With rain storms dowsing long-parched lawns throughout the county and nearly filling up local creeks, the issue of flooding -- especially around the San Francisquito Creek -- has a particular resonance this week. And by a happy coincidence, this Friday is the day when the city is mailing out ballots that ask property owners whether the city should raise its monthly fee for stormwater management from the current level of about $13.03 per month for each residential unit to $13.65.
While the increase, in dollar terms, is relatively modest when compared to recent rate changes in other utilities, the new fee would represent a dramatic shift in how the city manages its stormwater. The fee would create a two-tiered structure, with one component (about $7.48 per month) allocated to building 16 new infrastructure projects throughout the city and another (the remaining $6.17) dedicated to annual maintenance of the sprawling system. The former component would sunset in 2032. The latter would remain in place until the City Council terminates it.
For the city, the mail-only measure comes with a sense of urgency stemming from both the weather forecasts and the vagaries of its existing program. The current stormwater fee, which voters approved in 2005, is scheduled to sunset in June. At that point, the fee would revert to its pre-2005 level of $4.25 and bring in about $2.2 million in revenue to Public Works, which manages the storm drain system. If that happens, the revenues that the city collects from ratepayers "would not support a minimum level of storm drainage service, which would cost approximately $4.3 million per year," a recent Public Works report stated.
"In addition, the pre-2005 level of funding would preclude any further storm-drain capital-improvement projects," the report stated. "If a new ballot measure is not approved, storm drain system operations would need to be significantly curtailed."
If the new fee passes, the city would have about $3.1 million to spend annually on new projects and $3.8 million for "ongoing non-capital expenditures for engineering, maintenance and storm water quality staffing, expenses and permit compliance." The total fee is subject to an annual increase based on inflation or 6 percent, whichever is less.
To get community buy-in, the city last year established a Storm Drain Blue Ribbon Committee consisting of residents from various parts of the city. After meeting for about three months, the committee worked with Public Works staff to craft the measure and to identify a list of projects that would be funded by the renewed fees.
Six of these projects would involve upgrades around Adobe Creek in south Palo Alto and near the Baylands (these include infrastructure upgrades in the Palo Verde, Charleston Terrace and East Meadow Circle neighborhoods). Others would target Louis Road (where an overflow pipe will be constructed), two different segments of Loma Verde Avenue (between Ross and Louis roads; and between Louis and Sterling Canal), Fabian Way, Hamilton Avenue (in the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood), Center Drive, East Charleston Road and Embarcadero Road, in the Leland Manor neighborhood.
So far, the proposed fee increase has generated little controversy or opposition. In October, the council voted unanimously to move ahead with the fee increase, with then-Councilman Greg Schmid calling the stormwater program "an important element in our future."
"In the past, we have used the funds to prepare ourselves any eventuality," Schmid said. "It's important we maintain our infrastructure."
As of the October meeting, the city had received 82 written notices from property owners protesting the increase, according to City Clerk Beth Minor. Bob Wenzlau, a member of the Blue Ribbon Committee and one of the leaders of the campaign in favor of the fee, said some of the negative responses he's been hearing have come from people who have broader concerns about public spending and would use this fee as an opportunity to voice this sentiment.
He emphasized that as part of the stormwater management program, there will be a citizens committee overseeing the program and making sure the money is spent properly.
"I think it's important that folks realize that this is a program that's monitored by citizens so the money is spent really well," Wenzlau told the Weekly. "I'm worried that without that message, it could be come a proxy for people's view about the City of Palo Alto and governance."
Wenzlau also stressed the strong -- but often overlooked -- link between the broad stormwater system and the local projects that residents feel strongly about, whether it's the Pope-Chaucer Bridge or the Newell Bridge. He noted that upgrading the two bridges to make them less vulnerable to flooding would require cooperation with the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, the agency charged with improving flood control in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park.
The task of convincing people to support the measure has gotten a bit easier in the rainy season of recent weeks. As Wenzlau acknowledges, the campaign has been "aided by the gods." Even so, Palo Alto officials aren't taking passage for granted. The 2005 measure passed with 58 percent approval, a decisive margin but hardly a landslide. The city's prior effort to raise fees, in 2000, failed miserably, with just 38 percent of the voters agreeing to higher fees.
The 2005 measure, which raised fees to $10 per month, funded a list of infrastructure projects that included, among other projects, the $4.5-million pump station near the San Francisquito Creek, greater drainage capacity on Channing and Lincoln avenues; improvements to the Matadero pump station; and a new storm drain system in Southgate.
In addition to funding the 13 projects identified by the Storm Drain Blue Ribbon Committee, the new fee will would allow the city to develop "green" stormwater infrastructure that according to the committee's report protect or restore "the natural water cycle by collecting and retaining, and/or treating runoff rather than discharging it directly to storm drains."
For an example, the committee pointed to the recent completed storm drain improvement project in the Southgate neighborhood, which includes bioretention planters (areas landscaped with native plants that filter and treat storm runoff) and permeable crosswalks that allow rain to percolate into the soil beneath them.
"Green storm water infrastructure practices, also referred to as low impact development measures, include preserving natural landscapes and utilizing infiltration planters, rain gardens, tree wells, green roofs, pervious pavement and rainwater harvesting to manage storm water runoff," the Committee's final report states. "These practices help to limit the discharge of pollutants from streets, parking lots, and roofs by infiltrating storm water into soil."
These projects, as well as rebate programs for homeowners who undertake them, would likely be scrapped if the ballot measure fails, Wenzlau said. If that happens, the city will still have to find ways to keep streets from being flooded and it would just have to rely more on its General Fund, which pays for most basic city services (not including utilities).
"What would end up happening is that the council would have to look at how to spread the General Fund money out, which is how some of the other cities do it," Wenzlau said. "In that case, it would be a choice between stormwater and, say, libraries."
The city is planning to mail out all the ballots on Friday, Feb. 24. They would be due back to the City Clerk by April 10. If the measure passes, the fees would take effect on June 1.