A "clerical error" has prompted the City of Palo Alto to send incorrect bills to downtown businesses as part of their assessment for the Business Improvement District -- a mistake that the city is now trying to solve.
In an Aug. 15 response to a complaint from a business owner, the city's Economic Development Manager Thomas Fehrenbach acknowledged that some businesses "received improper billings" this year as part of the city's effort to collect fees for the Palo Alto Downtown Businesses and Professional Association. The nonprofit association advocates on behalf of businesses in downtown's "Business Improvement District."
Fehrenbach said the errors in billing occurred after the City Council re-authorized the association in May.
"Once we leaned of the issue, we worked to correct the problem, and sent out letters to every business within the BID to alert them to the situation and to the forthcoming correct invoices," Fehrenbach wrote in a response to Winnie Lewis, whose company PACE Properties, LLC, owns two downtown properties.
Lewis wrote that her assessment for the property at 791 High St. went from $130 in 2013 to $170 in 2014. Another property at 157 Homer Ave. received a bill of $340, which after protests from her and many other merchants, was reduced to $50.
Lewis also wondered in her complaint what the assessments were for:
"We maintain our own sidewalks; no one has ever swept the sidewalk anywhere in the South of Forest Area. There are no garbage bins provided on the sidewalks for our businesses. We have never been contacted by anyone representing the association to promote any of our businesses except when the fee is not paid."
Lewis encouraged the city auditor to look into what she called an "abuse of taxing authority."
"No member of the public knows how these assessments are spent," she wrote. "There is no transparency."
Fehrenbach in his response apologized for the billing error. He also noted that the invoices for her two properties, Pace and Safe Self Storage, were corrected.
Fehrenbach told the Weekly that the city's focus is on processing refunds for those businesses that have overpaid.
"We are also working to correct the the rest of the discrepancies caused by the clerical error," Fehrenbach said. "We are extending the due date for all invoices."