The city of Menlo Park on Friday (May 17) revealed a new draft budget, laying out a $171.9 spending plan, $23.9 million of which represents new funding allocated for the city's capital improvement plan.
That's good news for the city, according to City Manager Starla Jerome-Robinson, who developed the budget.
"That's money going back into community improvements," she told The Almanac.
The budget is about 20 percent larger than the 2018-19 fiscal year's, which was $143 million. The city's general fund, the single largest fund, lays out planned revenues of $70 million and planned expenditures of $69.9 million.
In a letter summarizing the 236-page budget, Jerome-Robinson highlighted several new items the city plans to fund in the new budget. These include plans to aggressively address the city's pension liabilities, invest in technology to improve financial transparency, and expand services at the Belle Haven branch library.
The city plans to dedicate $1.8 million to addressing its estimated unfunded pension liability of $30.4 million for its miscellaneous staff – that's all non-gun-carrying employees, explained Dan Jacobson, Menlo Park's finance and budget manager.
It also has an estimated unfunded liability of $25.9 million for the city's police and safety employees. If the city accelerates the rate at which it plans to pay down its unfunded pension liability to a 10-year schedule for the miscellaneous staff and a 15-year schedule for safety staff, the city is expected to save an estimated $18.1 million. If the city continues to get a full refund on ERAF dollars, as it has in the past, Jerome-Robinson said, it should be able to fully fund the accelerated payment schedule.
ERAF stands for the "educational revenue augmentation fund" and represents tax dollars the state holds back in case local schools don't get fully funded from their typical share of tax revenues. Because the tax revenues do fully meet the state's per-student requirements in some local school districts, the state has given those dollars back to cities and special districts in well-funded school districts.
In addition, the city plans to dedicate about $194,000 to a new "budget and financial transparency initiative." It plans to upgrade its outdated budget system, which is at the end of its useful life, according to Jerome-Robinson's budget report. In response to public requests and advice from the city's Audit and Finance Committee, the city plans to, over the next three years, replace the budget and finance software, improve budgeting practices to include "performance measures," tie the city's financial data to its online data portal for better public access, and streamline the city's financial management processes.
According to Jacobson, the idea is that, by the end of the three-year process, members of the public could ask a question like, "How much do we spend on police department personnel each year?" and with relative ease find the answers they're looking for in the data portal.
The city also plans to spend about $285,000 on improving library services to increase open hours at the Belle Haven branch library, add a new homework center, expand little free libraries citywide and work on the city's ongoing project to build a new branch library in Belle Haven.
In addition, the budget lays out plans to hire a park ranger at Bedwell Bayfront Park, which will be funded at an estimated cost of $150,000 by Facebook as a term in one of its agreements with the city. The ranger, to be hired by contract, would be expected to patrol the park daily and do education and outreach as well as provide first aid, fire suppression, trail maintenance, and litter collection services. The ranger might also help on weekends at Kelly Park.
The budget also provides for the police department to spend $21,500 on new tasers, $64,000 on new body cameras and $450,000 on a "mobile command vehicle" for emergency operations, which would help the police department in its responses to disaster-level or large-scale, multi-agency emergencies.
The budget also lays out plans to increase staff overall by 4.75 full-time employees to a total of 292, factoring in the one full-time employee who will no longer be needed when the city's red-light violation camera enforcement program ends.
Three-and-a-quarter of the new staff will be added to improve library services, a step that includes making existing temporary library workers full-time staff. The city also plans to hire one full-time employee to maintain its vehicle fleet, a half-time employee to work on supporting the city's capital improvement program, and a provisional full-time employee to manage the city's budget and financial transparency initiative.
The city's five-year capital improvement plan currently has about $49.3 million in funds carried over, and the new budget proposes to add $23.9 million in new funding to support $5 million in improvements to the Chrysler Drive pump station, $5 million for the study, design and construction of the Middle Avenue Caltrain crossing for bikes and pedestrians, $2 million to replace a water main, $1.75 million to resurface Santa Cruz and Middle avenues, and $1.5 million to resurface other streets.
The budget report also breaks down the total tax revenue generated by district. District 5 generated the most at 26.6% of the city's total revenue, mainly in property taxes, followed by District 4 at 24.4%. District 1 came next, with 22.3%, followed by District 3 at 18.3%, then District 2 at 8.4%, with the smallest amount of sales and other taxes.
The city manager's report states that no analysis has been done to look at expenditures by district.
"With the leadership shown by community members, business participants, and current and former City Councilmembers the City of Menlo Park has made headway even in the face of extremely complex challenges. This tradition of carefully considering each factor and ensuring that the next step is one of improvement is one in which the community should take great pride and seek to continue," wrote Jerome-Robinson.
The Planning Commission on May 20 reviewed the budget's proposed capital improvement plan, finding 6-0 that the plan is consistent with the city's general plan, with Commissioner Katherine Strehl absent.
City staff gave a presentation to the council about the budget on May 21. It is expected to be reviewed in the coming month and adopted by July 1, when the next fiscal year starts.