The council's Tuesday meeting kicked off what Mayor Yiaway Yeh branded the "year of infrastructure renewal and investment" in Palo Alto. The discussion focused on a comprehensive report by the 17-member Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission, a citizens group that surveyed the city's infrastructure backlog, maintenance costs and facility needs and recommended ways to finance the repairs. As the council dives deeper into the report in the coming months, the biggest question it will tackle is whether the city should place a measure on the November ballot that would pay for some of the big-ticket items on the commission's list.
The commission's report estimated that Palo Alto needs to spend an additional $2.2 million annually to maintain existing infrastructure and that the city has $41.5 million backlog in deferred maintenance — repairs that should have been made earlier but weren't. The commission also recommended replacing the city's cramped and seismically deficient police headquarters with a new public-safety building and refurbishing two fire stations, items that together would cost more than $90 million.
The report suggests going out for either a bond or certificates of participation to pay for the police building and the fire stations. It also recommends paying for routine maintenance and catch-up costs through an annual revenue source such as an increase in sales tax. Perhaps its most controversial recommendation is ending the city's lease of Cubberley Community Center space with the Palo Alto Unified School District, a move that the commission estimated would save the city about $6 million annually.
But that recommendation encountered resistance Tuesday from several tenants of the community center and from two former mayors, Mike Cobb and Lanie Wheeler. Cobb, a board member at Palo Alto Girls Softball, urged the council not to include the complex subject of the Cubberley lease in the larger discussion of the city's infrastructure.
"The future of Cubberley and the services it provides here are much too significant to the community to be lost in this discussion," said Cobb, whose league plays at Cubberley.
Wheeler agreed and while she lauded much of the commission's infrastructure report, she urged the council to have a larger community discussion about Cubberley so that the various stakeholders could agree on a future course.
"Cubberley is much more than the money pit it is presented to be, or the source of funds it is presented to be," Wheeler said. "It's really a quality-of-life issue that needs to be discussed."
Despite the report's recommendation, council members are unlikely to make a decision on Cubberley any time soon. The city last year established a framework for working with the school district throughout 2012 on the thorny topic of the Cubberley lease. In a memo to his colleagues, Yeh noted that the council "has already established a process to work with the School District" on the subject and said the commission's recommendation on Cubberley "needs to be reconciled with adopted Council direction."
Councilman Greg Schmid expressed skepticism about the Cubberley recommendation Tuesday and said the commission's report failed to consider benefits that the city would lose by not renewing the lease. The city-leased portion of Cubberley currently houses a variety of playing fields, artist studios, day care centers and nonprofit groups.
"I'm struck that there was no discussion of the cost inherent in the tradeoff and what infrastructure would be lost by the ending of that lease," Schmid said. "I think the city has gotten some true and important benefits from the current situation."
The report's other funding recommendations, including a bond and a sales-tax increase, come with their own political challenges. Councilman Pat Burt acknowledged Tuesday that "it's not going to be easy to come up with enough dollars to do what we're all acknowledging that we need to do."
Though the council's discussion of the proposed revenue sources was relatively brief, several members expressed misgivings about some of the recommendations in the commission's report. Councilwoman Karen Holman voiced skepticism about a recommendation to increase the city's sales tax by three-eighths of a cent and wondered if the change would drive shoppers to other communities. Burt also suggested that the proposed increase is too high.
"Three-eighths of a cent increase is a pretty big jump on a local level for a sales tax," Burt said. "If we look at that, we may look at something that's a little less than that."
Council members were more enthusiastic about the commission's recommendation that the city create an "infrastructure management system" — a database that keeps track of the city's maintenance needs. Schmid and Holman both said they strongly support the recommendation and Larry Klein said it "makes a lot of sense." Council members also generally agreed with the report's recommendation that the city should have a high-level official overseeing infrastructure management.
The council was unanimous in praising the work of the commission, which was officially discharged at the end of the meeting. Yeh said that "without the attention that IBRC has brought to the issue, as a community we wouldn't be able to move forward as informed as we want to." Councilman Sid Espinosa also lauded the commission, calling it an "All-Star team."
"What we ended up with was not only something well-written, very thoughtful, but also absolutely comprehensive, immensely helpful and absolutely critical to the future planning for the city for many years to come," Espinosa said.
Ray Bacchetti, who led off the commission's presentation Tuesday, quoted Lily Tomlin's observation that "reality is the leading cause of stress amongst those in touch with it." He called infrastructure "one of the most significant topics the community must face."
"We hope to have taken some of the uncertainty out of it with our report and some of the stress out of it with our recommendations, but we don't think it can ever be a stress-free topic," Bacchetti said.
What: The City Council will hold its annual retreat to set priorities and continue its discussion of infrastructure.
When: 9 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 21
Where: Downtown Library, 270 Forest Ave.
TALK ABOUT IT
What do you think of the city raising its sales tax, putting a bond measure on the November ballot, or ending its lease of Cubberley in order to fund infrastructure repairs? Share your opinions on Town Square, the online discussion forum on Palo Alto Online.
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