Menlo Park Budget 2021/2 – Budget Comments

Budget comments from Menlo Together, 2021/22 – Agenda M1

Honorable City Council Members,

Thank you for considering plans with this year’s budget to help the city restore services and recover from the impact of the pandemic.  Following are updated comments from Menlo Together regarding the city budget based on the city’s community meeting and additional research.

Menlo Together is a group of Menlo Park and area residents who envision a city that is integrated and diverse, multi-generational, and environmentally sustainable. We advocate for an accessible and inviting downtown Menlo Park with housing at all affordability levels, and with pedestrian and bike-friendly spaces, developed to be carbon free.

We are glad to see more optimistic projections taking into account high vaccination rates, declining Covid prevalence, and increasing economic activity. 

With this, we urge City Council to consider budget decisions that advance
* progress on transportation and climateprogress on transportation and climate
* reimagining public safety
* recovery for vulnerable community members

Progress on transportation and climate

The Public Works section of the budget notes that Covid recession cuts impacted a wide range of services including park maintenance, the heritage tree program, fleet maintenance, street maintenance, review of new development proposals, customer service, neighborhood traffic management, planned transportation projects, transportation demand management, and the holiday tree.

The staff recommends restoring 5 FTEs for the heritage tree program and maintenance, restoring staffing for neighborhood traffic management, and adding 1 FTE to advance the Climate Action Plan.   The Climate Action Plan implementation is a top priority for City Council, and the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions is transportation.

The city has recently approved a Transportation Master Plan that identifies numerous projects and programs that provide safe, convenient, and climate-friendly alternatives to driving.  For the coming year, the Capital Improvement Plan budget includes work on several projects that improve safety on high injury corridors and reduce driving, notably El Camino Real crossings, and Middlefield repaving, which has the potential to be bundled with bike safety improvements and several pedestrian crossings. This is in addition to the Caltrain undercrossing and Middle Avenue improvements that are already called out as a top Council priority. 

At the Community Budget Workshop, we learned that important TMP projects that enhance safety and provide alternatives to driving may be at risk with the proposed staffing levels.  

We urge City Council to fund Public Works staffing at a level that can reliably achieve the CIP projects that improve safety on high-injury corridors and enable reduced VMT.

With regard to the Climate Action Plan, we understand that there is analysis under way that is likely to recommend specific actions and staffing requirements to implement high priority CAP items this fall. In addition, we see that there are uncertainties in the budget with regard to the speed of recovery of tax revenues, and the budget includes conservative assumptions.  Given high vaccination rates and low Covid rates in our area and the State, we are hopeful of positive economic news.  

Therefore, we would recommend that the Council do a mid-year budget check. If there is revenue available, we would recommend using funding to implement specific CAP recommendations including staffing where needed.

Lastly, in contrast to the TMP, which plans to proactively improve safety in high-injury areas based on citywide outreach, data about safety issues, and needs across the city, the Neighborhood Traffic Management Program is designed to be reactive. It places a heavy burden on both residents (to gain the support of a supermajority of their neighbors) and staff (to support this process), and does not address the greatest safety risks of death and serious injury.  

As the city moves forward with initiatives to pursue racial equity, we urge the Council to consider that residents neighborhoods with greater wealth and security are more likely to have the discretionary time to file NTMP requests and pursue the laborious effort to marshall a supermajority of neighbors to support traffic calming.

Also, during the pandemic, many places in the Bay Area and the world shifted to a “quick build” model where slow streets and safety improvements were made with a rapid and iterative approach with community feedback based on flexible implementation.  We urge Menlo Park to pursue newer, faster approaches to safety improvements.

Reimagining public safety

The City Council has identified reimagining public safety as a top priority for the city.

Meanwhile, the budget recommendation is to rehire 5 FTEs to the police force before the process to assess and reimagine policing and public safety.

A recent analysis shows substantial activities currently handled by Menlo Park Police for which other public strategies may be appropriate.  

We urge the City Council to hold off on substantial increases to staff levels while the city considers the most effective ways to use the budget to advance public health and safety.

In addition, we are hearing from our friends and neighbors that members of MPPD are seen in neighboring communities behaving harshly.  If this is the case, we do not support this taking place in the name of our city and with our city’s funding. 

Currently we do not receive data on police interactions that do not require further action such as detentions and citations. We would like to see data showing the location of stops, and race/ethnicity of the people stopped by MPPD in Menlo Park and in neighboring communities including East Palo Alto and North Fair Oaks. We support full staffing of the data functions that allow these reports and other information that will enable residents and the Council to assess how best to use funds and resources to improve public safety.

Data source: MPPD. Analysis source: SVDSA

Recovery for vulnerable community members

Menlo Park is receiving $6.53 million in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan.  

The draft budget recommends using this funding to increase city services before the city has full certainty about the pace of post-pandemic recovery of tax revenue. 

By comparison, we have observed that the City of Mountain View plans to use its ARPA funds for measures addressing the impacts of the pandemic on vulnerable residents and businesses, including rent relief, displacement prevention, homelessness services and downtown revitalization.

We would encourage the city to take an approach similar to Mountain View with the ARPA funds. 

In addition, the staffing cuts to city services disproportionately impacted low-income and part-time staff who are community residents.  We urge the city to prioritize rehiring if these community members are available. This may be an opportunity to rehire for full-time jobs and elevate long-time workers.

Lastly, budget analysis reveals that community services workers earn less than 40% of police department workers.  While Menlo Park alone cannot solve the undervaluing of community services workers in American society, we would urge the city’s internal equity assessment to consider wage scales across departments, considering lenses of race and gender.

To address the uncertainty about the pace of revenue recovery, we urge the city to do a mid-year check and identify spending to resume at that time if revenue recovery continues in a positive direction.

In summary, we are grateful that this year’s budget will enable the city to start to recover from the impacts of the pandemic. We urge that recovery not just to return to the previous conditions, but to focus on forward-looking priorities of climate, safety, health and equity.

The Menlo Together Team

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