Palo Alto residents generally love their city, but their enthusiasm plummets when it comes to new developments, a new survey indicates.
The recently completed Service Efforts and Accomplishments Report, which the City Council discussed Tuesday night, gave council members plenty of reasons to cheer.
The survey showed 94 percent of respondents rating the city's "overall quality of life" as either "good" or "excellent" and 93 percent giving it highest grades as a "place to raise children."
But the survey -- conducted by the National Research Center and analyzed by Palo Alto's Office of the City Auditor -- also indicated that only 53 percent of the responders gave high marks to the "overall quality of new development" in Palo Alto, down 2 percent from 2009. Several council members found this surprising, given the city's notoriously complex development-review process and its famously thorough land-use and design-review commissions.
"We have such high expectations in this community, and for good reason," Councilwoman Karen Holman said, citing the city's educated populace and its Architectural Review Board, which reviews development proposals. "I think we need to take a look at why those numbers are where they are."
Councilman Greg Scharff agreed. He said he was struck by "how generally happy the residents are." But he also urged the council to consider ways to address the residents' concerns about new developments.
"How can we improve this rating and make people feel like we have a higher quality of new developments in Palo Alto?" Scharff asked.
Residents' skepticism toward new developments didn't extend to their feelings about the appearance of the city as a whole. The survey showed 83 percent rating "overall appearance" of Palo Alto as either "good" or "excellent" -- the same as last year.
The city also scored in the 95th percentile or higher in such categories as "a place to work," "educational opportunities," "ease of walking" and "overall image or reputation." Residents also praised the city's fire services (93 percent rated them "good" or "excellent"), police services (87 percent) and recycling collection (90 percent).
Yet as in years past Palo Alto received low marks when it came to availability of affordable housing (15 percent gave it "good" or "excellent" ratings), affordable, quality child health care (25 percent) and bus or transit services (45 percent).
The comprehensive SEA report also detailed the accomplishments of each city department and compared each department with its counterparts in other cities. The report created performance targets for each department and listed the latest budget trends.
The most dramatic increase was in the Fire Department, which saw its spending grow 37 percent, from $20.2 million to $27.7 million, over the past five years.
Scharff called the increase "dramatic," given that budgets at other departments had either dropped or stayed roughly the same in recent years. He attributed the rise to the "binding arbitration" provision in the City Charter. The provision, adopted 1978, gives a three-member arbitration panel the power to resolve labor disputes between the city and the firefighters' union.
Earlier this year, the council considered asking the voters to repeal the provision, but ultimately declined to do so by a 5-4 vote. Scharff suggested Tuesday that the council revisit the issue in the coming month.
"One of the biggest impediments is that we have binding arbitration in our charter and we need to look at that in the next year," Scharff said.