With an estimated 35 projects in the pipeline, Menlo Park wants to nearly double the size of its planning department. The nine additional full-time staff members would be spread among the planning, building and public works divisions if the City Council approves the new positions at its Feb. 12 meeting.
Here's a look at the projected workload for the community development/planning division, according to the staff report: "... the Division is currently reviewing Facebook West, the Commonwealth Corporate Center, 500 El Camino Real (Stanford proposal), SRI Modernization, Fire District Station #6, Sharon Heights Golf and Country Club membership increase, and Beechwood School renovation. Additionally, applications are expected soon for the conversion of Casa on the Peninsula, the Park Theater, and Philips Brooks School enrollment increase. Immediately following adoption of the Housing Element Update, applications are expected for the 1300 El Camino Real and Derry properties, as well as for the Hamilton and Haven Avenues housing sites."
One of the first questions that comes to mind is how much the new hires would cost the city. In terms of salary, the staff report estimates each employee would cost $150,000 annually, with the council appropriating $1.2 million to cover the costs, offset by $724,000 in anticipated revenue.
Pension costs are another matter. Measure L raised the minimum retirement age to 60 years old for new public employees, excluding police officers, and cut maximum pension benefits to 2 percent of their highest annual salary averaged over three years, multiplied by the years worked. Any increases require a simple majority vote by the public.
Former council member Lee Duboc questioned the need for permanent hires. In an emailed analysis entitled "Public-Sector Staff is Forever. The City's Needs are more Short Term," she said it's hard to know how much new staff will cost the city in terms of pension benefits. Why not contract out? she asked.
The staff report examines the pros and cons of various options, including hiring contractors instead of full-time employees. Leaving the planning department as is would result in applicants "ranging from home owners to major developers" waiting as long as 12 months before getting approval to proceed with their projects.
Contract planners, on the other hand, might not save any money, apparently because they're harder to find and charge more. "In recent conversations with local planning contracting agencies, the current hourly rate for contracted staff often exceeds the fully-recovered hourly cost of in-house staff," the report said. Contract planners would possibly take longer to hire -- Menlo Park figures it could find nine full-time employees by June, but signing up contractors could take an additional three months, thanks to the need to solicit and review proposals. Finally, since these sorts of jobs are normally handled by in-house staff, the city might have to negotiate with the unions whose members would typically fill those positions.
Although the report acknowledges that the "ebb and flow of the workload is difficult to predict" and that five years from now, the number of projects might decrease, it concludes that "in house staff will more likely have a greater sense of ownership for any project they work on knowing that it will reflect on them in the future" as well as greater familiarity with the community and city regulations.
All the new employees would need places to sit; to that end, staff also asks for an additional $250,000 to buy furniture and make unspecified city hall improvements.
Go to the city's website to review the staff report. The regular meeting starts at 7 p.m. in council chambers at the Civic Center at 701 Laurel St.