City still unsure about 2014 ballot measure

With a year to go until election day, Palo Alto official approve more polling

Faced with a long wish list, a tight deadline and disagreements within its own ranks, the Palo Alto City Council agreed on Monday to conduct more polls before making any decisions on a 2014 ballot measure to pay for infrastructure fixes.

After a long discussion and scathing criticism from Councilman Pat Burt, the council went ahead with the recommendations of its four-member Infrastructure Committee to conduct surveys exploring five different revenue-raising ideas: an increase in the city's hotel tax, a sales-tax increase, creation of Mello-Roos districts to pay for new garages and two separate bond packages, one focusing on public safety and another centering on transportation. The decision to poll for these options was reached by a 6-1 vote, with Gail Price and Karen Holman absent and Greg Schmid dissenting.

The vote was virtually a foregone conclusion, with all four members of the Infrastructure Committee – Mayor Greg Scharff, Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd and Councilmen Larry Klein and Marc Berman – voting in favor of the committee's earlier recommendation and Councilwoman Liz Kniss joining the majority. Schmid voted against the polls and argued that the city hasn't provided the public with enough "contextual information" to make informed decisions on the survey questions.

It was Burt, however, who supplied most of the criticism about the city's circuitous path toward a 2014 infrastructure measure. Though he voted with the majority, it was only after his colleagues agreed to add language specifying that the full council, and not just the committee, will get to discuss the poll results and that full council will have the discretion to consider alternative revenue sources to the ones proposed by the committee.

Burt argued Monday that the committee's specific recommendation about the revenue options to be included in the poll effectively left the council at large out of the discussion. The issue of an infrastructure measure, he said, "is a big issue for the entire council." He said he had never envisioned the council's Infrastructure Committee, which officially has an advisory function, as the policymaker on this topic. By singling out these five revenue sources, he said, the committee in effect circumscribed the discussion.

"I think the way that the polling is being groomed is making some de facto policy decisions," Burt said.

The biggest wildcard in the infrastructure discussion remains a new police headquarters, a prize that has been eluding city leaders for well over a decade and that the current council is eager to capture. Yet earlier polls indicate that a new police headquarters is a tough sell with the public, with barely more than half of the residents surveyed voicing a willingness to pass a bond for this project, well short of the 67 percent needed.

The city is also evaluating a proposed development by Jay Paul Company, which offered to build a new police headquarters for the city in exchange for permission to build 311,000 square feet of office space at 395 Page Mill Road, next to AOL's Silicon Valley headquarters. The decision on this development, however, isn't expected until the late summer or early fall of 2014, despite the Infrastructure Committee's efforts to expedite the review process. This makes it particularly tricky for the council to plan any type of bond measure involving a new police building, which would replace the cramped and seismically obsolete facility inside City Hall.

Klein called the police building the "big elephant in the room."

"Its timing is sort of unfortunate because it may very well preclude us from having something on the ballot in 2014," Klein said, referring to the Jay Paul timeline. "But maybe not."

Several council members, including Burt, said Monday that they'd rather see the city pay for the new building with its own funds, rather than rely on the controversial "planned community" process to deliver the facility as a public benefit. Shepherd said that while she'd much rather see the community pass a general-obligation bond for the police building, the recent poll results make her look at the Jay Paul project "very seriously." Without the Jay Paul development, the council would "need to have a willing public to come forward and lead a strong campaign and a willing public to vote as a supermajority to have the project built," Shepherd said.

Burt was also skeptical about the proposed Mello-Roos "community facility districts," which require a vote and which allow the city to levy different assessments on different types of property owners. Under this mechanism, the city can tack on a much higher assessment on commercial properties, for example, while charging residents a smaller fee. Under the preliminary concept presented by staff, the new districts would pay for three garages, two downtown and one on California Avenue.

Burt criticized the concept of having a large portion of the public pay for downtown garages and characterized the Mello-Roos concept as one "being driven by individual preferences of members of the committee, and not the council as a whole." He singled out Scharff, who voiced a willingness to explore Mello-Roos districts during the last two committee meetings. Scharff briefly interrupted Burt to defend himself, characterizing Burt's comment as "an attack on me personally."

