Community Budget Meetings Take Off on More Upbeat Note Than Last Year’s

And Kelsey Lynn Lester-Perry

View the Community Budget Meeting Presentation

Mayor at D10 meeting.

San Jose’sBudget show took to the road in early April with the optimistic tone of an upbeat musical compared to last year’s gloom and doom of a Shakespearean tragedy.

San Jose Council Districts 9, 10 and 3 hosted the first three Community Budget Meetings, which offered an update of the city’s financial picture, an explanation of how the budget works and a chance for city officials to answer residents’ questions and hear their concerns.

Unlike last year’s series of meetings that presented grim news about cutting library hours, closing community centers and laying off employees to fill a projected $110 million budget gap, residents are hearing about opening new libraries and a community center, adding back money to gang prevention efforts, repairing streets and continuing the Community Action and Pride neighborhood grant program.

Still, Mayor Chuck Reed was cautiously optimistic about the expected $10 million surplus in the next budget.

“I hesitate to call it a surplus. It’s only about 1 percent (of the general fund), “ said Reed, who preferred the term “small cushion.” “The only reason we have this cushion is that we cut our payroll by 24 percent.”

To help balance thebudget, city employees took a 10 percent cut in pay and benefits, and 400 were laid off.

“We don’t ever want to have to do that again,” he said. “We paid a high price for that. Employees took pay cuts and residents took service cuts.”

The mayor gave a presentation on the escalating costs of employee pensions – the biggest cause of recent budget deficits – followed by a presentation on the budget by Kip Harkness, Assistant to the City Manager.

The April community meetings are being held before the city manager’s proposed budget is expected to be released on May 1. Eight more meetings are scheduled, with the next in Council District 7 from 6 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, April 25, at Tully Community Center, 880 Tully Road.

The meetings also precede a June 5 public vote on controversial Measure B, which was placed on the ballot by the city council to help control pensions costs. San Jose’s 11 city employee unions argue that changes should be made at the bargaining table, not the ballot box and that unions have proposed cuts that would curb pension costs. City officials maintain their proposed cuts would not go far enough to make a significant difference in projected budget deficits and a that successful ballot measure is crucial to the city’s financial future.

So far, city employees have not been showing up in large numbers at these meetings to call attention to why the public shouldn’t support Measure B or any other aspect of city/employee negotiations. That happened at most of last year’s meetings. Residents are also showing up in smaller numbers this year.

Most of the questions and comments at the April 10 meeting at the Camden Library in District 9, the  April 11 meeting at the Almaden Winery Community Center in Council District 10, and the District 3 meeting on April 23 at Roosevelt Community Center  focused more on concerns about San Jose’s crumbling roadways, crime prevention, public safety, neighborhood services and volunteerism.

District 3 Community Budget Meeting

Noting the audience of about 40 was 20 percent smaller than at last year’s budget meeting, Councilman Sam Liccardo, who represents the district, said, “Hopefully that means there’s less to fret about.”

Janice Rombeck | NeighborWebSJ
Councilman Sam Liccardo talks to young constituents.

But from the questions and comments after the mayor’s and Harkness’s presentations indicated a list of concerns, including reduced library hours, use of community centers, fixing neighborhood streets, anti-gang prevention efforts and blight.

Willow Street resident Blanca Carbajal wanted to know why there were no trash cans on her street for children to throw away food wrappers, when was her street was going to be fixed so that it would stop flooding, and how she could find space at community centers for her dance class. And what’s to be done about prostitution downtown?

City officials at the meeting promised to look into the possibility of installing trash cans and finding space for her dance classes in libraries or centers where non-profits who run them have space and time. But her street, said Jim Ortball,assistant director of transportation, was not on the list of 400 miles designated recently for repaving. Neighborhood streets will have to wait for more money.

“Prostitution is all over the city but particularly along corridors that have lots of motels,” Liccardo said. “I’m hearing suppression is starting to work. I’m seeing the numbers come down. There have been a lot of arrests.”

Hearing that neighborhood streets would only have potholes fixed for the foreseeable future, Market/Almaden resident Pete Kolstad asked if small neighborhoods could form maintenance districts, where resident pay extra fees to maintain roads.

“We’ve looked into that,” Ortball said, but he added that isn’t possible when the general public also uses residential streets. It only works in small areas where only people using the streets are residents of that area.

Raoul Sanchez, a resident of the McKinley/Bonita neighborhood off McLaughlin Avenue, gave his budget requests in Spanish: Restore transportation for seniors to community centers, keep crossing guards at schools, strengthen patrols and security measures in his neighborhood and appoint a coordinator for volunteers at community centers.

