Normally out of sight and out of mind, Palo Alto's storm drains will be in the public spotlight in fall 2016 as part of a special election that the City Council agreed to pursue Monday night.
The council voted 8-0, with Pat Burt absent, to support a recommendation from Public Works staff to bring a measure to the city's property owners that will help pay for maintenance and upgrades to the city's storm-drain system.
If voters approve the measure, rates would likely stay somewhere around the current level of about $12.63 a month. If they don't, rates would drop to $4.25 per month, the rate that was in effect in 2005, when voters last approved a storm-drain tax increase. The increase authorized by the 2005 measure is set to expire in 2017, prompting the city to seek a renewal. The 2016 vote would take place through a mail-only election and would only apply to property owners.
Public Works staff stated in a report that "it is critical to begin planning now for the development and placement before property owners of a new measure authorizing updated storm drainage fees."
"Unless a new ballot measure is approved, storm drain maintenance operations will be curtailed and necessary capital improvements will not be made," the report states.
As part of its vote, the council also agreed Monday to appoint a citizen advisory committee that would review the list of projects that would be funded by the tax and help set the new rate before the measure is sent to the voters. This is similar to the process that the council used in 2005, when 58 percent of the voters approved the measure. Monday's discussion was quick and the debate nonexistent. Everyone agreed that storm-drain improvements should be funded.
"It's obviously something we should do and I'm glad we're moving forward on it," said Councilman Greg Scharff, who made the motion to support the staff proposal.
So far, the proposal to renew and possibly raise storm-drain fees hasn't ruffled too many feathers. Not a single member of the public spoke out against it on Monday night. The only public speaker was Hal Mickelson, who sits on the current Storm Drain Oversight Committee and who urged the council to go ahead with the election.
"Infrastructure is not pizzazzy," Mickelson said.
"You're not likely to get a room full of people waiving attractively made signs saying, 'We demand more support for storm-drain infrastructure needs for our city!'" he added, alluding to the just-concluded, well-attended discussion of a proposed Avenidas expansion.
But the infrastructure is nevertheless critical to prevent disaster and warrants investment, he said.
"In order to make sure the storm-drain system continues to meet the city's needs, we have to be able to keep on spending at the level of the $12.63 assessment that is going to sunset in 2017, unless this council chooses to do something about it," Mickelson said. "The city needs to think and act to maintain and enhance appropriate funding for reliable storm-drain systems."