Klein also deflected Burt's allegation that the four-member committee has overstepped its advisory role and was now setting policy.

"Polling is not policy," Klein said. "It's just polling. It's information. … If the council doesn't like the questions asked at this time, they can order up another poll come December and January."

The proposal that proved the least controversial on Monday and that is now among the favorites to land on the 2014 ballot is raising the hotel tax from the current rate of 12 percent to 14 or 15 percent. A 2 percent increase is expected to net $2.2 million annually, a sum that could be leveraged to bring in $30.8 million in "certificates of participation" for infrastructure funding. Raising the rate by 3 percent would bring in $3.3 million in revenues a year, which could support a $46.2 million infrastructure expenditure, according to staff.

The city's infrastructure wish list comprises about $200 million in projects, with the police building estimated at $57 million and two new fire stations (to replace the two obsolete ones near Mitchell and Rinconada parks) estimated at $14.2 million. Other big-ticket items on the list include a package of bike and pedestrian projects ($25 million), deferred park maintenance ($8.9 million) and an upgraded Animal Services Center ($6.9 million).


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Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 29, 2013 at 6:55 am

There is so much wrong in this process and in the way many of council members are thinking about this problem.

First, Scharff has stacked many of the committees, not just the infrastructure committee, with himself, Klein & Shepard, leaving out any diversity in viewpoints. The committee crafts what proposal gets put before the council to vote on.

Second, the committee only considered taxation, and never considered funding using existing revenue. At this same council meeting, they heard a proposal for putting in wifi hotspots around town (if implemented, would cost $3 million to build out), and spent $300,000 to remodel the 6th & 7th floors of city hall (this on top of the million or so already spent on remodeling other parts of city hall).

Third, Mello Roos taxes not on the basis of assessed value, but whatever the council determines to be the formula (ie. it's not limited to prop-13 values). So let's say the council determines to tax on the basis of current market value; Let's say I bought my house in 2009 for $1.2 million. In 2013 that same house because of the crazy market if now worth $1.7 million, the council could tax my house on the $1.7 million of value. This type of taxation authority affects property value, and it's specifically a disclosure item when selling your house.

Over the past 10 years, the CPI has gone up 23% while the city general fund budget has gone up 41%. Over the past 15 years that the city government has been talking about the police building, if they had taken the 1/2 of the excess growth over the CPI, they could have paid for the police building.

And just remember, Mitchell Park Library, which was suppose to open many, many months ago, still isn't done; so the track record isn't good on getting these type of major projects done.

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Posted by Starve the beast!
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 29, 2013 at 8:32 am

I will not support or vote for any new funding for infrastructure until the Council and Staff demonstrate that they are not giving away the city to developers and special interests (i.e. Stanford and affordable housing groups). They view the residents as revenue generating opportunities rather than the voters they are to represent.

No on all new schemes to part us from our money until Council and Staff demonstrate that they are competent and trustworthy.

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Posted by Member
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Oct 29, 2013 at 12:09 pm

In the Mercury News 10/29/13 Gail Price defended her Yes vote of Measure D indicating that there is an inequality in the city regarding housing. The reverse is true - there is extensive new building on El Camino for apartments/ new houses end to end, including the Stanford new housing, new housing on East Meadow Circle, new housing behind Miki's market. New housing on Alma moving towards the University corridor, and additional housing projects planned for the California corridor. There is more I have not listed. All multi-resident projects. There is a large tax base improvement for this wealth of new housing. I do not see where this is tallied up and reported. We have exceeded the ABAG requirements already - the planning department should publish the amount of new housing by year.
We have started projects which are still not completed - the Mitchell Park Center, Main library on Newell, we need to publish the current cost and project cost for completion of these infrastructure projects. Finish what is on the table now, finish it well, tally up the cost before thinking up new ways to spend money. The current in-process projects will require much funding to complete..

