Palo Alto Weekly

News - June 7, 2013

Infrastructure bond a tough sell, survey says

While most Palo Alto residents would support a bond, reaching two-thirds majority poses a challenge

by Gennady Sheyner

The good news for Palo Alto officials is that citizens feel confident in the City Council's ability to take care of the city's infrastructure, a new survey indicates.

The bad news is that about a third of the city is unlikely to support a bond measure to fund infrastructure repairs and new facilities, which means the city still has plenty of work to do to pay for a new public-safety building, upgraded fire stations and other badly needed projects.

The baseline survey conducted by the firm Fairbank, Mauling, Metz and Associates (FM3) attempted to gauge residents' feelings about the City Council's management of finances, the city's infrastructure and 14 specific projects, including the police building, a downtown parking garage and street paving.

The results offered a mixed picture. On one hand, voters expressed a willingness to pay more for projects dealing with street maintenance, "vital facilities" such as libraries and community centers, and public safety. For street maintenance, which drew the most support, 74 percent said they would support a ballot measure that would increase taxes (with 39 percent of them saying they would "strongly support" such a measure) and 24 percent saying they would oppose.

For a general obligation bond, a tax mechanism that the city used most recently to pay for library renovations, a two-thirds voter approval is required.

Other ideas that attracted support from more than 66 percent of respondents included a "vital facilities measure" (72 percent) supporting streets, public safety, libraries and community centers; a "children and families measure" (71 percent) supporting preschools, safe routes to schools, parks and neighborhood traffic calming; and a "public safety measure" (68 percent) for police and fire stations and improved communication systems.

But at the same time, the survey of 603 randomly selected Palo Alto voters suggests that a infrastructure measure would be far from a slam dunk. With a margin of error at 4 percent, the results point to an election with a razor-thin margin. While 66 percent supported a ballot measure for infrastructure, most expressed only tentative support. And this support starts to decline below the two-thirds threshold once the costs to an average household surpass $125.

According to a staff report, an annual tax of $125 for a general-obligation bond that would be repaid over 30 years would yield $72 million for infrastructure improvements.

In general, bonds were the most popular of the four funding mechanisms that respondents were asked about. While a bond received high approval ratings from 64 percent of the respondents, increases in the city's hotel tax and real-estate transfer tax received 62 percent and 51 percent, respectively. Another 51 voiced support for a business-license tax, which the city tried to institute in 2009 but which was ultimately shot down in the voting booth.

While highlighting the challenges of passing an infrastructure bond, the survey also indicated that residents are generally confident in the city's ongoing effort to make the needed repairs. According to the survey, 75 percent of the respondents approved of the city's work in maintaining infrastructure, and 63 percent approved its use of tax dollars.

The City Council had commissioned the survey as part of its exploration of a November 2014 ballot measure. In 2011, a citizen panel known as the Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission, released a report estimating a $200 million backlog in vital infrastructure projects, with a new police building at the top of the list. The commission also found that the city has about $95 million in deferred maintenance.

In recent months, the city has been considering a proposal from the Jay Paul Company to build a new office complex at 395 Page Mill Road, a dense development that would offer as a "public benefit" a new police headquarters at a nearby site, 3045 Park Blvd. The city's Planning and Transportation Commission initiated a zone change last week that would make the project possible.

While the Jay Paul project has raised concerns from the commission and the public about potential traffic and parking problems, it has also given the city what may be its best shot at finally getting a new police building to replace the small and seismically deficient one at City Hall. A new report, which the City Council Infrastructure Committee was scheduled to consider Thursday, after the Weekly's press deadline, notes that based on the survey, a ballot measure to "fully fund a public safety building is unlikely to receive two-thirds support however, the public share of a public-private partnership could likely win approval as part of a broader package."

FM3's report suggests that the city focus potential ballot measures around public safety and transportation and place projects together in packages that "pair projects that draw enthusiastic public reaction with others that are more lukewarm."

Read more online

An article about the Infrastructure Committee's discussion of the survey Thursday can be read at www.PaloAltoOnline.com.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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