News

Palo Alto approves proposal to establish business registry

City seeks 'simple' program to answer complex questions

It's no secret that Palo Alto's population either doubles or triples every weekday afternoon, with thousands of workers making their way toward the city's tech corridors, restaurant strips and frozen yogurt shops.

Yet getting even a rough estimate of how many workers arrive every day and how they get here remains a frustrating mystery, one that has been puzzling city planners for decades. The questions have become particularly trenchant in the last two years, as the City Council pushed ahead with a range of programs aimed at calming traffic, freeing up parking and quashing resident anxieties about the rapid pace of development.

On Monday night, the council took a long-awaited step toward getting the answers when members unanimously approved a staff proposal for establishing the city's business registry. Modeled after similar efforts in surrounding cities, Palo Alto's new program would require each business to obtain a registry certificate by filling out an online form and paying a nominal fee, which officials expect will be somewhere between $35 and $75.

A key component of the program will be the questionnaire that businesses will have to fill out to get their certificates. Though the document is still being hashed out, the draft version that staff unveiled Monday would require each business to disclose the number of workers on site, the number of parking spaces provided and the types of commuter benefits they provide.

The idea of creating a business registry has been floating around for years, long preceding the current period of commercial growth. In 2009, the city tried to establish a business license tax that aimed to both provide employee information and raise revenues. The proposal was shot down by voters later that year.

The new program is starkly different. For one thing, it does not seek to make money. Rather, it is designed as a cost-recovery program, with the fee amount covering the cost of maintaining the database. And unlike the somewhat convoluted tax proposal in 2009 (much of the public debate swirled around whether home-based entrepreneurs and teens manning lemonade stands would have to fork over a share of their gross receipts to the city), the new one aims for simplicity. Businesses will be able to complete the entire registration process online, a process that will include creating a profile, answering the questionnaire, affirming in an affidavit that the facts presented are true and making a payment.

A new report from the office of City Manager James Keene argues that the need for the city to obtain "real data about employment in Palo Alto is clear."

"With such data, the City can begin to measure employment trends, business growth and activity throughout the City in a cohesive and coordinated manner," Keene's report states. "Its availability is vital for developing and measuring the effectiveness of transportation demand management programs, and other transportation planning efforts."

Thomas Fehrenbach, the city's economic development manager stressed this point during Monday's discussion, noting that the city is "lacking some of the basic data about employees." In recent months, staff has been trying to refine its estimate of the number of companies operating in Palo Alto, with the most recent number at 11,500.

The data would be used to assist in fields ranging from land-use planning and economic development to emergency response and disaster preparedness, Keene's report states.

Unlike the 2009 proposal, the business registry hasn't been particularly controversial. Of the few speakers who addressed the council on the subject Monday, not one spoke out against it. Though residents and council members offered suggestions for revising the questionnaire and simplifying the ordinance, everyone agreed that the registry is long overdue.

Downtown resident Elaine Uang called the proposal a "good start" even as she urged the council to gather more information about the types of businesses that exist in Palo Alto.

"The nature of work is changing," Uang said. "We have a number of people who work in this town and we need to understand what their needs are."

Vikki Velkof said she was surprised that the city doesn't have a registry and said she's pleased to see the city finally adopting one.

"I feel any information that can be gathered from this registry is really going to be vital for addressing our transportation needs," Velkof said.

The council agreed, though members had plenty of concerns and suggestions to offer. Councilman Larry Klein was one of several to criticize the proposed requirement that businesses display their registry certificates at conspicuous places. Such a model, he said, is outdated. No business today, he said, would want certificates of this sort behind their reception desks. Klein was one of several council members who expressed unease about a proposed provision that empowers city inspectors to walk into businesses and check for certificates.

"The IRS doesn't need the right to walk into the businesses to enforce the tax code," Klein said. "They find ways to find people who haven't filed returns without having inspectors walk around buildings."

He also recalled the defeat of the business-license tax 2009 and argued that it's critical for the city to get it right this time around. This, he said, means keeping things simple.

"One of the reasons the business-license failed that year is that the city attorney drafted something too complicated for people to understand and gave people too many opportunities to find fault with it," Klein said. "If we want this to be successful, we really need to spend time on it."

Others echoed the simplicity sentiment. Councilman Marc Berman said he'd like to see the program "as simple as possible and as clear as possible."

Vice Mayor Liz Kniss said she doesn't want the questionnaire to be "an inquest."

"I'm hoping in the beginning this is more data collection than anything else," Kniss said. "Because I think we need to start simply. I don't want it to become so complicated so quickly that we're unable to come up with what we really need."

