News

Palo Alto may ask voters for new storm-drain fees

City considers mail-only election in 2016 to replace current fees, fund new projects

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.

Comments

25 people like this
Posted by crescent
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 23, 2015 at 8:56 am

Ten years on, and still not solved? C'mon! Can PA get anything done to completion?

Why is it that every PA special purpose tax, always promoted as limited in time, instead ends up being perpetual?

I'm getting fed up. I suspect other voters are getting fed up too.


33 people like this
Posted by Not Again!
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 23, 2015 at 9:49 am

What did the city NOT do that they were supposed to do after the 1998 floods? What did they promise but not fulfill then?

Will this additional tax save us from 2016 floods?

This city is already flush with cash, and was in 1998. More cash won't make them fulfill the unfulfilled promises of 1998!

Vote NO!


23 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 23, 2015 at 10:45 am

What really gets me is that I don't see where our money goes in Palo Alto anymore.

I for one know that my property taxes, utility fees, etc. are going up not down every year. I know that the turnover in property results in higher property taxes for the new owners. I know that the new development both business and private bring in more property taxes.

What I don't know is where this money that the City gets from my taxes is being spent. If every time a need is identified (and this one is an extension that should have completed work from years ago) we have to have an increase in taxes then somebody is not being fiscally responsible in City Hall. Ongoing maintenance and upgrades should be budgeted for. We should not have to dig into our pockets everytime something needs to be updated. If something like this is not in our budget then there should be somewhere in our budget that funds can be cut from. At least that is the way it works in our house. I can't go to my boss and say that my drains need fixing therefore I need a raise. No, I have to spend less on vacations or holidays, to pay for these things. The City should be doing the same. Next time I see fact finding trips to foreign countries or new signage in City Hall I will remember that my Property Tax was increased to pay for these.

I am not a happy camper!


Like this comment
Posted by Judith
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 23, 2015 at 10:48 am

Please read the article - all the projects selected by the special committee have been or are scheduled to be completed within the time frame of the last fee hike. It was never intended to fund all the projects, only the ones that were listed.

If you want to continue the good work, vote to continue to fees. They will be the same as they have been for 12 years.

If you want to leave the job unfinished, vote against them.


3 people like this
Posted by Norman Beamer
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 23, 2015 at 11:10 am

As many of us advocated when this program was originally started, it would be far more beneficial to raise funds to fix the Chaucer bridge, which is the primary cause of flooding.


9 people like this
Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 23, 2015 at 11:22 am

This is Stupid.

There hasn't been any runoff for months.
The Storm Drain Commission hasn't met in 6 years.
Where does the money go?


2 people like this
Posted by Just Palo Alto being Palo Alto
a resident of another community
on Sep 23, 2015 at 11:31 am

Good schools though....oh, uh, yah.


15 people like this
Posted by Kate
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 23, 2015 at 11:52 am

Vote NO! This is another city con-game and should be shot down immediately. Where does our money go? To hoards of employees who can't seem to get the picture that residents are getting 'fed up'. It's time that the city hired a city manager who can "manage' and not float in a sea of salary money. It's time to get rid of a hoard of assistant managers. It's time to do an employee 'audit'. Who does what and how many do it? Fed up.


9 people like this
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Sep 23, 2015 at 12:03 pm

When the first storm drain tax (er .. fee) increase was proposed back around 2001, the City’s proposal included a “fix list” that came to about $255M. This list was based on an engineering review by the firm C2HMHILL. The firm modeled the system in place, finding a number of points in the system which were subject to flooding under certain conditions. The software used was designed by the US Corp. of Engineers (if memory serves), but there was never any validation of its findings. Heavy rains, which are very infrequent in Palo Alto, have been known to flood a couple intersections, for 6-8 hours, but virtually none of the areas identified by the engineers’ reports have sustained any significant flooding (or “ponding”).

Storm drains were installed in early Palo Alto, so there were a number of problems that emerged over the years that required digging up the old pipes, replacing them with larger pipes. The report also suggested that a pumping station needed to be added to the system in order to insure that during heavy loading of the system the water flow would not be dependent on gravity to move the water from Palo Alto over to the outflow point at the bay. Presumably these problems have been fixed with our increased fees.

