Palo Alto looks to raise fees for storm-drain projects

City Council prepares to approve mail-only ballot for new projects

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."


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27 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 31, 2016 at 3:30 pm

Here we go again. Most of the projects identified in this article were supposed to have been corrected by now. So, where is the money going? Is anyone tracking the total expenditures that the Storm Drain operation has expended over the last thirty years, or so? And what about the money collected from the Storm Drain fees? Is there a spreadsheet maintained by Public Works that tracks all of the costs/revenues of the system? This article does not even ask this sort of question.

Interesting that this proposed spending increase adds an engineer at $115,000, but doesn’t mention the 50% burden that Palo Alto government lavishes on its employees.

About half way through the article, the word “bond” appears. In the previous paragraph there is the mention of $27+M in capital improvements. Interesting that the bond and the size of the bond are disassociated. So, with interest, just how much will this bond cost the taxpayers? Will it be retired in 20 years, 30 years, or more?

Given the low rain fall in Palo Alto, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a gold-plated system seems unnecessary, at times. It is time for an outside audit of the system, in order to see how much protection that expenditures of the previous Storm Drain collections have been. Such an audit would include the work done to date on the San Francisquito Creek, which is the source of most of the water that endangers our town during those rare events with the Creek overflows.

27 people like this
Posted by Life in Palo Alto
a resident of Barron Park
on May 31, 2016 at 5:22 pm

this is the sort of c*@p people in Palo alto have had to put up with for far too long. For the money paid, PA is a poor value when you compare with surrounding cities. The livability value of this town is completely laughable. Can you say "Past its sell-by date"? And yes, that's my for sale sign :)

23 people like this
Posted by Gus L.
a resident of Barron Park
on May 31, 2016 at 7:07 pm

Raise this fee, Raise that fee.. ABAG the population to the extreme..
Next is Parking meters, Pay Toilets and payola for Politicians..
Business Tax, Alarm Tax, Water rate increase, garbage rate increase, Electric rates up up up...

Ever try to get a beat up old camper removed from your neighborhood? They wouldn't allow near Zburgs house, no chance, See any old campers near Job's home? nope..
Charge for this, Charge for That, Palo Alto is where its at...

2 people like this
Posted by Mike
a resident of University South
on Jun 1, 2016 at 6:02 am

"...which calls for a $13.65 fee per "equivalent residential unit" (typically one household, or about 2,500 square feet of impervious surface area)."

Does this mean that large houses will pay more than, say, a condo?

Or is it a flat fee per household?

Like this comment
Posted by Bike Commuter
a resident of Ventura
on Jun 1, 2016 at 8:25 am

I think the fee is flat for all single family parcels regardless of size.
The Equivalent Residency Unit is used for commercial parcels.

We can help reduce storm water by replacing concrete hardscape with permeable pavers, using rain barrels and cisterns. The City has a rebates for these projects.

26 people like this
Posted by PO'd
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 1, 2016 at 8:41 am

This really chaps my hide: this is something that was supposed to have been completed after the floods of 1998. The city PROMISED it would be done ASAP, at that time.

Now they are asking for another rate increase to even start this much belated project. They really have a lot of nerve to even ASK for another increase!

7 people like this
Posted by Jim H
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 1, 2016 at 5:19 pm

Jim H is a registered user.

Please list the items that the last Storm Drain fee was supposed to cover and compare it to the items that were cancelled because the city ran out of funds. If I'm not mistaken 4 of the 7 projects that were promised to us when we voted for the storm drain fund back in 2005, were cancelled by 2007 and never completed or severely limited. I know for a fact that Southgate did NOT get a new storm drain system.

Web Link

So, now they give us a big list of items spread throughout the city to garner city-wide support. The fees will get approved and then, magically, the money will only fund a few of the items. Last time they blamed China and Hurricane Katrina as reasons for increasing costs. What will they blame this time?

Like this comment
Posted by Brian
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jun 1, 2016 at 8:26 pm

Just goes to show that you can't believe much of what you read here. Southgate DID get new storm drains. I bike by them most every day. And watched as they were being built. I have to assume that Jim H knows this and is just trolling, or he is ignorantly saying something that he has no knowledge of. (a little redundant - sorry)

7 people like this
Posted by Jim H
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 2, 2016 at 7:57 am

Jim H is a registered user.

@ Brian - No, Southgate did NOT get new storm drains. What they got was water retention planters and repaved streets. There is one drain in Southgate, and it is at the end of Mariposa. On your next bike ride, please search for the new storm drains. Feel free to contact the city also and ask them where the new storm drains were installed.

