It's not easy to get residents excited about storm drains during a prolonged drought, but that's what Palo Alto hopes to do early next year, when it asks property owners to raise fees to pay for new projects and improve maintenance of the existing system.
Under a proposal that the City Council is scheduled to discuss and likely approve next week, property owners will be asked to support raising the storm drain bills to $13.65 per month, up from the current level of about $12.63 per month (the rate is set to go up to $13.03 on July 1). If voters reject the measure, bills would dip to $4.25 in June 2017. That's the same level where they stood before 2005, when voters approved the last increase to the storm drainage bills. That measure is set to "sunset," or expire, prompting talk about new fees.
The City Council has already signaled its support for the ballot measure last October when it directed staff earlier this year to appoint a citizen committee that would help craft the measure and determine which projects would be funded.
Earlier this month, the 10-person committee (its members are Norm Beamer, David Bower, Nancy Clark, Peter Drekmeier, Susan Rosenberg, Bob Wenzlau, Claire Elliott, Stephany McGraw, Hal Mickelson and Richard Whaley) completed its work and issued a recommendation, which calls for a $13.65 fee per "equivalent residential unit" (typically one household, or about 2,500 square feet of impervious surface area). This includes the raising of the "base fee" for storm-drain management from $4.25 to $6.62, a hike that according to staff reflects the true cost of storm water management.
Added to that would be a $7.03 fee for capital improvements aimed at eliminating street flooding, reducing subsoil water saturation and increasing traffic safety during rainstorms, according to a new Public Works report. The capital fee would help fund $27.2 million in projects throughout Palo Alto.
The committee recommended a list of 16 capital projects that would be funded by the rate increase. Six of these involve upgrades near the Adobe Creek in the Palo Verde, Charleston Terrace and East Meadow Circle neighborhoods, as well as by the Baylands, and two would improve drainage on Louis Road in Midtown by increasing capacity and constructing an overflow pipe.
There would also be capacity upgrades on Loma Verde Avenue (between Louis and Sterling Canal); at Fabian Way; on Hamilton Avenue in the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood; at Loma Verde Avenue (between Ross and Louis roads); on Center Drive in Crescent Park; at East Charleston Road in Charleston Terrace and on Emarcadero Road in Leland Manor.
The new projects look to build on the improvements that the city has performed since the 2005 rate increase. That measure funded a new $4.5-million pump station near the flood-prone San Francisquito Creek and new pipelines to increase the drainage capacity on Channing and Lincoln avenues ($4.6 million).
It also paid for improvements to the Matadero pump station on the east end of the city to increase capacity to the station ($3 million); created a new storm-drain system in the Southgate neighborhood ($2 million); extended the storm drain from Clara Drive to the Matadero pump station ($900,000); extended storm-drain outfall from Gailen Avenue and Bibbits Drive to the Adobe pump station ($650,000); and improved storm drainage along southbound Alma Street in the south end of the city ($1.5 million).
According to Public Works, the fee increase is necessary not just for the new projects but for the maintenance of the existing system. The report notes that revenue from the post-sunset rate "will not support current operational costs for storm drain system maintenance and State-mandated storm water quality protection programs and will provide no funding for continuation of a storm drain capital improvement program."
In requesting the new fees, Public Works officials note in the report that much of the city's storm-drainage infrastructure was built in a "poorly coordinated manner as part of multiple individual residential subdivision developments during the high growth years between the mid-1940s and late-1960s."
"Many elements of the existing storm-drain system do not meet the modern design standard of being able to convey the storm runoff from a 10% or 10-year recurrence storm event without street flooding," the report states.
The city plans to ask for the fee hikes through mailed ballots that would be sent to property owners early next year. According to Public Works, the schedule would "ensure that the voting period is outside the distractions of the hectic general election cycle and the holiday season and provides adequate time for a resident-driven outreach and advocacy campaign."