Green goals, infrastructure on city's 2012 agenda

Palo Alto officials to take on host of complex topics, from aged facilities to regional housing goals, in the new year

Curbing employee costs, fixing up the city's aged infrastructure, reopening the city's largest library and using technology to spur community involvement are among the issues looming large on Palo Alto's horizon in 2012.

Coming off a busy 2011, the City Council is heading into the new year with an agenda packed with complex topics such as overhauling the city's waste-collection services, challenging regional housing mandates and finding new ways to provide services more efficiently, whether through community partnerships or through privatization of certain services, City Manager James Keene told the Weekly in an interview.

At the same time, Keene said, the city will be striving to meet ambitious sustainability goals, unveiling new apps and technologies and welcoming a slew of new department heads into the city's operation, including a new city auditor, an information-technology director and an Office of Emergency Services director.

But even with all the new faces and looming issues, the council will continue to devote much of its time to the longstanding priority of managing the city's finances during a period of austerity. Though the city has succeeded in wringing concessions from its public-sector unions over the past three years, that effort is far from over as pension and health-care costs continue to rise, Keene said.

While the Silicon Valley economy is looking better than it did a year ago, the improvement doesn't necessarily translate to more revenues for the city, he said.

"I think we partly have gotten used to the challenging times we're in so it doesn't seem as bad, but we're still faced with a future in which we have costs that continue to outpace our revenue growth," Keene said. "I think we'll still be facing how we can have more employee-sharing in the costs, particularly on the benefits side."

"You'll continue to see us addressing that and trying to ensure that Palo Alto is in the lead among cities in trying to fix that kind of structural problem."

Among the highest priorities for 2012 are devising a plan to repair the city's infrastructure and paying for a new public-safety building. The efforts received a major boost at the end of 2011 when a 17-member Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Task Force released a report analyzing the city's infrastructure needs and proposing various funding options. The group found that Palo Alto has about $41.5 million in "deferred maintenance" (fixes that should have been made earlier but weren't) and that it has to spend about $32.2 million a year to keep up with infrastructure maintenance (about $2 million more than it currently spends).

The council is scheduled to discuss the commission's findings and recommendations on Jan. 17. These recommendations include an increase to the city's sales tax and a bond package to pay for a new public-safety building and for two fire stations.

Mayor Yiaway Yeh, who will be tasked with leading the council through these complex discussions, highlighted infrastructure as a top priority for 2012 Tuesday. Yeh said he sees 2012 "as a year of infrastructure investment and renewal for our community." The city's new Mitchell Park Library and Community Center, the largest project in the 2008 library-bond package, is slated to reopen to the public this year, as is the renovated Palo Alto Art Center.

Minutes after being elected mayor by his colleagues, Yeh called 2012 "the year for us to prioritize and determine how as a community we will fund our infrastructure needs, not just for our current generation but for our next several generations."

Even while they look for new revenue sources to pay for the needed repairs, the city will continue to look for ways to cut costs. Yeh said the city would seek greater efficiencies and regional opportunities, particularly in the realms of public safety, emergency-preparedness services, animal services and municipal services. The goal, he said, is providing "the most cost-effective services, but in a way that the quality of those services are positively impacted."

"We are in an era of austerity within government and that necessitates that we use our best thinking to look at how we deliver services," Yeh said.

Environmental sustainability will also remain a priority, with several of the city's strategic plans, including its Climate Action Plan and its Zero Waste Plan, containing performance targets for 2012. These targets, Yeh said, "give us an opportunity, as council, to be able to delve into detail to make sure that we're on track, that we're hitting what we want to hit in terms of our sustainability goals."

But even as Palo Alto continues to focus on and refine its own sustainability goals, city officials are preparing for a larger battle over regional housing allocations, which are part of the state's "Sustainable Community Strategy." A plan proposed by Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission mandates that Palo Alto plan for nearly 12,000 new homes by 2035, with the goal of reducing congestion and encouraging construction of housing near job centers.

The council has vehemently rejected ABAG's housing projections and has argued over the past two years that Palo Alto has neither the land nor the resources to accommodate the regional estimates. Keene predicted that the city will emerge as a leader in challenging the regional-allocation process, much like it did on the issue of high-speed rail.

"I think we're going to play an active role in that regional conversation," Keene said.

Other city goals aim at promoting civic pride and participation. Yeh this week said he plans to sponsor "Mayor's Challenges," a series of athletic events aimed at bringing neighbors together. Keene said the city plans to unveil new apps and to place a greater emphasis on publicizing data and allowing residents to use technology to more efficiently request services and provide feedback. Social media is expected to play a major role in this effort. The city, for example, is working with the company rBlock to launch a pilot program early this year for providing a social-networking platform on a block-by-block basis to selected neighborhoods.

The city is also trying to roll out in 2012 an "open data" approach to information to spark innovation. Keene said at the Dec. 19 meeting of the council that this effort is a way "to share the data and information we have as a city with the wider community that can generate all sorts of free and new applications and mobile apps."


