The American president. Transportation improvements. And now storm drains.
Palo Alto voters will have plenty of issues to digest come November 2016.
The city is considering going to voters next year to ask them to approve new fees to keep the city's storm-drain improvements afloat. Existing fees, which fund the current program and which voters approved in 2005, are set to expire in June 2017. Without a fresh measure, existing fees would drop from the monthly rate of $10 for a typical property owner to $4.25.
The proposal, which the City Council Finance Committee discussed and generally supported Tuesday night, would involve a mail-only ballot and require more than 50 percent of voter support.
The full City Council will consider its next steps on the issue on Oct. 19.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss acknowledged Tuesday that storm drains aren't as "glamorous" as some of the other issues going to voters, including the presidential election, but with storms on the horizon, the issue is particularly important.
"I can't imagine we wouldn't do it," Kniss said. "We may have a full discussion in council, but I'd be surprised if we don't have support for going forward with the storm-drain committee to look at the possibility of another election in order to maintain this.
"It's pretty hard to function without a storm drain system in our community. Especially looking at the year ahead," she added.
Yet history shows that voter support shouldn't be taken for granted. The city's first bid to raise the fee faltered in 2000 when only 37 percent of the voters supported increasing the storm-drain fee from $4.25 to $9.
The city did better in the spring of 2005, when a bid to raise the fee to $10 secured 58 percent support from voting property owners. Those fees raised about $17 million, which was used to help fund seven projects deemed to be of the highest priority.
Five of these projects (San Francisquito Creek Pump Station upgrades and storm-drain improvements at Gailen and Bibbits avenues, Alma Street, Clara Drive and in the Southgate neighborhood) have already been completed. The sixth project on Lincoln Avenue is two-thirds done and is set to be completed in the coming year. The final project Matadero Storm Water Pump Station improvements is set to start in fiscal year 2017.
The 2005 measure was crafted with the help of a blue-ribbon citizen committee. It also established an oversight committee that continues to oversee how the funds are spent and supports the current effort to renew the storm-drain funds, said Joe Teresi, senior engineer with the city's Public Works Department.
A similar management process is envisioned for the 2016 measure. Public Works staff recommended having the city manager appoint a citizens committee that would work with staff on the measure. The list of projects that will be funded will be informed by a newly updated Storm Drainage Master Plan, which identified about $37 million in priority storm-drain projects, Teresi said.
"We do have a large number of capital needs that need to be implemented in order to upgrade our system," he said.
Kniss ultimately made a motion, which passed unanimously, to refer to the full council the discussion of a ballot measure and the creation of a city manager-appointed citizen advisory committee.
The latter proposal caused some concern among council members, given the city's recent experience with the Citizens Advisory Committee that is working on the Comprehensive Plan update.
In that case, the committee appointed by city staff was criticized for not having enough geographic balance and diversity of viewpoints. The council ultimately voted to add five new members, mostly from the southern half of the city, to narrow the gap.
Kniss said Tuesday that she was "somewhat uneasy" having a city manager-appointed committee.
Finance Committee Chair Greg Schmid shared Kniss' concerns and pointed to the city's recent experience with the Comprehensive Plan group.
Schmid also asked urge to make sure the projects funded strike a geographic balance and do not favor the north half of the city, as was the case with the 2005 measure. He told Public Works officials that in moving into the election, they'll want to be "able to draw on the city as a whole."
"I assume you'll be sensitive to the issue of north and south balance of some kind," Schmid said.
Brad Eggleston, assistant director of Public Works, confirmed that the projects on the next list of storm-drain improvements are scattered in the north and south. The city also looks to appoint members from both north and south of Oregon Expressway to the committee that would work on the measure with the city, he said.
Councilman Greg Scharff said he will abstain from making any recommendations about the ballot measure, saying he would like to first hear from his council colleagues. He also suggested that the topic of storm drains is unlikely to emerge as a hot-button topic.
"I'm very concerned that storm drains can really excite the passions of the community in a hugely controversial way," Scharff said sarcastically during the discussion.