Most of the list of projects were considered to have minor impact on the safety of Palo Alto property owners, and were put on the back burner at the time the first storm drain election failed. A very reduced project list was proposed for the second fee increase put to the voters.

The article says that the current fee has raised about $17M—which were the projects deemed to be the most important. Interesting that this time, the City has identified projects as “priority” with a whopping price tag of $37M—which brings the total storm drain spending to about $55M.

The cost of storm drains that meet a “golden standard” for engineers is mindboggling—given that historically the average yearly rain fall in Palo Alto is only 15”-16” a year. While the damage done by the creek overbanking back in 1998 still is fresh in many peoples’ minds—and many of those people blamed the storm drain system as a prime contributor to their problems—the system worked as intended.

It’s very difficult to appreciate the City’s never-ending demand for more money for storm drains, particularly in a city where so little rain falls. It will be interesting to review their next master plan to see how they assess the current system, and how much more money they want to spend on it.


4 people like this
Posted by Steve H.
a resident of Southgate
on Sep 23, 2015 at 12:04 pm

This article is full of false statements. Due to cost overruns, the money from the 2005 Storm Drain increases only funded part of the projects promised. Two years after the election, they were already talking about eliminating or cutting back 4 of the 7 projects they promised us in the election.

Web Link

I know for a fact that Southgate did not get storm drains. What we got were paved streets and planters to hold water. Not nearly the same. We'll still have flooding, but it'll look pretty.

How about a little honesty in our government. Obviously, they've talked the Weekly into writing that they've done what they promised in 2005. That's just not the case. So, now they'll promise new things, without properly addressing the original issued that they said they were going to correct with the last increase.


7 people like this
Posted by Carol Gilbert
a resident of University South
on Sep 23, 2015 at 12:20 pm

I don't pretend to know if this is required or not. But my question is, "Wouldn't be projects like this and infrastructure be something that cities are supposed to take care of?" Use our current money to do this and stop the ever-increasing pension bloating.


15 people like this
Posted by Kazu
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 23, 2015 at 12:47 pm

"What really gets me is that I don't see where our money goes in Palo Alto anymore."

It goes to pay for Happiness Maps: Web Link

and to determine the color of Palo Alto: Web Link

and for a new city website: Web Link

and library project cost overruns: Web Link Web Link

Among other things.


7 people like this
Posted by Jane
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 23, 2015 at 1:43 pm

My understanding is that last year the city quietly transferred about $17 million from our Palo Alto Utilities fees into the city's general fund. Despite the fact that utilities was/is set up as it's own separate entity to fund itself for the benefit of residents, not as a revenue source for the city budget. This amounts to a hidden tax

If my recollection is correct, this scheme came about ten years ago when the city council and manager found a way to justify this cash cow for the general fund with some creative accounting.


6 people like this
Posted by Socs
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 23, 2015 at 1:45 pm

Another City Manager appointed committee? Surely, that's insanity, we saw what he did with the Update Comp Plan CAC.

Have the developers put funds into the storm drain fund. It's all a high risk high gain game. You want to build and get rich here in Palo Alto, pay up.

Vote NO, if this comes up on the 2016 ballot. NO!


3 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 23, 2015 at 1:48 pm

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

Stop the sweet talk. It's not may. It will happen. You can bet on it. We're just trying to be softened up to the idea.


2 people like this
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Sep 23, 2015 at 2:02 pm

> If my recollection is correct, this scheme came about ten years ago when the
> city council and manager found a way to justify this cash cow for the
> general fund with some creative accounting

This transfer of funds from the so-called "Utility" has been going for a very long time--starting in the early days of the City. The first pass-thrus from the Utility to the City's general fund started at least by 1909.


8 people like this
Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 23, 2015 at 2:02 pm

I have lived here 40 years. During this time I have seen only two places that flood. The creek and the underpass on the Oregon Expressway. NOTHING has been done to fix either of these two problems, lots of lip flapping but zippo done. I say not another nickel until these two obvious and dangerous problems are fixed. And if you bury the train you better be able to pump lots of water. We have a management problem here.