Like this comment
Posted by Marvin
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 6, 2012 at 8:04 pm

Reducing employee benefits and pensions should be high on the 2012 agenda!

Like this comment
Posted by Marrol
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 7, 2012 at 9:49 am

Our city leaders and elected officials have made it very clear over the past several years that we are facing an unprecedented financial crisis and annul budget deficits. If that be the case, then it's time for them to back up their rhetoric with action. No better time than the beginning of a new year to set these goals.

First of all they must establish clear and firm financial priorities. In my opinion, the top of the list should include nothing more than the vital, essential needs that exist in infrastructure and public safety. Those are the foundation of our basic civic needs, and that's where the initial emphasis should be placed. We must take care of our basic needs and be able to pay our bills to put it simply. It is entirely irresponsible for the city to be suggesting as they have recently to raise local taxes in order to fund these basic needs.

In setting these financial priorities, we have to significantly reduce, or when possible eliminate spending on non-essential projects. The recent park upgrades, new playground construction, bicycle access improvements, and investment in public art are simply luxuries that we can't afford. Capital improvement projects such as the 101 bike bridge, or the golf course redesign due to the San Francisquito creek reconfiguration must be scaled back significantly. The city must also reevaluate the public dollars that we allocate to programs like the Children's Theater, a long time city treasure, but one that I seriously have to question whether or not we should be funding with public money. There are also homeless programs that Palo Alto tax payers help fund with an annual six figure contribution. This mind you that is serving a majority of people with few if any ties to our city.

Once again, we must stabilize our city budget, prioritize our needs, and reduce or eliminate non-essential spending on these many fluff, make-over pet projects.

Like this comment
Posted by Time for change
a resident of Green Acres
on Jan 7, 2012 at 12:37 pm

Well said, marrol. unfortunatley, our council will continue with business as usual--cahsing after green pipe dream and their own personal agenda. Next January when they elect a new mayor and vice-mayor, they will all pat themsleves on the back for a job well done.

Until the infrastructure issue is addressed, as MArrol stated, in a serious manner we need to forget about electric charging stations, bike bridges over 101, park and rec improvements and dunding for our "city treasures" (zoo, PACT etc).
Time for our council to bite the bullet and make tough decisions. No more excuses.

Like this comment
Posted by Marrol
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 7, 2012 at 1:17 pm

I too question the courage and commitment of our city leaders and elected officials to make the tough choices. This town is heavy with many influential people, or those tied to special interests, that will make it difficult to cut programs or reduce spending on niche projects.

Like this comment
Posted by Bob
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 8, 2012 at 3:02 pm

Hire Palo Alto residents for every job.

You always work a little harder for your family, friends, and neighbors, have a greater incentive to make your streets safe and keep them well maintained, watch the bottom line a little more closely, and have every reason to make life better here at home.

Plus, income earned here, is spent here. Local businesses are supported, taxes collected here, properties are maintained and hold their value, and a sense of community and pride grows here.

It's easy to complain. Let's provide answers from a positive place and set an example.

Like this comment
Posted by Dial it Up
a resident of another community
on Jan 9, 2012 at 11:37 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by
a resident of another community
on Jan 10, 2012 at 10:56 am

The California Air Resources Board under S.B. 375 (The Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008) seeks to reduce our per capita emissions by 15 percent, to 85 percent of current levels by 2035 (now apparently 7 percent by 2020). But Plan Bay Area has tied this to allowing 903,000 additional housing units, enough for 2.2 million more people, 33.8 percent more than live here now. If 133.8 percent of our current population each emits 85 percent of current levels, then our total emissions rise by 13.7 percent (133.8 x.85 = 1.137).

According to the U.S. Dept. of Energy, the average U.S. household generates 59 tons of greenhouse gases annually, so that's a Bay Area increase of over 45 million tons of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gases every year. That larger population would have to reduce individual emissions by a much larger percentage to achieve 1990 levels by 2020, as required by the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (A.B. 32).

Most of our emissions are not generated locally – they are released into the atmosphere wherever the goods and food we use are produced and transported. Atmospheric greenhouse gases do not respect regional, state or national boundaries.

True sustainability advocates contend that beyond the quality of life issues – more traffic congestion, air and noise pollution – the public will justifiably be angry when they find out that this “smart growth” will do nothing to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

Yes, building in existing urban areas has important environmental advantages over building in rural regions, but it is simply the lesser of two evils. This much urban construction will vastly increase our emissions no matter how “green” that construction may be. Instead of choosing the lesser of two evils when it comes to our air, water and open space, why not choose the good?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

By Laura Stec | 26 comments | 1,535 views

Are We Really Up To This?
By Aldis Petriceks | 1 comment | 951 views

Couples: Initiators and Implementors
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 741 views

Joe Simitian talk: Listening to Trump's America: Bridging the Divide
By Douglas Moran | 8 comments | 518 views

Don't be a ghost
By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 501 views