Faced with a long wish list, a tight deadline and disagreements within its own ranks, the Palo Alto City Council agreed on Monday to conduct more polls before making any decisions on a 2014 ballot measure to pay for infrastructure fixes.
After a long discussion and scathing criticism from Councilman Pat Burt, the council went ahead with the recommendations of its four-member Infrastructure Committee to conduct surveys exploring five different revenue-raising ideas: an increase in the city's hotel tax, a sales-tax increase, creation of Mello-Roos districts to pay for new garages and two separate bond packages, one focusing on public safety and another centering on transportation. The decision to poll for these options was reached by a 6-1 vote, with Gail Price and Karen Holman absent and Greg Schmid dissenting.
The vote was virtually a foregone conclusion, with all four members of the Infrastructure Committee Mayor Greg Scharff, Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd and Councilmen Larry Klein and Marc Berman voting in favor of the committee's earlier recommendation and Councilwoman Liz Kniss joining the majority. Schmid voted against the polls and argued that the city hasn't provided the public with enough "contextual information" to make informed decisions on the survey questions.
It was Burt, however, who supplied most of the criticism about the city's circuitous path toward a 2014 infrastructure measure. Though he voted with the majority, it was only after his colleagues agreed to add language specifying that the full council, and not just the committee, will get to discuss the poll results and that full council will have the discretion to consider alternative revenue sources to the ones proposed by the committee.
Burt argued Monday that the committee's specific recommendation about the revenue options to be included in the poll effectively left the council at large out of the discussion. The issue of an infrastructure measure, he said, "is a big issue for the entire council." He said he had never envisioned the council's Infrastructure Committee, which officially has an advisory function, as the policymaker on this topic. By singling out these five revenue sources, he said, the committee in effect circumscribed the discussion.
"I think the way that the polling is being groomed is making some de facto policy decisions," Burt said.
The biggest wildcard in the infrastructure discussion remains a new police headquarters, a prize that has been eluding city leaders for well over a decade and that the current council is eager to capture. Yet earlier polls indicate that a new police headquarters is a tough sell with the public, with barely more than half of the residents surveyed voicing a willingness to pass a bond for this project, well short of the 67 percent needed.
The city is also evaluating a proposed development by Jay Paul Company, which offered to build a new police headquarters for the city in exchange for permission to build 311,000 square feet of office space at 395 Page Mill Road, next to AOL's Silicon Valley headquarters. The decision on this development, however, isn't expected until the late summer or early fall of 2014, despite the Infrastructure Committee's efforts to expedite the review process. This makes it particularly tricky for the council to plan any type of bond measure involving a new police building, which would replace the cramped and seismically obsolete facility inside City Hall.
Klein called the police building the "big elephant in the room."
"Its timing is sort of unfortunate because it may very well preclude us from having something on the ballot in 2014," Klein said, referring to the Jay Paul timeline. "But maybe not."
Several council members, including Burt, said Monday that they'd rather see the city pay for the new building with its own funds, rather than rely on the controversial "planned community" process to deliver the facility as a public benefit. Shepherd said that while she'd much rather see the community pass a general-obligation bond for the police building, the recent poll results make her look at the Jay Paul project "very seriously." Without the Jay Paul development, the council would "need to have a willing public to come forward and lead a strong campaign and a willing public to vote as a supermajority to have the project built," Shepherd said.
Burt was also skeptical about the proposed Mello-Roos "community facility districts," which require a vote and which allow the city to levy different assessments on different types of property owners. Under this mechanism, the city can tack on a much higher assessment on commercial properties, for example, while charging residents a smaller fee. Under the preliminary concept presented by staff, the new districts would pay for three garages, two downtown and one on California Avenue.
Burt criticized the concept of having a large portion of the public pay for downtown garages and characterized the Mello-Roos concept as one "being driven by individual preferences of members of the committee, and not the council as a whole." He singled out Scharff, who voiced a willingness to explore Mello-Roos districts during the last two committee meetings. Scharff briefly interrupted Burt to defend himself, characterizing Burt's comment as "an attack on me personally."
Klein also deflected Burt's allegation that the four-member committee has overstepped its advisory role and was now setting policy.
"Polling is not policy," Klein said. "It's just polling. It's information. Ö If the council doesn't like the questions asked at this time, they can order up another poll come December and January."
The proposal that proved the least controversial on Monday and that is now among the favorites to land on the 2014 ballot is raising the hotel tax from the current rate of 12 percent to 14 or 15 percent. A 2 percent increase is expected to net $2.2 million annually, a sum that could be leveraged to bring in $30.8 million in "certificates of participation" for infrastructure funding. Raising the rate by 3 percent would bring in $3.3 million in revenues a year, which could support a $46.2 million infrastructure expenditure, according to staff.
The city's infrastructure wish list comprises about $200 million in projects, with the police building estimated at $57 million and two new fire stations (to replace the two obsolete ones near Mitchell and Rinconada parks) estimated at $14.2 million. Other big-ticket items on the list include a package of bike and pedestrian projects ($25 million), deferred park maintenance ($8.9 million) and an upgraded Animal Services Center ($6.9 million).