The Center of our City Center

Last week I attended evening budget meetings in Districts 3 and 5. The center of our city (District 3) had a high turnout from residents who find great value in community centers. Particularly, the Gardner and Washington Community Centers. Both facilities provide a place to go and where residents can be positively impacted. Classmates and friends of mine from Willow Glen High grew up in the Gardner area, formerly known as “Barrio Horseshoe.” It was a problematic neighborhood with many gang issues.

My friends in Gardner managed to stay out of the gangs because their parents would physically discipline them if they hung out with people involved in gangs, and kept them busy with chores and work. David Pandori and Cindy Chavez both worked hard to make improvements in the Gardner neighborhood and should be complimented for turning that neighborhood around with the help of passionate residents like Rudy Martinez. Also, praise to my colleague Sam Liccardo for continuing the Pandori/Chavez legacy in Gardner.

The other facility is the Washington Youth Center located in the neighborhood around Washington Elementary and Sacred Heart church. This is another area that has been dealing with gangs for decades. The Redevelopment Agency funded the construction of the Washington Youth Center and the adjacent library along with physical improvements to Washington Elementary. However the general fund is responsible for the day-to-day expenses. Many came to tell their stories of what these facilities meant to them. Some stories brought people to tears as they had family tragedies but also success stories of their children.

Some attendees came from other cities to advocate for our Therapeutic Services program that enables kids in wheelchairs to participate in sports like basketball. They come from other cities like Cupertino and Monterey since surrounding cities stopped offering these services.

There were those who asked, “Why did we ignore the structural deficit all these years?”

Many expressed their opinion that public safety unions should accept wage cuts to save city services and binding arbitration was unfair. Pastor Sonny Lara asked, “Why are people so generous with money for tragedies in other countries but we do not donate to our own local community?” My favorite quote of the night: “We need to stop electing politicians that promise us everything!”

If there was one theme in the District 3 budget meeting it was to keep community centers open. It was stressed by many that community centers and libraries save lives in certain neighborhoods and that these facilities act differently than in Almaden, Cambrian, Evergreen, Rose Garden and Willow Glen. Many felt that community centers and libraries should be open more hours in neighborhoods that have higher needs, which could be determined by crime rate, poverty rate, etc..

I was asked afterwards by several young people who were good role models if would I support their specific community centers over others. I said, “The easy answer is to tell you yes and then walk out the door and vote no.” However, I continued, “the idea of, should some neighborhoods get more services then other neighborhoods is worth debate.” I then asked the youth if they cared who cleans City Hall or would prefer that their community center stay open. They chose the community center.

I believe we should maximize cost savings in areas of our city that do not directly touch residents before cutting services that impact residents. Otherwise we are saying, “Sorry young people, the status quo on cleaning city hall is sacred and better then providing you services that would directly impact your future.” If you do not like this trade off of cleaning staff versus community center employee, then how about community center employee versus librarian or community center employee versus a police officer? Take your pick. Side note: Laying off new police officers is a double loss since we lose the investment/cost to recruit, test, background, academy, field train the new officer.

But let’s get back to the debate on providing more services to certain neighborhoods and less to other neighborhoods. I would acknowledge that higher needs exist in certain neighborhoods and that prevention is less costly than the worst-case scenario of incarceration. There is a disconnect between costs and responsibilities of the city and final costs that may end up on the County or State, but there is also limited sharing of revenue to achieve these goals. On the other hand, I do not believe every person in a certain neighborhood or zip code is affluent.

Within each neighborhood perceived to be upper-middle income, there are those who rent, have a mortgage they are struggling to pay, long- term unemployed, a single mom with kids, seniors on a fixed income, disabled veterans, etc. I assume these residents and specifically youth would want to have the opportunity to read a book or partake in an activity at a community center.

In addition these perceived upper-middle income neighborhoods pay higher property taxes and may feel that they should at least have equal neighborhood services. Personally, I think each neighborhood should get equal infrastructure like sewers, streets, sidewalks and streetlights. Equity in parks is more difficult because of the build-out of nearly all open space and the cost to procure it at today’s prices.  (Such a tragedy that we lost out on approximately $90 million in park fees from exempting affordable housing from this fee.) When it comes to what amount of neighborhood services for each zip code, I am open for debate and would like to hear your views.

Is it fair to provide more service to specific neighborhoods? Is that Marxist? “Each according to his abilities to each according to his needs.  Should government be neutral and provide exactly the same to all areas?

When people buy a more expensive home does that mean something? People choose to buy or rent in areas based on surrounding amenities and pay a price determined by other property owners and renters. Do we let that be the barometer?

21 Comments

  1. Pier,

    Good points about neighborhood needs and assessing spending priorities.

    Particularly poignant, is your statement: “I believe we should maximize cost savings in areas of our city that do not directly touch residents before cutting services that impact residents.”

    I continue to wonder about non-essentials; for example, what is the current staffing level for the Dept. of Cultural Affairs?  I believe it was 16 earlier this year.  Have we zeroed out budget for that organization, or do we still fund 16 employees and, if so, at what cost?

    Regarding Downtown celebratory events, I understand there will be nothing for our Independence Day.  Is the City providing any funding (cash,safety officers,custodial work, etc.) for Cinco de Mayo and, if so, at what cost?

