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City to city

Submitted by on 1, February 11, 2009 – 8:30 am2 Comments

Redwood City occupies a 19-square-mile patch of ground in the heart of Silicon Valley. It’s just 35 miles away from Alameda as the car drives, down the 880 and across the San Mateo Bridge. But as far as the services the city supplies to its residents goes, it may as well be a world away.

Lately, when someone mentions Redwood City, what usually comes to mind are the incredible parks and activities that are available, boasts the city’s website, underneath a neat row of thumbnails featuring an enormous pool, a large, open park and a lineup of playground slides.

The city is spending around $15 million on its parks and recreation facilities (including $3 million in internal service funds, which we don’t list). In Alameda, we spend around $6 million on the same services.

The way city leaders are spending a dwindling pot of budget dollars has come under intense scrutiny in the past year, and some have called for an independent audit of the city’s finances. Some have asked whether the city’s administration is too bloated, while other have questioned whether public safety gobbles too great a slice of the budget pie.

So I decided to look at a similar-size city, with a similar-size general fund budget, to get a sense of how the same money gets spent on some key services someplace else. It’s not a definitive account of whether our leaders spend our money wisely, or not. But it is food for thought.

After narrowing the list down to about a dozen California cities – most of which, incidentally, are facing the same budget problems that we are – I ended up 35 miles southwest of here. What I found was a city that spends far more money on parks and libraries than we do – and less on its fire department, despite the fact that Redwood City’s fire department handles more calls than ours does.

Redwood City spends twice what Alameda does on its parks and recreation services, despite the fact that workers there have only 14 acres more of parkland to maintain. A lot of the amenities offered – two pools, a senior center, a teen center, a skate park, dog parks – are identical to those offered here. But Redwood City pays far more to maintain those amenities, and more to staff programs.

Redwood City’s parks department has a budget for 116 full-time positions, compared to Alameda, which has money for about a quarter of that (and some of those were maintenance workers at the golf complex, something Redwood City doesn’t have). We rely on an army of part-timers to offer services.

They have 30 maintenance workers and landscape staff to our 11 golf and park maintenance workers (and this was before the golf course went into private management and some of those jobs were lost). They have 15 custodial staff to our two. They have food service workers on staff, a head chef and two senior crafts specialists. We have none of that.

“I just don’t understand it,” said Mike Richina, who serves on the board of the union that represents parks workers. “Alameda was a higher-end place to live. Can’t say that much anymore.”

Redwood City has four libraries to our three, and 41 people to staff them, versus 16.5 here. Their main library is open 63 hours a week to our 56.

Redwood City’s police department had a far bigger budget than ours, $32 million to $23 million, even though their force is roughly the same size as ours, and the number of crimes they investigated was similar in 2007. Their employee costs are $4 million more than ours (and their budget includes around $5 million in internal service costsa charge that isn’t listed in our police budget).

On the flip side, there’s one department we spend more money on, and that’s fire. We spent $21.5 million to Redwood City’s $17.3 million, with $19 million for workers’ salaries, benefits and overtime to their $14.5 million. Our fire department is over 100 strong, compared to 70 in Redwood City. And our department has a lifetime health care benefit for spouses that Redwood City’s doesn’t.

Firefighters’ union rep Jeff DelBono attributed the higher staffing to the fact that unlike Redwood City, we offer ambulance transport. Alameda voters okayed a ballot measure in 1982 calling on the city to take on the service. Redwood City contracts that out to a private company.

“If the ambulance (transport) service didn’t exist, 24 (firefighters per shift) would have been a reasonable number,” DelBono said.

Redwood City’s minimum staff per shift is 19. At a full staff of 27, we operate three ambulance companies with two people in each.

I also looked at the administrative costs in each city, and Redwood City is spending twice on its administration than we are, and I exclude finance here, since their finance budget, unlike ours, includes risk management and debt costs. (And speaking of debt, they pay about the same amount out of their general fund that we do for that.)

They have a city manager, a deputy and an assistant like we do – plus a “community communications specialist.” Their council members each earn more per year than our entire council does. (The budget for their city attorney’s office is about $100,000 higher, but they have less than half the staff.)

I presented my findings to Mayor Beverly Johnson. And she said we need to think about spending our money differently.

“That’s what our community needs to understand, is the costs of things and the trade offs we’ve been making,” she said. “People need to understand, these are choices. We can prioritize in different ways.”

Johnson said she thinks the city is spending too much money on public safety, particularly on firefighter overtime, which Fire Chief David Kapler said cost $3 million over the last two years, and benefits. (The city is in contract negotiations with both its police and firefighter unions.) She also said the city should stop offering ambulance transport, which she said is a money-losing service.

“We don’t have the money to pay for other services – parks, streets, sidewalks,” Johnson said. “Do we want to be a police state or do we want to be a well-rounded community?”

For a more definitive account of how the city spends its money and where we ought to go from here, stay tuned for the release of a much-anticipated report from the city’s Fiscal Sustainability Committee, which the council put together last year to put together a 10-year plan for keeping the city financially sound. Last I heard, the report is due out in March.


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