The City Council had been considering asking the voters to either approve a tax increase or pass a bond to help the city close its infrastructure backlog and pay for needed public-safety facilities. But at a retreat Monday, April 30, staff and council members acknowledged that they probably don't have enough time to determine exactly what the measure should include and to do the needed research. The council has until July to craft a measure for the November ballot.
The council discussed Monday a variety of options for a ballot measure, including increases to the sales-tax and document-transfer-tax rates, a parcel tax and a bond that would fund a new public-safety building. Though the council didn't take any votes and could still decide to place a measure on the ballot, staff and council members expressed little appetite for pursuing the option this year.
Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie told the council that staff doesn't believe it has enough time to "do the proper groundwork on any measure at this point."
"We don't think we have enough time to do the research and to see what the voters' sensitivities are," Emslie said. "We think that information is helpful in crafting the measure.
"Secondly, we don't think we have enough time to really engage our stakeholders."
In recent years, the council has had a mixed record with going out to the voters for funding. In 2008, residents approved a $76 million bond to renovate local libraries after extensive campaigning by community volunteers and council members. Two years later, however, voters rejected a city proposal for a business-license tax.
Emslie told the council that if the city were to come up with a measure that's a "fait accompli," it could work against the city.
"The downside of going in with a lack of preparation is that it can set us back significantly for an appropriate time when we would be able to do all that," he said.
The council's list of infrastructure priorities include a new public-safety building to replace the cramped and seismically unsafe City Hall facility the Police Department currently uses. The council is also looking at about $41 million in "catch-up" costs that were identified by the 17-member Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Committee, a task force that released a comprehensive report on the city's infrastructure late last year. The list includes, among other things, $14.5 million for park maintenance, $4.5 million for building maintenance and $8.8 million in improvements to city streets and sidewalks.
The task force also recommended the city increase its annual spending by $2.2 million to keep up with infrastructure maintenance. The recommendation was incorporated into the 2013 fiscal year budget that City Manager James Keene presented to the council Monday.
Keene proposed looking at a timeframe of 18 months to two years for a ballot measure. He said the city needs to prioritize exactly what should be funded in a measure and hold focus groups to gauge stakeholder interests. Under this scenario, the city would spend much of 2013 adjusting the proposed measure as needed.
Council members also emphasized a need to demonstrate to the voters that the city is making tough choices, including budget cuts, to wrestle with the infrastructure problem. Keene's budget, for example, proposes to outsource animal services and to freeze seven vacancies in the Police Department.
"What we're trying to do as a city is not go to the voters and say, 'We need more,'" Mayor Yiaway Yeh said.
He also said that given all the unanswered questions, it would be "tough to do something on this November ballot."
Councilman Pat Burt said that while it's important that the city move aggressively on solving its infrastructure problem, it should not seek to do it in one swoop. The city should set a new public-safety building as its top priority, he said.
Staff plans to return to the council in June with information on how much the facility would cost.
"I think it's really important that we are looking aggressively at what is doable and we continue to make some major progress," Burt said.