The rules at Palo Alto City Hall seem to be stacked against both residents and downtown businesses when it comes to objecting to increases in utility rates or objecting to forced membership in the downtown business district.
Take the utility rates, for example. The city says it will not impose some big increases (an average of $24 per month; $288 a year) in gas, water, electricity and refuse if 51 percent of its utility customers protest. But to object to the increases, residential and business customers have to send a letter to the City Clerk at City Hall (250 Hamilton Ave., 94301) and each utility requires a separate protest letter i.e., we have to send four letters.
Now there's no way that 51 percent will be objecting, because , as resident Mary Carlstead points out, a lot of the customers in this city are renters and a lot of the rest of us are not going to take the time to sit and write four letters. (If you are so inclined, the letters must be at city hall before Monday, June 11, the day the council will vote on the increase.) E-mails are not accepted.
The same unworkable procedure is also true for the downtown business improvement district. A number of businesses who must belong to the district are objecting to it, saying they are not getting their money's worth anywhere from a $50 to $500 fee per business per year. And a number of businesses have not paid, so they are being charged interest and their names are being turned over to a collection agency.
But to protest, a business must fill out a specific form and mail it to city hall petitions and e-mails will not count. And if a business has not paid its fee, then it is not eligible to vote, the district's rules say. In other words you have to pay to object to paying the fees.
Since there are more than 600 businesses downtown, those objecting to the district are trying hard, but the rules seem stacked against them, since they have to get 51 percent of the businesses to object.
The council will vote tonight (Monday, May 21) on whether the three-year-old district should continue to tax businesses in town, or whether membership should be voluntary. Voluntary membership sure seems the way to go. The bulk of the business members, by the way, are sole practitioners or in small offices, e.g., accountants, dentists and other small businesses in the downtown.