Mayor Nancy Shepherd, also citing the public confusions of 2009, said the new program should explicitly apply to non-residential areas of the city. That way people won't think that the registry applies to a business based in someone's bedroom or garage, she said.

"I'd feel more comfortable if we did declare this somehow so it would not be ambiguous," Shepherd said.

The council will take up the topic of the new registry again on Oct. 6, when staff returns with the revised questionnaire and a budget amendment to fund the program.

Related content:

Business registry proposed in Palo Alto

Business tax defeated in Palo Alto

Comments

Like this comment
Posted by Neal
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 23, 2014 at 7:54 am

"One of the reasons the business-license failed that year is that the city attorney drafted something too complicated for people to understand and gave people too many opportunities to find fault with it," Klein said.

How insulting. Voters know a tax when they see it.


2 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 23, 2014 at 10:14 am

This morning's POST carried a different take on what the City is trying to do with this so-called Registry. The POST's story point out that Staff/City Manager wanted a requirement that the certificate of participation be clearly located in each company's place of business, and that the passage of the Registry Ordinance would also include a "right of entry"--allowing City personnel to enter the business to insure that the certificate was present, and up-to-date.

The POST's article did not mention how many times a year these unspecified City personnel could enter the business, what they could do, or say, within the purview of "inspecting", or how long they could stay on the premises without the owner's having any right to escort them from the premises.

The POST article also stated that the City was planning to use this information for "emergency purposes and contacting businesses".

The City Manager seems to believe that running such a program for six months would cost upwards of $200,000. The POST article did not provide any information as to why collecting a few bits of data would cost so much, but if the City Manager is planning to hire someone at the normal $110+K salary to walk around an look for certificates inside of local businesses--the idea of this program's being only to provide critical planning data is more than suspect--and probably closer to fraudulent.

The Council, to its credit, did squash the requirements for placing the certificate in the place of business, but now that the idea has been broached--it's only a matter of time before it reappears.

Another idiotic boondoggle on the part of the City. It's very difficult to believe that anything of value will come from this new regulation of our local businesses. It's only a matter of time before the questionnaire required by the City will take the skill of an attorney to complete.


Like this comment
Posted by A
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 23, 2014 at 10:29 am

I don't know why the City Council can't find this information just by going to the Secretary of State and having them download all the companies in Palo Alto by DBAs and LLCs. This tax is ridiculous and invasive. The City does not have the right to just barge in and see if the certificate is on the wall! What a waste of money!


1 person likes this
Posted by Again?
a resident of another community
on Sep 23, 2014 at 10:31 am

This is so boring!! They just spin wheels over the same issues and agendas. This is back on the table each and every year. The real challenge now how to collect the data...Oy!


2 people like this
Posted by Jo Ann
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 23, 2014 at 11:28 am

It's about time. Every restaurant, bar and concert venue are required to post signs saying maximum capacity allowed by law. The California Franchise Tax Board rings your doorbell if you're late on your taxes.

I'd love to see the city force the employers to require their workers to use the city garages that are already there and to help them pay for parking permits.

If the city doesn't know whether the workers double or triple our population, they'd better find out before they decide to reduce more lanes and create more gridlock. There have been many articles written about how inaccurate the traffic studies are, especially the Cal Ave debacle.

Since we're in a drought, we should have a better idea how much water use is residential vs business.


Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 23, 2014 at 11:59 am

> Since we're in a drought, we should have a better idea how much
> water use is residential vs business.

This sort of information is not remotely linked to forcing companies to reveal details about their operations--such as head count, and possibly their revenue/expenses, etc.

As to business vs residential water use--since the City is the monopoly owner of the water supply, then it has all of this sort of information already--via its Utility billing system.

It is strange that people don't seem to realize this fact, or can't deduce it from the fact that our utilities are owned by the city government.


1 person likes this
Posted by Amateurs in charge
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 23, 2014 at 11:59 am

People who have no experience designing or maintaining databases were discussing this huge boondoggle. The city manager apparently wants to spend, spend, spend, rather than get a competent large data base manager to make this happen. Like combining some downloaded databases, then looking for more input from businesses.
This in a town with so many computer experts.
Making the bureaucracy bigger and hiring more consultants would appear to be the real goal, given some of the ridiculous parts of the plan.


Like this comment
Posted by DefinitionPlease
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 23, 2014 at 12:34 pm

Maybe I missed the definition in the article, but what is a "business" for purposes of this ordinance?
Is it anyone anywhere in Palo Alto? Or just within the defined (downtown, California Avenue, Midtown, ...) business "districts"?
What about "businesses" that operate out of their homes?
What about independent contractors?
"Where's the meat?"


