Guest Opinion: Palo Alto priorities should be the budget gap and hospitals

January 22nd, 2010

By Bern Beecham — Palo Alto Weekly,

When I stepped down from the Palo Alto City Council two years ago I didn’t stop caring about Palo Alto’s well-being as a community.

In my eight years of council service I continually strived to enhance our local economy so it could adequately support our city’s budget, programs and services, as well as support our local businesses and provide local jobs.

Now the new council has the opportunity to do the same. The council members, returning and new, will be setting their 2010 goals Saturday morning, Jan. 30, 8:30 a.m. at the Palo Alto Unified School District’s board room, 25 Churchill Ave.

Their first and most difficult priority will be to balance the city’s budget, closing a $5 million gap for the remaining months of this fiscal year (ending June 30) and more of the same for next.

Their second highest priority must be to complete the approval of the expansion and rebuilding of Stanford Hospital and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital.

Since leaving the council I have joined the boards of three local nonprofit organizations, each working hard to raise millions of dollars for major capital and infrastructure projects in Palo Alto. I know first-hand how difficult it is to find new money in today’s economic environment. Many businesses we talk to are at their limits. Many families we call have suffered reductions in or even loss of an income. Many who thought they were comfortably retired now have worrisome futures.

Last Nov. 2, we Palo Altans turned down a tax measure to place a large part of the city’s deficit burden on our small businesses.

Put simply, many of our local “deep pockets” are much shallower and some are coming up empty.

Many of us have heard about Palo Alto’s $5 million operating deficit for this fiscal year. But few are aware of the approximately $500 million shortfall Palo Alto has for upgrading its infrastructure, including buildings, sewers, roads, bridges and parks.

As for my second suggested priority for the new council, I will bypass the many benefits that improved health care facilities would bring to the community and focus on economic impacts. The Stanford and Lucile Packard hospitals expansion will help Palo Alto with many economic and budgetary concerns. This will be a $3.5 billion dollar investment, funded privately. Jobs will be created for the heavily impacted construction industry in the short term and will add more than 2,000 local jobs for the long term, according to initial estimates.

In addition to $18 million paid directly to the city for construction fees and traffic-mitigation measures, the hospitals propose to contribute more than $125 million to the community in the long run to mitigate other impacts of the expansions.

But there is far more at stake than economics in approving the hospitals’ upgrade and expansion.

Most of us know that earthquake concerns are the catalyst for upgrading the hospitals, but the city and Stanford have a “hospital relationship” that goes back nearly 80 years, when the old Palo Alto Hospital (where the Lawn Bowling Green now is) was supplanted by the “new” Palo Alto Hospital (now Hoover Pavilion). In the mid-1950s, with energetic support of Palo Alto Medical Clinic founder Russel V.A. Lee, Stanford moved its medical school from San Francisco and built the new “Palo Alto-Stanford Hospital” jointly with the city.

In the late 1960s, beset by bed shortages due to a growing population in the area and priority “teaching” needs for medical students, Stanford bought out the city’s share, with guarantees for continued care of community patients.

The Children’s Hospital became a special place for caring treatment of seriously ill and terminal patients, relocating from a small hospital along Sand Hill Road to its present site. The two complementary hospitals have far surpassed what would serve as just a local community hospital.

Some argue that that’s all we should have, a hospital for our community alone. I strongly disagree. Few of us who have lived in Palo Alto for some time (myself included) have not either directly or through family members benefited from care at these hospitals. We demand the best care possible, which is what I want from my “local” hospital. Serving a larger population base means there is a broader range of services available for all of us.

Other area hospitals are facing threats to reduce services or even close major departments. At our hospitals, we’re looking at the benefits of a $3.5 billion investment.

I’ve toured the core of Stanford Hospital, still dating from the 1960s. Not only does it not begin to satisfy today’s seismic requirements, it cannot accommodate current (or future) medical technologies.

Even the basic design of the hospital’s shared patient rooms (common when built) is obsolete. Every modern hospital is now designed around single-patient rooms to control infections, provide patient privacy and ensure individual treatment of every patient.

When undergoing surgery some years ago, I could hear every painful conversation between my “roommate,” a fairly young heart patient, and his doctors and family — including concern about losing his business if he followed his doctor’s advice to slow down to live. And he could hear my conversations. Moreover, my doctor had to release me early because my bed was needed for a new patient just coming out of surgery.

The hospitals’ upgrade and expansion will be the single largest and most complex project ever in Palo Alto. The environmental impact report (still delayed and still coming) will detail impacts, both beneficial and negative, and it will outline mitigation measures.

Last year, we lost one of the key economic benefits once associated with this project, an expansion at the Stanford Shopping Center and a new hotel there. In 2005, then Mayor Judy Kleinberg and I personally worked to get this revenue-generating project included in the overall process. This project would have, by itself, come close over time to closing the existing city budget deficit. Delays and excessive mitigation requirements killed this benefit.

Now the council must make very painful cuts in programs and services to close the city’s immediate budget gap. That is the top priority for 2010.

Approving the hospitals will not erase Palo Alto’s immediate fiscal problems. But the new council must get this job done in 2010.

Bern Beecham is a resident of north Palo Alto and served as councilman and mayor for two terms. As mayor, he spearheaded an effort to reinvigorate the Palo Alto economy in the aftermath of a slump in the early 2000s. He can be e-mailed at bern@beecham.org .