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Posted by resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Oct 29, 2013 at 1:07 pm

Time to start working with the big dog - Stanford - to exert influence for BART to travel down proximity of Foothill Expressway. This will support the Sand Hill businesses, hotel, campus from back side - medical is on backside of campus; Veterans facility, etc. Mountain View backside; Los Altos; Cupertino, close with Bart coming from east bay in San Jose. The increase in business by closing the loop will be immense. It will benefit Menlo Park, Stanford - more access for students and visitors. Cupertino can also get on board here as they are looking to reduce traffic near Apple facility which is a big concern. The auto traffic can be substantially reduced. Big dogs get to work - this is your time to make this happen. You need to work together as a political unit and build stations along the way.

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Posted by Res
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 30, 2013 at 2:38 am

Polls cost money, and why spend money for residents to just talk to the hand when they are already doing that for free?

I am with "starve the beast" above, this Council is inept and too busy licking the soles of developers to remember they are supposed to be public servants.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 30, 2013 at 3:13 pm

A couple of months ago Marc Berman suggested the City use a bond measure for infrastructure and maintenance, so they could use the General Fund to pay for city hall gravy-train perks: City Staff management pay raises, bloated public employee pensions and healthcare, expensive PR people etc.

As a modest proposal, how about if we did the reverse? Use the General Fund for street repairs and infrastructure, and float a bond measure ballot to fund the perks.

Let's see if that one passes.

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Posted by Res
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 30, 2013 at 8:08 pm

In all seriousness, if the City Council would just bring the council meetings into the 21st century by making it possible to participate remotely, for the Council and citizenry to know who and how many are watching, for people to ask questions via computer or read statements, they could conduct instant polls of residents. If they let residents press a button if they aren't buying whatever a councilmember is saying, a lot of people would probably log on just to exercise their ability to make their voice heard through the BS-o-meter.

I have never in all my years here seen a Council this locked up in their own insular justifications for whatever they want to do anyway. They would just take a poll and twist it to mean whatever they want it to mean.

If we need a safety building, why aren't we just putting off the golf course renovation and city chambers beautification, and the dubious plan to put a gym at the Baylands, and pitching in the rest from the Stanford funds if need be, and build it? Shouldn't safety come first?

It's clear the City Council doesn't get what's happened as a result of the Maybell situation, and just how little people trust them now. My kid chose not to be in a Halloween costume contest because the mayor was judging it.

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Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 30, 2013 at 11:31 pm

I watched the replay of this segment of the council meeting, and came away with the following:

* Scharff, Price, Klein & Berman want the public to help pay for parking garages for businesses. Scharff got really put out when Council member Burt pointed out that Scharff was pushing to get polling on the Mello Roos Bonds for the parking Garage that was in the minutes of the Infrastructure Committed meeting minutes.

* Berman pontificated a lot about the importance of the public safety building; but he refuses to prioritize the budget spending despite all the platitudes he espouses. Instead for him, it's all about passing a bond. This has been going on for 15 years. If the city had set aside 3% of the budget of each of the past 15 years they have paid for the building.

* Pat Burt really wants to revisit a business license tax & also raising the tax on when a home is sold. He got really put out that these items aren't going to be polled.

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Posted by Margaret Fruth
a resident of Ventura
on Nov 2, 2013 at 10:54 am

Margaret Fruth is a registered user.

Maybell Middle Ground

Everyone agrees that the Maybell site is an excellent site for senior housing, which could be the start of working toward consensus. No one wants to see the land sold to a for-profit developer, but an alternative to the rezoning overdevelopment will not emerge unless Measure D fails to pass.

The corporation backing Measure D, the proponent of rezoning, claims that they cannot obtain all of the grants & loans with just a 41-unit apartment building at Maybell. But they can build the 60-unit building they want to build, without any modifications to to the existing design, through a density transfer from the rest of the land. They also claim that their budget will not balance without the twelve luxury homes planned for two-thirds of the land. I have been attempting to obtain evidence which prove or refute this claim since July, 2013; when and if I receive any I'll get back to you.

If Measure D fails, the financial issues can be put on hold while the neighbors & the corporation negotiate a solution everyone can live with. Preferably directly, without the City Council playing emperor. If a compromise is reached, the pending lawsuits will disappear before the next City Council election. Otherwise the discord will continue to be expensive for all in both time, money, & additional damage to the social fabric of the community. This much-needed reconciliation will not happen unless Measure D fails, so please vote NO on Measure D.

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

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