City wants to sell land in order to help budget

Possible location for new fire station on Willow Road in Menlo Park. Image from Google Earth

Daily Post Staff Writer

The Menlo Park City Council wants to try to sell property it bought last year in order to boost its coffers that have taken a hit due to COVID-19.

The council last night (May 12) met to discuss proposed cuts to the city’s $68 million budget, which will need to see $12.4 million in cuts in order to be balanced. Some of the cuts include reducing police patrols and closing the city-run preschool programs at Burgess Park and 410 Ivy Drive in the Belle Haven neighborhood.

The cuts come even though the city will be paying $2 million in raises for union employees and higher pension rates, according to Assistant Administrative Services Director Dan Jacobson. The pay raises were negotiated before the COVID-19 crisis.

City negotiators are meeting with the unions weekly, but since the union’s contracts are closed, the unions have the legal right to not to reopen them and give up the raises, according to Jerome-Robinson.

Councilwoman Catherine Carlton expressed her hope that the unions will help figure out what to do so people do not lose their jobs. The current set of proposed cuts would layoff 46 full-time employees and 48 part-time employees.

Upper management will not be getting raises or bonuses, and have their pay cut, saving $645,291. The city will save another $498,004 in administrative costs by not replacing two department heads.

Aside from cuts, Councilman Ray Mueller suggested potential revenue sources for the city, such as the property the city bought in November at 1283 Willow Road.

The council bought the property for $3.6 million, and at the time Jerome-Robinson said that it is possible for the city to turn around and sell the property to the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, which expressed an interest in buying the property, but had not completed its review of the property.

Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman has said that he is interested in building a new fire station there, which would be dubbed Station 88. The fire district has been interested in expanding Fire Station 77 at 1467 Chilco St. because of all of the growth on the city’s east side. A fire station on Willow Road would give crews faster access to the Facebook campus, where thousands of people work.

But the city owns the land and the district leases it. Schapelhouman has said that if the fire district buys the land from the city, then Station 77 could be used as a joint police and fire center, and contain the district’s tools for responding to emergencies on the Dumbarton Bridge or in the Bay.

Jerome-Robinson said she was working with the fire district on the property, but that got waylaid by COVID-19 and said she would reach out to the fire district to discuss the sale of the property further.

Mueller also floated the idea of the city selling development rights in areas that are already slated to be rezoned, allowing new buildings to be larger than allowed for a fee. The fee would be collected by the property owner who is agreeing to give up their rights to build a larger structure.

“I know this is a crazy concept, just go with me,” Mueller said before presenting his idea. “This is an out of the box solutions sort of thing.”

The only sort of comment that Mueller got back was from Mayor Cecilia Taylor, who said she would not be OK with something like that happening in District 1, the east side territory she represents. Mueller pointed out that much of District 1 has already been upzoned, and said this would likely happen elsewhere in town. However, no one else on council seemed interested in pursuing that idea.

Mueller’s third idea for revenue was having some of the employees at the preschool do video childcare or babysitting. Mueller said that some people are getting paid to entertain children whose parents are working and unable to play with them.

The city’s two preschools were a topic of hot debate during the council’s budget discussion, with most of the council and in particular Carlton vehemently against closing the preschools, referring to the potential closure as a “deal breaker.”

The council had received 40 emails about the potential cuts, and only two were not about the preschools.

But aside from discussing the finances of the preschool programs, not everything on the list of proposed cuts was discussed because councilwoman Betsy Nash was absent, and the council wanted to have her there before discussing cuts.

The council will meet next Tuesday to go through all of the proposed cuts, and will get more information on potential revenue streams for the city.