Mountain View Voice

Opinion - May 10, 2013

City's hard times are over, for a while

Led by the continuing expansion at Google and more startups than ever before, the city is riding a high-tech boom that is expected to finally trickle down to the bottom line this year in the form of the first budget surplus in years. In fact, it looks like about $3 million will be left over this year, a welcome relief after years of struggling to make ends meet. In the last four years, the city has saved or reduced general fund spending by more than $7 million and cut 30.5 vacant job positions.

The expectation of a surplus is behind a series of new hires planned by City Manager Dan Rich, who got the attention of the council last week when he proposed hiring a person to head a new Information Technology department that could cost up to $250,000 a year. In all, more than half a dozen jobs would be added to the city's roster of employees, a cost that can easily be absorbed, Rich said, with money left over.

In a council discussion about the new IT division that would result from the city manager's plans, council member Margaret Abe-Koga said, "We have all these startups coming to us saying, 'This is the technology we are developing; Do you want to beta test it?'" In her view, the new director of IT would be the person who could field such questions, and also be able to discuss and understand startups that are on "the cutting edge of what's going on in the world," she said.

Expansion in this realm is a no-brainer for Mountain View, which one could argue should have been planning for this moment several years ago. But given the downturn and the initial loss of revenue, the city wisely stayed away from adding even arguably critical personnel in public safety and other departments. But now the time is right. Increased income from sales tax, property taxes and other sources are making the city flush and able to bankroll a much more capable work force, equipped to talk on the same level as the startups or the long-established high-tech firms like Google and Microsoft which are looking at expansion in the city.

And although the council gave tacit approval to Rich's plan last week, members should be cautious, too. Now is the not the time to be adding long-term obligations to the budget like across-the-board salary or pension increases. Compensation and benefits for city workers is already generous, and at this point we see no need for an increase beyond the 2 percent cost of living adjustments already in the city's union contracts for next year.

In making his presentation to the council, the city manager noted that Silicon Valley's economy is leading the country out of recession. "I would argue that that we (Mountain View) are leading Silicon Valley."

With this economic wind at his back, Rich rolled out a mix of other initiatives, ranging from $85,000 to back the popular "Energy Upgrade" program, which funds energy audits of homes to help residents reduce energy use, to funding more janitorial service, which was cut last year. Other chunks of the expected surplus were spread around, to buy new computer hardware and software, for supplies and staff at the teen center, to pay for an additional 80 youths to attend city-run summer camps and to subsidize new youth and adult classes operated by the city.

Although not final yet, the city manager's proposals were well-received last week, and are expected to be endorsed by a majority of the council. So far, we see no reason to put on the brakes. The city can afford to be more generous, so it can remain competitive in the Valley's super-heated economy.

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