8 people like this
Posted by Paul Losch
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 2, 2016 at 11:14 am

There was a bond measure that passed around 10 years ago that was supposed to finance the upgrading of storm drains. It was a sensible measure, Palo Alto storm drains were/are well past their useful lifetime and needed to be improved.

So I am confused why there is a need to put more money into the effort. It may be justified, but until I have a better understanding of how the bond monies have been spent, and why they are not enough to finish the job, I am a skeptic as to why even more funding is needed.

The City has not done a good job of explaining the need for these additional fees and expenditures. Until it does, no additional funds should be allowed to make the improvements that the voters approved in good faith way back when.

8 people like this
Posted by Southgate Resident
a resident of Southgate
on Jun 2, 2016 at 12:16 pm

Paul, That's exactly the problem. Look at the past PA Online articles. The Bond measure was passed and the city ran out of money 2 years later. Jim H. is correct. Southgate did not get what was promised in the Bond Measure. The work they did do her has helped, but we definitely did NOT get new storm drains, as spelled out when we voted. I believe they extended the one catch basin approximately 100 feet, repaved and added planter basins (although these overflow in a heavy rain), but nowhere close to what was proposed.

City should give a realistic list of items they can definitely complete and then have a secondary list of items to complete as funds allow.

One of the biggest complaints I have of the Southgate issue is that when funds ran out, the city didn't then put us at the top of the list when funds become available. They did a quick fix with some leftover funds and called it complete. That would be similar to a homeowner who needs to fix a leaky roof and some broken windows. When they run out of money after fixing the roof, they only have enough to put plywood over the windows. When they come in to some excess funds, instead of fixing the windows, they spend it on painting the den. It makes no sense.

12 people like this
Posted by Mary
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 2, 2016 at 12:28 pm

Sure they ran out of money to do the things they promised to do when we voted in favor of the bond. But on the bright side, they had enough to fully fund the pensions of the people who are promising us that this time they'll get it right!

7 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 2, 2016 at 1:34 pm

[Post removed.]

6 people like this
Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 2, 2016 at 4:24 pm

SteveU is a registered user.

More $ down the drain.

Arbol and Campana are the only 2 storm drain inlets on our side of Los Robles. There are about 4 on the other side, Those are ON the other side of the undergrounded creek. Both our sides suffer with Large puddles and water flow INTO our yards.

CPA should be paying US to take some of the load OFF of the storm drains.

We are not made of MONEY. This non-stop TAX-FEE-RATE Utilities increase needs to STOP. NOW!

6 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 2, 2016 at 5:10 pm

Let me try again.

Vote NO on yet another utility rate increase.

We all have to economize and set spending priorities. Force the city to do the same.

4 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 2, 2016 at 6:30 pm

Don’t actually remember that a bond was issued to pay for storm drain work in the past.

Seems to me that the city started using storm drain fees to pay for salary and benefits of the employees and that drained the fund pretty quickly.

Like this comment
Posted by SavePalo Alto's Groundwater
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 2, 2016 at 9:34 pm

Currently, there are no additional fees for point discharges into the storm drains; the fee is the same if a property owner discharges only rainwater or if they pump water into the storm drains. In calendar year 2015, the total amount of water into the storm drains from point discharges was comparable to the TOTAL amount of water from all streets in Palo Alto, and most of this water came from 14 properties that were dewatering for constructing basements.
Some simple arithmetic:
If a lot with 2,500 square feet of impervious soil drains all of the rainwater to the stormdrains (unlikely for many older houses as the downspouts drain to the soil, not the storm drains), then for 12" (1 foot) of rain, approximately 2,500 cubic feet of water goes into the storm drains.
For a single basement dewatering project, approximately 1,200,000 cubic feet of water is put into the storm drains or nearly the same as 500 homes.
Shouldn't they pay 500 times as much above the "basic" fee? They're using the storm drains.
And, it is possible to build basements without discharging nearly the amount of water by using standard, proven construction practices in areas with high groundwater, such as the Southern US and the Netherlands.

4 people like this
Posted by Garden Gnome
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 3, 2016 at 12:01 pm

Dear Mary of Old Palo Alto, re:

"Sure they ran out of money to do the things they promised to do when we voted in favor of the bond. But on the bright side, they had enough to fully fund the pensions of the people who are promising us that this time they'll get it right!"


Who are all these selfish people asking for services promised but not delivered?

It's our job to ensure that we support pensions for all these valuable government employees.

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

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