The City Council dove into the complex discussion at its retreat Monday, March 26, which focused on upgrading the city's infrastructure and replacing its aged facilities. The council's Policy and Services Committee will narrow down the city's options in the coming months and determine which tax proposal, if any, should be brought to the voters for consideration in November.
The goal is to diminish the city's gaping backlog in deferred maintenance, a backlog that a recent report from a specially appointed Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission pegged at $41.5 million. The list of "catch-up" items includes $12 million for repairing buildings, $14.3 million for sprucing up local parks and $3.7 million for fixing up sidewalks.
The list also includes about $6 million in deferred maintenance for local streets, though the city plans to pay for these costs through its regular capital-improvement program rather than a tax measure. Two years ago, the council accelerated this effort by effectively doubling the city's expenditures on street repairs.
The report from the Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission notes that the costs of the deferred, or catch-up, repairs would grow significantly if the city doesn't address them soon.
"The cost of deferred maintenance can amount to multitudes of the cost of timely maintenance," the report states.
The council's committee will also consider whether the city should pursue a tax increase to pay for a new public-safety building, a need the city's been working to address for much of the past decade. The commission report had identified the public-safety building, along with fire stations at Mitchell and Rinconada parks, as in urgent need of repairs or replacement.
The effort to replace the current cramped and seismically deficient police headquarters with a new public-safety building had stalled because of funding shortages. But the infrastructure report has re-energized the debate by emphasizing the need to replace the headquarters and two fire stations.
"When these buildings decline into substandard or unsafe conditions, both those who use them and the community that depends on them are in jeopardy," the report states.
Council members agreed Monday that they would likely need help from the voters to solve the city's infrastructure problems. Vice Mayor Greg Scharff suggested that if the council were to proceed with a tax increase, it should focus on "catch-up" items.
"I think that if we're going to take this seriously and think about how we will deal with the catch-up issues, putting something on the ballot is the only way to do it, frankly," Scharff said. "We need to have a big discussion about that."
But Scharff and others also acknowledged that the city doesn't have much time to sort out the tax issue. To place the tax measure on the November ballot, the council has to decide by July which tax to raise and the amount by which to raise it. Options include a sales tax, a transient-occupancy tax (for hotel visitors), a utility-users tax and a business-license tax.
Palo Alto's recent efforts to raise taxes have been met with mixed results. In 2008, the city successfully raised its transient-occupancy tax from 10 percent to 12 percent. In 2010, however, voters overwhelmingly rejected the city's proposal to institute a business-license tax, a tax that most cities currently have but that Palo Alto does not.
Councilman Pat Burt said it's important for the city to get a sense of where residents stand on the proposed tax increases to pay for infrastructure before it proposes a tax measure.
"I think we're going to want to know from the community, and that will help inform our decision," Burt said.
TALK ABOUT IT
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