2 people like this
Posted by Barbara
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 23, 2014 at 12:51 pm

JoAnn is so RIGHT ON -- the employees need to park in city garages and pay for parking or the employers could provide paid parking as a benefit, or split the cost!!


3 people like this
Posted by Right to enter
a resident of Mayfield
on Sep 23, 2014 at 2:06 pm

For paranoid buisness owners (and local rag editors) concerned about the City needing to enter their place of business why don't you just post the certificate in the corner of the front window?


Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 23, 2014 at 2:25 pm

This sounds fine in theory, but the practice is so much harder. What defines a business, what defines an employee - full time, part time, job share, contractor, consultant, casual, seasonal, etc. On top of that, what business is it (no pun intended) of the employer how the employee comes to work, whether it be by car or by other means, and what happens when sometimes they come to work one way and other times they come another way. On top of that, some businesses will fluctuate from month to month and have a large turnover of staff whereas others will be more stable.

As all the good intended from this information, for many businesses just trying to complete this information provides a headache to the employer or a secretary. I doubt very much if it will end up being very accurate. It all sounds a bit too Orwellian also. There are enough federal and state paper trails that employers have to abide by that this addition will be just a big timewaster to most businesses.


1 person likes this
Posted by Look before you speak
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 23, 2014 at 2:38 pm

@Amateurs
The Palo Alto CIO for the last 2/12 years is a highly regarded guy in the IT field, Web Link. Among other positions he was Director of IT for PWC.


2 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 23, 2014 at 4:47 pm

> The Palo Alto CIO for the last 2/12 years is a highly regarded guy in
? the IT field, Web Link. Among other positions he was Director of IT for PWC.

Highly regarded by whom?

[Portion removed.] He's managed to get involved with some cheesy public relations kind of activities involving "hacking"--but it seems that the City's telephone system was "hacked" during his tenure, for which we have not heard anything from him about why it happened, and what he's done to keep it from happening again.

The suggestion from another poster about merging a number of extant databases to provide the City with most of the information that it claims it needs for planning purposes could have been done by this fellow in his sleep--if he really is that good. But that's not the course of action that has been recommended by the City Manager--presumably with input from his IT Director.

And then we're left with the question, why would someone leave a position of such importance as the IT Director for PWC, for a relatively obscure job in the city government of Palo Alto?

Sadly .. we really have no way to determine the qualifications of people like this IT Director before they are given jobs that make them almost invisible to public scrutiny.


1 person likes this
Posted by Amateurs in charge
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 23, 2014 at 5:24 pm

The people leading the discussion at the Council were Thomas Fehrenbach, a businessman, the city Manager and the city attorney and a few others. I did not see any IT experts, maybe I missed them. What did you see/hear?
As Joe says,
<The suggestion from another poster about merging a number of extant databases to provide the City with most of the information that it claims it needs for planning purposes could have been done by this fellow in his sleep--if he really is that good. But that's not the course of action that has been recommended by the City Manager--presumably with input from his IT Director.>

Right. I know people who do this all the time. But the Manager wants to hire ACCELLA, a local company for a lot of money (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) and then HE does not have to be responsible for the outcome. In addition, its not clear whether Accella has done anything like this before.


2 people like this
Posted by Zayda
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 23, 2014 at 10:29 pm

@Amateurs
You mean like hiring traffic consultants to do a study on a 'Safe Route to Schools' and not even counting the kids on bicycles?
And someone suggested that they need to include the zipcode of the residence of the workers so we can figure out where they are all coming from and adjust our traffic mitigation accordingly. Is that on the questionnaire?


Like this comment
Posted by Brandon
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 24, 2014 at 9:35 am

[Post removed.]


Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 24, 2014 at 10:27 am

> about the City needing to enter their place of business why don't
> you just post the certificate in the corner of the front window?

There is a deeper issue here—which people who worship at the temple of government might not recognize. It was not that long ago that the Palo Alto Police wanted to increase their control of massage parlors—to include requiring customers to sign a registry/log book each time they visited one of these establishments.

Why? Why should the City of Palo Alto (or its thuggish cops) demand that people who use the services of a massage parlor provide the police the data/time and address of each customer? The PA Police included in this proposed ordinance the right to enter each massage parlor, and review the log, taking copies of it any time they wanted. The ordinance didn’t specify what restraints would be placed on police use of this information—but presumably having the names of customers would give them enough information to lecture customers at their places of work, or in their homes, about anything the police wanted to lecture them on, or to leave suspicion in the minds of their bosses, or spouses, that they were engaged in wrong doing when visiting these establishments.