2 people like this
Posted by jimmyjoe
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 23, 2015 at 2:23 pm

The City are not good stewards of our money and hasn't been for a long time. No for sure from me.bDua6bD


2 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 23, 2015 at 4:05 pm

How about just renaming the fee for undergrounding the power wires as the Storm Drain Fee? Nothing has come of that fee. Why tack on another one?


4 people like this
Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 23, 2015 at 4:07 pm

SteveU is a registered user.

I have lived here (this time) for 30 years.
Every month I PAY $22.29 Storm Drain TAX. That is $267 a year.
In all that time, my yard has NEVER sourced water to the Storm drains (It has flowed from the Street INTO my yard and made its way back to the street under extremely heavy rain).

We have no gutters or swale on our block... either side. The ONLY input to the storm drain on my side of the block, is on the corner of Campana.
It is time to say DELIVER, NOT KEEP ON TAKEING


2 people like this
Posted by Abitarian
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 23, 2015 at 10:26 pm

It really bothers me that the city wants to do a special mail-only ballot for this item instead of putting it to vote at the regular November 2016 election.

This is a blatant attempt to manipulate the outcome and will waste a large sum of taxpayer funds that could be put to better use.


3 people like this
Posted by Old PA
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 23, 2015 at 11:20 pm

We have storm drains in PA? I hope they don't ask me for more money, because those drains didn't appear to make it to my neighborhood. I still get Lake Emerson in front of my house every time it rains. I guess there is an upside to the drought.

I have to agree with all the people saying they don't know where today's tax revenues go... I move here 6+ years ago and saw frivolous spending (e.g., resurfacing residential roads that simply didn't need it), good emergency response (huge tree limb fell blocking residential road on 4th of July, and was removed within a couple hours), but there has to be more than that...


Like this comment
Posted by Joe Commentor
a resident of another community
on Sep 24, 2015 at 8:19 am

"... not having enough geographic balance and diversity of viewpoints."

So, 'not enough 2%'ers, only 0.1%'ers and not one republican' is that the code sentence above means.


Like this comment
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 24, 2015 at 8:54 am

Have you all been over in the baylands recently? Or gone over to the Post Office and sat at the signals while a mass of dirt delivery trucks is moving up the road? Take a look at the number of trucks on the dirt hills in the baylands pushing dirt around. The amount of huge equipment moving through the baylands must talk to money coming in the door and a lot of equipment moving around.

Then go across 101 and look in the creek - full of vegetation and tree debris.

We are not without resources and equipment right now to spend a week moving trucks through the creeks and cleaning up the silt and vegetation. This is not a R, D, or I issue - it is pure common sense.

If you fail to plan then you plan to fail. All of these issues have been pointed out and discussed for how long now? This is not a new subject - it is an old subject that does got funding that mysteriously gets allocated for other purposes - like salaries and pension issues.


Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 24, 2015 at 9:05 am

This whole situation is proving a point.

We have lost use of Mitchell Park library for two days. For those of us who felt that all we needed was a drop off/pick up desk for books on hold, and this is how we use the library, we have lost that ability. The article doesn't state whether we can return books at Mitchell Park or not, but we certainly are not able to pick up books that are on hold. Will we be fined for not picking them up?????? I have never sat in a chair in the library and the only time I have even gone upstairs was when I needed to talk to a librarian rather than the volunteer sitting at the entrance who was unable to help me.

This crazy situation in a brand new library shows that there is a difference between a book lending service and a community center for all day R & R.


1 person likes this
Posted by drainfee
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Sep 24, 2015 at 9:25 am

Try find another name because I do not see people working on it.


Like this comment
Posted by Eileen S.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 24, 2015 at 11:45 am

Is there a petition that could be circulated and signed that would force the city to place this on the Nov 2016 general election ballot?


5 people like this
Posted by Pete n Repete
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 24, 2015 at 1:40 pm

Haven't we gone through this before, circa 1998, when we allowed a tax for this very thing? And didn't the city leaders promise us that we would not have a repeat of the 1998 floods. With water spewing through the manhole covers like fountains?

Didn't we all pay for things we never received, and aren't we being asked to pay for it again?

This is double taxation, which I believe is illegal.


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

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