Those were some of the findings of the Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission, a 17-member panel that has been assessing the city's infrastructure needs and ways to pay for these needs. The group's voluminous report, which was 13 months in the making and released last month, surveys just about every component of the city's infrastructure, from roads and parks to big-ticket items such as the Municipal Services Center and the Cubberley Community Center. But the report strikes a particularly urgent note when it looks at the city's public-safety facilities — buildings that remain one of the city's most glaring weaknesses and top priorities.
The infrastructure commission's report recommends that the city ask its voters to approve a bond this year that would pay for a new public-safety building and for repairs to the two fire stations. Another alternative, the report states, is issuing "certificates of participation" (COPs), debt instruments that would not require a vote but carry interest rates 15 to 20 percent higher than general-obligation bonds. The council had considered issuing these certificates in 2008 but ultimately decided not to.
These options are expected to re-emerge Tuesday night, when the City Council holds its first discussion of the infrastructure report.
The public-safety dilemma is far from new, though it's taking on a higher profile at a time when the council lists both "emergency preparedness" and "infrastructure" as its top priorities. The police building, as the infrastructure commission points out, began vexing city officials almost immediately after it was built in 1971. The small space at the Forest Avenue headquarters required "squeezing functions into spaces not designed for them" — a tradition that remains one of the department's chief coping mechanisms (its document-storage section looks particularly rudimentary — boxes of files stacked against a wall). But, as the commission noted, inadequate space is just one of many problems.
"Over time, legal requirements grew, building-code requirements changed, community service needs (e.g., special events, visiting dignitaries) increased, and information-technology burdens on the building leapfrogged ahead," the infrastructure report states. "What were previously annoyances became severe constraints, hampering the City's first responders in discharging their duties."
The problem has gotten worse over time as conditions "have incrementally and steadily deteriorated relative to potential threats in the form of terrorism, earthquake, pandemics, and the like."
Dennis Burns, who in his role as an interim public-safety director heads both the police and fire departments, pointed to one innocuous but irksome problem in the current police building — an insufficient number of electric outlets.
"We never anticipated we'd need so many outlets to power all our new operations," Burns said.
The council last grappled with the problem of an obsolete public-safety building six years ago, when it appointed a task force to examine the facility and the police department's needs. The task force's executive summary (which is cited in the new infrastructure report) opened with the sentence, "The Task Force recommends in the strongest possible terms that the City proceed expeditiously to build a new Public Safety Building."
Since then, other independent assessments have reached the same conclusion. Last March, a consultant assessing the city's emergency services found the city's emergency-operations center (which is housed in the public-safety section of City Hall) "seismically unsafe" and incapable of withstanding a major disaster. Other deficiencies uncovered by the Berkeley-based firm Urban Resilience Policy include "inadequate telecommunications capacity; lack of current technology needs and equipment for a fully functional center; and, a lack of resilient baseline utilities in the room itself." The report recommends moving the city's emergency operations to a "seismically safe facility with appropriate and functional amenities."
The infrastructure commission, in its own review, called the public-safety building "unsafe and vulnerable."
"Its inadequacies in terms of capacity, operational efficiency, technology, and flexibility were well-documented in the 2006 Blue Ribbon Task Force study and have not improved with time. Public safety should be a top priority for any city but — in terms of proper facilities — that priority has for many years been dangerously deferred in Palo Alto."
But while the problem has been often stated and exhaustively analyzed, solutions have been elusive. In 2008, the council considered lumping a new police building with the library bond only to learn that public-safety is often a tough sell with the public. While residents overwhelmingly supported refurbishing the city's library system, only 57 percent of responders in a citizen survey said they would support a bond for a police building, short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass a bond.
But local history also provides some reasons for hope. In 1927, for example, voters passed a $74,000 bond to pay for a new police building on Bryant Street. The building (which served the two departments until the late 1960s) housed the police department, a jail, fire trucks, fire-department offices, a police court and a basement with a "small pistol range" and storage space, according to Ward Winslow's centennial history of Palo Alto.
These days, Palo Alto faces another challenge — a lack of a suitable site for the new building. City officials had briefly considered two parcels on Park Boulevard, but ultimately declined to purchase the sites because of budgetary woes. Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie told the Weekly that while the city is still keeping its eyes open for potential sites, the city is not negotiating for any particular site at this time.
In the meantime, Palo Alto has been looking at other ways to cope with the small space and make its police and fire operations more efficient. Burns noted that the city's public-safety departments have been placing a greater emphasis on collaboration with neighboring communities. The city, for example, is working with Mountain View and Los Altos on a "virtual consolidation" of the three cities' dispatch services. The move will allow the three departments to easily share information and back each other up during emergencies. It could also set the stage for a real "brick-and-mortar" consolidation of dispatch some time in the future.
In 2010, the department debuted a mobile emergency-operations center, a high-tech van that can function as a temporary dispatch and communications hub should City Hall's dispatch center be rendered non-functional.
These changes could allow the department to make the most of its limited space. But they would do little to protect the police building from a natural disaster such as a major earthquake.
"If nothing is going to change, we're just going to be that much closer to a more significant event that could paralyze the community and have detrimental outcome for our services, especially in dispatch in the Emergency Operations Center," Burns said. "I think that hasn't changed. At some point, we need to come up with another solution because what we have now is not ideal."
The quest for the solution will begin this week and stretch through the spring and into early summer, when the council is set to finalize the possible bond package. Mayor Yiaway Yeh, who declared 2012 the year of "infrastructure," said the council would weigh the recommendations of the infrastructure commission and feedback from staff before deciding whether to place a bond measure on the November ballot.
The council will also have to decide what to include in the bond measure. To wade through the complex report, Yeh plans to hold monthly Saturday meetings that would focus specifically on items that could be included in the bond package. The infrastructure commission proposed including a public-safety building ($65 million) and the two fire stations ($14.2 million), for a total of $79.2 million. That, however, may not be the package that the council ultimately ends up with.
"It's natural that as an independent commission, they would have findings and recommendations," Yeh told the Weekly. "It's also natural that staff will have its own perspective and that the conclusions and recommendations may not be in full alignment.
"That's where the meat of the discussion is going to be."