Palo Alto seeks to strengthen public safety services after years of cuts | News

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As the local economy gains momentum, the Palo Alto City Council on Monday launched its review of a budget that would add dozens of positions, expand library hours, bolster health services staff city ​​police and fire department and would fund major improvements to the city. wastewater treatment plant.

Presenting the budget to council, City Manager Ed Shikada said the spending plan represents a recovery period as Palo Alto transitions “from a pandemic state to an endemic state” while trying to make progress on key priorities of the advice. It reflects recent increases in all major sources of revenue, a trend that is expected to result in a surplus of $12 million in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, and growth in the year. next.

But while the budget would restore many of the cuts the council had made over the past two years, Shikada warned that the city will need to find additional sources of funding to meet council priorities, including affordable housing and the vertical drop. rail tracks.

Shikada’s proposal includes an operating budget of $934.2 million, a 32.8% increase over the current year. The budget for the general fund, which pays for most non-utility city services, would be about $237.8 million, a 15.2% increase from the current fiscal year.

Shikada’s budget proposal also includes a $351 million capital improvement plan in fiscal year 2023. This includes an ambitious $186.6 million upgrade to the control plant. water quality, serving Palo Alto, Stanford University, East Palo Alto, Mountain View, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills. The cost of this major project, which includes $144.7 million for secondary treatment upgrades and $16.9 million for an advanced water purification facility, would be shared by all agencies involved in the project. ‘plant.

For the council, Monday’s discussion marked a significant shift after two years of austerity and fiscal uncertainty. After cutting about $40 million from the budget in 2020 and restoring some services last year thanks largely to federal grants, council members are now preparing to pass a budget that includes an increase of 58.85 positions per compared to the current year.

Rather than debating service cuts and job cuts, council members found themselves grappling with a different question on Monday: How quickly can jobs be restored?

Mayor Pat Burt said the issue should play a central role in council’s deliberations when considering the budget. He pointed to recent challenges the city has faced in hiring staff in a tight job market. Given these conditions, Burt suggested delaying some of his staffing decisions until council members have a better idea of ​​the city’s long-term funding sources and ability to fill positions. budgeted.

A key factor is the outcome of the November election, when voters will likely have the opportunity to weigh in on two separate revenue measures, a business tax and a measure that would uphold Palo Alto’s historic practice of shifting funds from its utility of gas to the general fund. The council agreed last week that if the business tax passes, the proceeds would be used to pay for affordable housing, railroad crossing overhauls, public safety and improvements to the university and California Avenue. The utility measure, meanwhile, would bolster the city’s general fund by an additional $7 million a year. The board would have broad discretion over how to spend these funds.

Even without the ballot measures, the city’s public safety departments are expected to increase their numbers. The police budget, which increased from $40.8 million in 2021 to $43.1 million in 2022, is expected to increase to $47.1 million in 2023 under Shikada’s proposal. This includes four additional patrollers and two dispatchers. Chief Financial Officer Kiely Nose said Monday the budget increase would allow the police department to bolster a special unit that responds to calls involving psychiatric emergencies and add positions to its investigative unit, which has been reduced to only two posts earlier this year.

In the fire department, the city would reinstate a deputy chief position that handles recruiting, hiring, promotions and succession planning, depending on the budget. The city also plans to hire three trainee firefighters who could be used to quickly fill vacancies as they arise.

“The job market is fierce and so (we) are developing programs to help us reach individuals at different stages or levels of experience,” Nose said. “It’s one that would allow us to establish trainees who could ideally be candidates to progress into full-fledged firefighting positions.”

The increased workforce is made possible in part by healthy revenue growth. General Fund revenue is expected to rise by $31.4 million next year, with all major categories showing a healthy rebound. Hotel tax revenue, which fell precipitously during the pandemic, is expected to rise 115.9% in the next fiscal year, from $8.5 million to $18.2 million. Sales tax revenues are expected to rise from $28.6 million to $32.6 million, an increase of 15.6%.

While the details of Shikada’s budget will be reviewed in the coming month by the board’s finance committee, most board members said Monday they generally support his approach. Council Member Eric Filseth observed that police and fire service personnel have declined by approximately 30% over the past 18 years. While some of that can be attributed to process and technology improvements, the trend also reflects the city’s recent efforts to balance its budget by reducing public safety, a practice that predated the pandemic.

“And we’ve seen some of the results,” Filseth said. “People have noticed that traffic control is reduced from what it was several years ago. The first drop in tension at fire stations predated the pandemic.”

But even as revenue numbers signal a remarkable turnaround after two years of economic hardship, council members warned that Palo Alto will continue to face fiscal challenges. Council Member Tom DuBois noted that the budget still depends in part on one-time funding sources such as the remaining $5.5 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“It really shows the importance of ballot metrics,” DuBois said.

Council member Greg Tanaka highlighted the broader economic challenges, including rising inflation. He urged staff to hire fewer full-time employees and rely on contractors whenever possible.

“I wonder if we could have such a large fixed cost that it would be harder to change later,” Tanaka said.

The one area of ​​the budget that will almost certainly be subject to revision is funding for youth mental health. Last year, the board approved $50,000 for Youth Connect, a program by nonprofit Youth Community Services that aims to forge collaboration between high school students and adults in the wider community. Funding was not included in this year’s budget, however, much to the organization’s dismay.

Mora Oommen, executive director of Youth Community Service, urged the council to fund the program, which recently received a grant from Santa Clara County.

“It’s disheartening to see the city budget increase in many areas while eliminating funding for youth mental health,” Oommen said. “Cutting this funding is not in line with local and national calls for more support for youth mental health.”

Most council members agreed that this funding should be restored, especially in light of the devastation the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on young people’s mental health. Greer Stone, board member and government teacher at Carlmont High School in Belmont, cited a recent study by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention which found that 44% of high school students said in 2021 that they “would constantly felt sad or hopeless in the past”. year.”

“As a board member and as a teacher who has had to witness the deterioration of the mental health of my own students over the past two years, I really can’t imagine a bigger issue to fund than the youth mental health,” Stone said. .

Other board members also expressed their support for funding Youth Connect. And no one on council had any objections to increasing the police budget, although resident Bob Moss suggested the extra funding should focus on emergency response for people with physical or mental.

“We should expand city staff who have expertise in these areas of physical health, metal health, helping people who have physical problems when the police call them,” Moss said. “These are areas where we should focus any excess money or excess resources.”

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