Nearly nine of 10 Palo Altans rate their city good or excellent, despite some slippage in the "excellent" category, according to an annual survey conducted by the city auditor's office.
The city still remains widely well-regarded by residents and leads the nation in some areas, City Auditor Sharon Erickson told the City Council Monday night.
Palo Alto ranked as the top city out of 180 communities as a place to work, ease of walking and feelings of safety in neighborhoods during the day, Erickson said.
Erickson published the results of the the National Citizen Survey -- sent to 1,200 Palo Alto residents in September 2007 -- as part of the annual Service Efforts and Accomplishments report, which also tracks city spending and other benchmarks.
Just conducting the survey annually places Palo Alto "in the forefront of government accountability," Erickson said.
"We rank among the best managed and best performing cities in the country," Councilman Jack Morton said.
And it would be great if the results of the survey and report reached more people, several council members said, enforcing their recent focus on civic participation, one of their top-four 2008 priorities.
"I wish we could make it required reading for every citizen," Mayor Larry Klein said. Erickson suggested hosting an informal pizza dinner and discussion about the data.
Palo Altans are generally satisfied with life in Palo Alto, with 86 percent rating services "good" or "excellent," Erickson said.
Yet general satisfaction with city government ratings slipped in several categories.
Out of the 437 survey respondents, 23 percent rated the overall quality of local government "excellent," down from 33 percent in 2006.
The margin of error is about 5 percent, Erickson said. Residents were asked to rate city services and other community characteristics as "excellent," "good," "fair" or "poor."
The percentage of survey respondents who said they receive good value for city taxes slipped 7 percent from 2006; the percent pleased with the overall direction of the city dropped 5 percent; residents who believe the city welcomes citizen involvement decreased 5 percent; and the percentage of respondents who feel the city listens to citizens fell 7 percent.
Erickson attributed the drops in satisfaction and trust to critical press coverage and noted they fit in to a consistent two-year cycle of gains and losses, a pattern perhaps related to council elections, she said.
"It's one thing we're keeping an eye on," Erickson said.
Also, in comparison with other cities, Palo Altans trust in government is "pretty astonishing," Erickson said.
Erickson said Monday she remains concerned about utility costs, the low number of hazardous material inspections and the community's satisfaction with street conditions.
Out of the 57 percent of respondents who reported interacting with a city employee during 2007, 79 percent reported having a generally good impression of the employee.
But the survey also found that Palo Altans feel safer in their neighborhoods during the day compared to residents in 180 other communities nationwide: 98 percent of respondents said they feel safe during the day near their homes, up from 94 percent in 2006.
Erickson said she thinks safety levels dropped in 2006 because of a rash of home burglaries during the summer, just before the surveys were distributed.
General government services, not including utilities or refuse, cost each resident $1,518 per year, up from $1,371 in 2006, the report states.
The report also illustrates recent increases in utility costs.
For example, in 2003 the city spent $37.5 million on electricity purchases, an amount that jumped to $62.5 million in 2007. Average monthly bills only increased from $48 to $58 over the same period, however.
Palo Alto customers still pay about $10 less per month on average than Pacific Gas and Electric customers, however, the report states.
Palo Alto residents' average gas bills climbed higher than PG&E in 2007 for the first time since 2003, the report shows. Palo Altans' average monthly bills climbed from $70 in 2006 to $91 in 2007.
Residents are still satisfied with the utilities -- 86 percent rated the electric utility as good or excellent in 2007 and 85 percent reported satisfaction with the gas utility.
Palo Altans remain highly pleased with their public safety departments; The Fire Department received the strong support of 98 percent of survey respondents and 91 percent of respondents rated police services as good or excellent.
The report exceeded 100 pages.
"It provokes more questions than we can ask in one night." Councilman Pat Burt said.
The annual survey costs $8,900, Erickson said.
In other business:
• The council approved a $500,000 project to boost the amount of water available in Foothills Park and along Page Mill Road. In partnership with Los Altos Hills County Fire District, the city will add five fire hydrants along the road.
• Bucking a recent trend to search for additional commission candidates if not many have applied, the City Council agreed to interview all applicants for the Human Relations, Library Advisory, Planning and Transportation commissions and the Storm Drain Committee.
Ray Bacchetti and Ann Ozer applied for two vacancies on the Human Relations Commission.
Karen Dreyfus, Leonardo Hochberg, Robert Redfern-West and Valerie Stinger applied for four positions on the Library Advisory Commission.
Robert Arnold, Susan Fineberg, Charmaine Furman, Corey Levens, Jon Stoumen and Karen Sunback applied for one position on the Planning and Transportation Commission.
Stepheny McGraw and Susan Rosenberg applied for two positions on the Storm Drain Committee.