For Palo Alto officials, the old line, "No good deed goes unpunished," rings particularly true these days.
The City Council is considering asking voters to pass an infrastructure bond measure in November 2014 to pay for a host of needed projects, most notably a new public-safety building. According to a poll the city recently commissioned and that the council's Infrastructure Committee discussed Thursday evening, a majority of voters would likely support such a bond, though the percentage falls just shy of the two-thirds "supermajority" needed to pass a measure.
But one the survey's most bittersweet findings is that Palo Alto voters, much more so than residents in other communities, think their city is doing a splendid job managing finances and maintaining the city's infrastructure. The survey of 603 Palo Alto voters found 75 percent approving the city's performance on infrastructure and 68 percent saying they thought the city was doing a good job in providing services.
Residents are so confident in how their city is doing, in fact, that many don't feel they need to make any additional contributions for infrastructure repairs. The poll showed 40 percent saying the city has a need for additional funding (5 percent of them saying "great need," and 36 percent saying "some need") and 50 percent saying there is either little need (19 percent) or no need at all (31 percent). Eleven percent didn't know.
David Metz of the public opinion research firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz and Associates (FM3), said the survey's findings -- high confidence in city officials and meager demand for increasing spending -- is a reversal of what the firm has seen in other communities, where the recent economic downturn had prompted service cuts and public frustration at its city leaders.
"In most communities, there's less satisfaction with city government," Metz said. "People see services being cut. They don't feel like things are necessarily getting done."
People in Palo Alto are happy with their government, he said.
"However, one side effect of this happiness is that there is not seen to be a need for additional funding for infrastructure."
What this means for the city is that barring major changes between now and November 2014, a bond measure on public safety would be a tough though not impossible sell, with the result largely hinging on how the measure is phrased and what other projects are included in the bond package. While polling results suggested that fewer than two-thirds of the voters would pass a bond measure solely for the public-safety building, odds become better when the new facility is paired with more popular items.
The poll, which has a margin of error of 4 percent, painted a mixed picture. Most respondents seemed reluctant to support an infrastructure bond when asked about it in a generic sense. But interest crept up when they were asked about specific projects. Projects dealing with public safety and transportation ranked at the top of the list.
When ranking infrastructure priorities, 81 percent of the respondents said "ensuring a modern and stable 9-1-1 emergency communications network" as extremely or very important.
Providing safe routes to school for students and maintaining city streets and roads followed, with 75 percent and 74 percent, respectively.
Fourth on the list was "ensuring vital city facilities like fire and police stations and the emergency command center are earthquake safe," which 70 percent said was extremely or very important.
Yet only 60 percent gave these highest two marks to "providing police officers with the facilities and resources needed to investigate and prosecute crimes committed in our community," short of the needed two-thirds threshold. And when asked specifically whether they would support spending "$57 million to buy land and build a new public-safety and emergency-response command center," only 52 percent said they would. By contrast, 74 percent said they support spending $14 million for Fire Department modernization.
"It's great when you call it 'vital services,'" Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd observed during Thursday's discussion of survey results. "But when it comes to, 'We need a new safety building, it's 'Sure we do.'"
Another encouraging sign is that while the public isn't too enthusiastic about passing a bond measure, it isn't adamantly opposed either. The poll indicates that while support exists for the types of projects the council is looking to fund, this support comes "without a lot of intensity," Metz said.
"The burden will be on the city to educate the public why these improvements are needed and why a tax increase is being proposed," Metz said.
Councilman Larry Klein saw plenty of promising signs in the polling data. He recalled the $76 million bond voters passed in 2008 for library improvements. Back then, FM3 conducted a poll showing about 65 percent supporting the bond (it ended up winning more than 68 percent). One poll, for example, showed that 65 percent of the respondents who heard about the list of needed projects said they would either strongly support (21 percent) or somewhat support (44 percent) a bond or tax measure to fund these projects. Another 8 percent were undecided. Klein observed that even if only a third of the undecided voters supported the bond, the supermajority would be achieved.
The poll also found that projects have a better chance of passing when grouped in packages based on categories. A measure focusing on streets and sidewalk projects (including nine miles of off-road trails, safe routes to schools, new bike paths and pedestrian walkways, and more parking) was supported by 74 percent of the respondents. Meanwhile, a "public safety measure" that would fund a new public-safety building, replace two obsolete fire stations and improve the 9-1-1 communication system got 68 percent.
The Thursday discussion was the first of two that the Infrastructure Committee is holding on the poll results. With the data in hand, the committee will begin sometime in August the process of debating various packages of projects that could be included in a potential bond measure.
The city's infrastructure landscape could still change dramatically if the council were to approve a proposal by Jay Paul Company to build the city a new police station at 3045 Park Blvd. In exchange, the council would grant Jay Paul permission to build an office development -- currently proposed at a 311,000 square feet -- at 395 Page Mill Road, next to AOL's Silicon Valley headquarters.
The project received a boost last week when the Planning and Transportation Commission voted to initiate the zone change Jay Paul is seeking for this proposal.