The issue is one of control or us as Americans, and arguably free people—vs the City’s claim that it has all sorts of rights to control us, in any way it wants to.

Sorry—but we need to be aware that the people at City Hall are not one the same page as most of us about being a free people, to do with our lives as we see it. Forcing people to display a “certificate” that somehow alleges that the City has received some money from you so that you can continue to do business in this town is very worrisome. It’s a shame that the Council did not ask who put this inspection into this ordinance.


6 people like this
Posted by What is the big deal?
a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on Sep 24, 2014 at 11:13 am

Joe I think your government paranoia is misguided in this case. Almost every other City in that state issues business licenses. This is not a new or unusuall idea.


1 person likes this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 24, 2014 at 12:21 pm

> Almost every other City in that state issues business licenses.

[Portion removed.]

Do you actually have a number of cities here in the US where business licenses are issued?.It's probably not as many as you think.

Moreover--what the City is doing here is not even a business license--it's a information request. So, why in the world would we taxpayers be remotely concerned if a small company of three of four people has, or has not, prostated itself before City Hall and revealed the fact that that are just a few people working at this site?

Again--the issue here is that the City can not be trusted to tell the truth. For several years now, they have been claiming that they didn't know how many people were working in the City. So, finally, [portion removed] they have pushed through their first attempt at "registration". Do anyone really believe that this information will actually change anything the city does in the way of traffic, or parking (at least in the downtown area)?

Of course, this begs the question as to whether there should be business licenses here. While the obvious reason is to gouge some of the profits out of these businesses, the next question becomes--just how much control should the City Council, and the Police, have over people's businesses?

You might not realize that a store needs a license from the police to have a "going out of business sale". Why? Given the frequency of businesses failing in this town, it's really hard to believe that many businesses actually do request such permits--but it's the law! It's doubtful that anyone at city hall can explain why a business owner has to request permission to liquidate some of his merchandise as he is shutting down his business, but opening his doors to the public. But if the business owner is to be lawful, that's what he must do.

The Police also have a very heavy hand when it comes to granting taxi operating permits in this town. Why? Why shouldn't there be a uniform code for taxi operation statewide, and as long as each taxi operator has met the minimum requirements set by the State--then they can pickup/deliver where they want? But not here in Palo Alto--taxis operators have to jump through several layers of hoops to eventually be granted a permit to pick up passengers in Palo Alto.

Some of the concerns expressed here are moot for the moment--since the Council quashed this craziness--but the question remains: "why would anyone want to give the City this kind of power? Isn't it enough to get the main companies' data about headcount? Certainly any number of non-compliers will not matter much in terms of traffic and parking. It's the deeper issue of why the city needs this other information that should concern people.



2 people like this
Posted by Jo Ann
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 24, 2014 at 12:43 pm

"It's no secret that Palo Alto's population either doubles or triples every weekday afternoon,..."

65,000 x 2 = 130,000
65,000 x 3 = 195,000

Remind me again why we have traffic gridlock and parking problems.

Remind me again why the city keeps approving office buildings and hotels without any or enough parking.

Remind me again why the city doesn't force employers to subsidize employee's parking in our under-utilized and costly garages when employers in SF subsidize their commuters CALTRAIN passes or provide bus service for their peninsula employees.

I don't particularly care where the workers come from; I care about how many are coming here without sufficient parking or water resources. We need an accurate count to keep up pressure on our City Council that keeps approving this nonsense while destroying our retail tax base and quality of life.

Speaking of which, it's been almost a month since the August 29th article that said the traffic light at Town & Country would be eliminated "within a month" but the gridlock continues, with cars stuck in the intersection, through lanes blocked and Embarcadero backed up interminably.

How long does it take to flip a light switch??


Like this comment
Posted by now you don't want data??
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 26, 2014 at 5:19 pm

[Portion removed.]

Council's trying to figure out how many people actually work here and see if any of the measures they take are actually effective at reducing parking and traffic issues. You need actual numbers to be able to say that those things are or aren't effective. then they can do more of the effective stuff and less of the ineffective stuff and they can actually line up what they're doing with the correct estimates of the number of people involved and which parts of the city they're in. That's why they're asking businesses "to prostrate themselves" and just let them know how many employees they have. Poor poor businesses- wouldn't want to make them fill out a piece of paper which would help council make this a better community for everybody, including them!


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