City support for volunteers was also a concern of Terry Christensen, political science professor at San Jose State University and community activist. The Strong Neighborhoods Initiative is gone, he said, but there are hundreds of volunteers each weekend who need, for example, the city to pick up the trash after cleanups.

“There is a lot of community good will generated about volunteer activity,” he said, “but there needs to be a minimal amount of city support to make that feasible.”

Eric Perez, 10, wanted the city to have “clean streets and no litter.”

Why? “Because if there is litter then the earth is going to be unhealthy and it’s not going to be good.”

District 9 Community Budget Meeting
A couple dozen residents and nearly 20 city staff members, including City Manager Deb Figone, Fire Chief Willy McDonald, Assistant Police Chief Rikki Goede and Transportation Director Hans Larsen, attended the meeting at the Camden Library. They were on hand to provide information and answer questions.

Former San Jose Councilmember Linda LeZotte, now a chair of the Santa Clara Valley Water District Board, asked, “What is the wisdom of opening up libraries and community centers that are going to have ongoing operation and maintenance costs?”

Answered City Manager Figone, “Part of the wisdom is that voters approved general obligation bonds which built those libraries and are paying for them on their property taxes, only to have them shuttered. It’s a values trade-off. It may be a different call if we didn’t pass those bond measures.”

LeZotte also noted that the new facilities are opening when the Department of Transportation’s budget is $18 million compared to the $100 million a year it costs to maintain San Jose streets at an acceptable level.

“The situation is not being communicated clearly to citizens,” said another resident. “Information out there on deferred maintenance on streets and roads need to be more widely and clearly communicated so people can understand the ramifications.”

Assistant Police Chief Goede fielded a question about the number of layoffs in the police department and what that means to the level of safety in San Jose.

District 10 Community Budget Meeting

She said the force had 1,099 employees, which is down from 1,395 , but that the city is recruiting officers.

“That’s an important issue to get out to the public,” she said, adding that it takes six months of training for a police officer to be ready to hit the streets.

District 10 Community Budget Meeting
Public safety also emerged as an issue at the April 11 Community Budget Meeting at Almaden Winery Park Center, which drew an audience of about 50. The Almaden Winery Neighborhood Association represents 368 households.

Nick Labosky, director at Large for the Almaden Winery Neighborhood Association, voiced his concern about crime in parks, including drug dealing and use and assaults.

Labosky urged the mayor and the police department to rehire police officers to respond to situations in the park. But he also commended the city for such public safety measures as adding streetlights in the park and the surrounding neighborhood.

He also mentioned that he and a group of residents would “walk and talk” the parks, looking for any uncouth activity to report and occasionally approach miscreants who are in the park after hours and ask them to leave.

Goede thanked him, saying more eyes and ears the force has, the better.

“But I caution,” she said. “Do not do our work for us. Call 911 and 311. You never know if one of the people you approach may be armed.”

Another District 10 resident asked Goede about using the police reserve force to respond to the crimes Labosky talked about.

“We have 70 officers in the reserve,” she said. “We use the reserves, they give us some time as a part of their being in the reserves but we are still looking at expanding.”

Fire Chief Willy McDonald was asked why the city has four firefighters in a rig, whereas most cities use only three. He said his department was planning to transition to two firefighters per rig instead of four or five on May 1.

“Five percent of calls are structural fires,” he said. “Most, about 90 percent, are medical aid. The benefit is that we can respond to calls with the right number of people and the right amount of equipment.”

The remaining Community Budget Meetings are scheduled for:

Wednesday, April 25

District 7, 6 to 8 p.m., Tully Community Branch Library, 880 Tully Road.

Thursday, May 3

District 4, 6 to 8 p.m. Alviso Branch Library, 5050 North First Street, Alviso.

Tuesday, May 8

District 2, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., Southside Community & Senior Center, 5585 Cottle Road.

Wednesday, May 9

District 8, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., LeyVa Middle School, 1865 Monrovia Drive.

Thursday, May 10

District 5, 6 to 8 p.m., Mayfair Community Center Kammerer Avenue.

Wednesday, May 16

District 4, 6:30 8:30 p.m., Berryessa Branch Library, 3355 Noble Avenue.

Thursday, May 17

District 1, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., Archbishop Mitty High School,
5000 Mitty Way.

Thursday, May 24

District 6, 6 to 8 p.m., Willow Glen Community Center, 2175 Lincoln Avenue.