celebrations reflecting their traditions. Imagine Diwali, Tet, Purim, Norooz, Eid! We have a lot to celebrate.


Observer
Registered user
Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jul 1, 2021 at 12:00 pm
Observer, Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
Registered user
on Jul 1, 2021 at 12:00 pm

Thanks to so many of you for making my point. Because Christmas is your holiday, you think it should be everyone's holiday. But it's not, no matter how often or vehemently you insist that it is, or should be. The origins don't matter (humans predate religion); we're talking about customs -- as well as inclusivity and respect for those with other backgrounds and beliefs -- in 2021.

"Cancel culture?" Well, the Nazis already tried that, and no one is suggesting that you stop celebrating or observing your religion -- just that it might be appropriate to limit the amount of public funds devoted to that celebration.

Chanukah is a minor holiday commemorating a successful fight against oppression. It's nowhere near the equivalent of Christmas in terms of religious significance, and I'd prefer not to see public funds dedicated to it (or any other Jewish holiday or holy day).

Colorful lights, music, family-oriented activities, great. December is a dark time of year. Let's make it brighter. But can we do that without using public funds for an extravagant celebration of one faith?


Roy Thiele-Sardiña
Registered user
Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 1, 2021 at 12:25 pm
Roy Thiele-Sardiña, Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
Registered user
on Jul 1, 2021 at 12:25 pm

Let's be clear here. this is a FINANCIAL play.

the retail sales between Nov-15 and Dec-25 are HUGE. and the associated sales tax income to MPK is not insignificant.

they want people to shop in MPK instead of AMZN or Stanford.

to do so they make downtown more appealing....hence the lights.

the electricity bill is low enough they can leave the lights on all year if that makes people happier.

Roy


Observer
Registered user
Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 1, 2021 at 2:23 pm
Observer, Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
Registered user
on Jul 1, 2021 at 2:23 pm

Roy, I agree 100%.
Linfield Oaks Observer
you said "Because Christmas is your holiday, you think it should be everyone's holiday. But it's not, no matter how often or vehemently you insist that it is, or should be."
As one tribe member to another it's time to step back and tone it down. No one has vehemently insisted that you have to observe Christmas, in any form. You made your point, you don't want public funds going to anything that smells like religion or culture. Fine. Now instead of perhaps offending folks, and giving them a reason to be upset with all Jews instead of just you, go to the city council and budget meetings and voice your concerns. Talk to a civil rights attorney. Canvas the retail shop owners about funding the holiday lights. And I'm sure all the Jewish shop owners would say the want the holiday lights.
And if you just part of your complaint includes that you just don't like holiday lights then just wear your mask over your eyes. Remember Genesis Old and New Testament...and god said let there be light.


Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.

Post a comment

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