    Thanks, as always, for keeping us informed.

    • Don’t forget the City funding for Christmas in the Park. Separation of Church and State should make this an easy one.

      • Santa, guess that would more accurately be separation of Church and City.

        I would agree that any all events funded by the City should be axed until there is money over and above what’s needed for basic infrastructure – safety, roads, libraries, etc.

      • I am Jewish and I love Christmas in the Park. There is nothing religious about it anymore than a haunted house at Halloween. It would be a travesty to discontinue this wholesome tradition, which also bring revenue to the downtown merchants.

    • The proposal is to cut cops and firefighters to balance the budget.

      That should only happen after cutting the entire dept. of cultural affairs.  I am confident there are other feel good depts. that pay folks lots of $$, all of which are NICE, but none of which we NEED more than cops and firefighters.

      That said, the cops and firefighters need to FEEL THE PAIN that the rest of us are feeling, and take the cut in pay and benefits.

      • An alternative to cutting the police and firefighters payroll is what the high-tech industry is doing.

        Work the existing employees 60+ hours a week.  Of course this means there can be no hourly workers, they must all be exempt employees, but if it is good enough for high-tech then it is good enough for everyone.

        Or, bring in H-1B employees for police and firefighters.  Then you can pay them less, and work them more, since they will not want to be sent back to their home country.

      • JMO,

        No answer yet on staffing levels and cost for the Cultural Affairs Dept.  I’m thinking someone – perhaps Mayor Reed – instilled a code of omerta in Pier.

    • Here is an org chart for the office of Cultural Affairs. It spells out the position and what is the source of funding and the eliminations (denoted by X)in the budget this year.

      • This is somewhat illuminating but would be more helpful if some explanation were given to the categories “TOT” and “Capital Funds”. GF, I can guess, is general funds. Since the GF is $116M over budget, these positions are targeted.

  2. Has anyone suggested breaking up the city of San Jose into 2 or 3 smaller cities?  Maybe I’m crazy but it seems like managing smaller cities would be easier and less bureaucratic that the 3rd largest city in the state and may help us manage things better?

    • Totally agree.  The greater potential of the 10th largest city etc, etc, etc, has been undermined by the strongarm tactics of our neighborhoods.  Instead of gaining strength and unity from our neighborhoods (like that little bay-side burg to our north), we allow our neighborhoods to spin us apart.  San Jose lacks the vision and fortitude to be a big city.  We should split into 3 or 4 small towns and let our small town thinking rule.

  3. As a City our overall guiding mission statement should be sound and thoughtful.

    1) We must deny our mistakes of the past.

    2) We must ignore our problems of the present.

    3) We must abandon our concerns of the future.

    These ideals will make for a better tomorrow in our valley.

  4. P.O.
    Cut the red tape and turn community centers over to the neighborhods. Let non-profits, churches, or Neighborhood Associations run them. Let youth take pride in their centers by cleaning them, and holding events and classes there. We don’t need the City to do any more damage to our services than they already have. You’d be surprised what a small group of dedicated citizens can do when left to their own resources and skills.

  5. Prevention is an important piece of the budget conversation. Its an important aspect of public safety – often less costly than cops and definitely less costly than incarcertion. Neighborhood centers and afterschool programs keep kids off the streets and provide skills. 

    The arts are part of that solution too. The arts and community events are essential services.  They teach skills and confidence to our youth.  A place to express yourself in a safe environment is more than “nice to have” when you don’t have much. 

    When services translate into solving larger community issues – like gang activity – putting additional resources into a neighborhood serves multiple goals. I’d support not being “district equitable.”

    • The “arts” are most definitely NOT an “essential” service. 

      When and if the streets are in proper repair, when and if the PD and FD budgets are adjusted to something appropriate for a city the size of San Jose, and when and if there is money left over from other infrastructural needs that the public cannot pay for – only then should we be discussing any public funding of the “arts.”

      • I have a different view of San Jose. Its not an all and ‘then/when/if there’s funding left over…’ perspective.

        SJ is a sophisticated city. There is a layered, intelligent approach to community issues (at least this native thinks so). For example, youth programs, like arts and sports, complement the work of police officers.  Arts & sports aid the local coffers. These activities create money to fix pot holes. A compartmentalized approach to the budget and services is limiting.

        Pierluigi, your deeper probing into neighborhood and community issues is appreciated. An interesting post and dialogue.

  6. Pierluigi,

    I attended one of the budget meetings where there was much discussion about the tobacco funds.  According to the person representing the city manager, he said the city was still planning to give away much of the money.  A while back you mentioned a large number of costly workers in city hall to administer these grants.  If we are about to lay off police officers, the city should not be giving away money it desperately needs.  We could also cut costs by elminating the administrators.  What do you think?

  7. Thanks P.O. as always.

    As anybody who’s gone through a layoff and cost-cutting process at a Silicon Valley firm, the *first* thing you do to cut costs is go through a Stack Ranking exercise, in which expenses are ranked, 1 through whatever, by their *necessity* for the core business. The lower or more indirect the value, the lower the ranking.

    Usually businesses then add up the savings from the bottom up,and as soon as they read their reduction #, stop.

    Is there a Stack Ranking of city budget priorities? Would be useful to see as a way of getting insight into how the City prioritizes its spending.