News

Editorial: Renew stormwater fee

A wet winter should help with passage of fee to continue important upgrades

The system for moving rainwater from our streets out to the bay only gets our attention when something goes wrong, streets flood and homes are damaged.

Fortunately, those events are rare. But while that may make the average resident disinterested in hearing about the need for repairs and upgrades, it does not make those needs any less important.

Palo Alto property owners acknowledged as much when they approved a fee of approximately $10 per month for residential properties in a 2005 mail-in ballot returned by just over 50 percent of the owners, a remarkable response to a mailed ballot measure. The proposal, which won with 58 percent of the vote, increased a pre-existing $4.25 per month fee and established a sunset provision that rolls back the increase after 12 years. That fee, now $13.03 for an average residential parcel due to annual increases tied to the Consumer Price Index, will expire this June and will decrease to $4.25 unless a majority of property owners approves a new replacement fee now being pitched by the City of Palo Alto and a citizens committee.

All property owners should have received their ballots in the mail over the past week and must return them by April 11 to be counted. If a simple majority of ballots returned approves, the monthly fee for the average-sized single family residential parcel will increase to $13.65 and continue for the next 15 years. Residential parcels greater than 11,000 square feet will pay $19.11 per month, and small parcels under 6,000 square feet will pay $10.92. Like the expiring fee structure, the fee will rise each year by the increase in the Bay Area CPI (with a 6 percent cap).

Commercial and multi-unit properties pay a rate based on the actual amount of impervious lot coverage.

Simply put, if voters turn down the fee increase, then the current fee being charged will drop to $4.25 per month for most residential properties; if it passes the fee will rise to $13.65.

A drop to $4.25 would generate about $2.2 million annually, an amount that the city says will be insufficient to carry out significant needed upgrades.

If the measure is passed, 13 projects described in the proposal will be completed over the next 15 years. These primarily involve capacity upgrades to storm drain pipes at locations east of Middlefield Road that are prone to street flooding due to the storm drain system being unable to handle rain run-off in severe storms.

The stormwater system and this funding mechanism are not directly related to current work to improve creek flows and capacity. These projects, which are now underway in the Baylands and will progress up San Francisquito Creek (including replacement of the Newell Street and Chaucer Street bridges) are being undertaken through a multi-city agency and the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

The stormwater fee only supports projects that maintain and upgrade the pipes and pumps that move water from street storm drains to each of the creeks that flow to the bay, as well as innovative methods of diverting run-off into special "bioretention planters" such as those that have been installed in the Southgate neighborhood. These reduce run-off and relieve pressure on the storm-drain system.

There is no organized opposition to the fee increase and no one is arguing that the work to be funded by this fee is not needed. Instead, opponents object to the use of a special fee on property owners as the source of funding. Most cities with far fewer financial resources than the City of Palo Alto operate and, in theory, maintain their storm-drain system entirely through their General Fund budget using regular tax revenues.

The problem with that approach is that it leads to many, if not most, cities neglecting these infrastructure needs and putting property owners at risk.

By contrast, Palo Alto and a growing number of other cities have taken a more proactive approach by creating a guaranteed and protected funding source that can only be spent to complete identified stormwater infrastructure improvements.

We believe the funds raised by the fees collected over the last 12 years have been responsibly spent and have delivered as promised in the 2005 measure. All but one of the seven major projects proposed in the 2005 election have been completed and the last one will be done shortly.

And while we have never liked the funding tactic of creating enterprise funds such as this one and removing these costs from the General Fund, the needed improvements would probably have never been completed otherwise.

This is not an onerous fee to improve the stormwater system and to reduce flooding risk, and it is appropriately borne by property owners. We urge owners to return their ballots in support of continuing this fee and ensuring the completion of needed improvements over the next 15 years.

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Comments

7 people like this
Posted by yeah, no
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 3, 2017 at 8:52 am

Been waiting now nearly 20 years to fix Chaucer. No more fees until they sort out the flooding issue they've been putting off for nearly two decades.


8 people like this
Posted by Judith
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Mar 3, 2017 at 11:30 am

Dear yeah, no -

You completely misunderstand the situation. The Chaucer bridge and the creek flooding have nothing to do with the storm water system. That money comes from elsewhere.

The Chaucer bridge will be fixed as the project moves upstream, because - if they fix the bridge, the water will flood other places downstream. That is why they start at the bottom, making space for the extra water that will come when the upstream places are fixed.

Please vote yes, or things will only get worse.

Thank you.


10 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 3, 2017 at 11:44 am

"That money will come from elsewhere."

Yes, let the city find the money elsewhere since it wastes so much money on unwanted and ridiculously expensive projects. They're years behind on fixing storm drains for which money was allocated in my neighborhood they were supposed even though they've had crews working on our street every few months and it would have been cost-effective to fix them at the same time.

The city has no clue what "cost-effective" means and continues to throw our money away WHILE running deficits. I could list all the projects on which the city wastes money and taxpayers' time but you all know them and have been reading about them for years if not decades.

Vote no to send a message.


3 people like this
Posted by yeah, no
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 3, 2017 at 1:02 pm

Judith,

No, you misunderstand. Updating storm water drains poring more water into a creek that is already floods is a recipe for disaster. They've had two decades and done nothing. No more money to poor more water into a creek that can't handle it until they sort out the flooding.

Two decades. There is only upside to voting "NO" to this.


2 people like this
Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 3, 2017 at 1:06 pm

Yeah but we need to save our groundwater! Pipe it right into the ground! The science says so!


13 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 3, 2017 at 1:39 pm

According to the ballot materials, of the $4+M in new fees generated, about $1.1M is for "administrative support"--about 25% of the new money. There is nothing in the ballot materials which explains what "administrative support" is, or why so much of this new money is not going directly into the ground, where the storm drains are located.

Someone is not being very honest about what's going on here.


12 people like this
Posted by Mary
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 3, 2017 at 2:06 pm

"Someone is not being very honest about what's going on here."

And we're supposed to be surprised by that? The unfortunate fact is that the City (along with most California local government) needs all the money it can raise - by scam or otherwise - to pay for the unfunded pensions of the tsunami of bureaucratic retirements in the coming years. And that's why the city has so many "fees" to cover items that once were paid for out of the usual annual budgeting process. And it's also why these "fees" contain so many mysterious fund reservations like "administrative expenses". No matter what else happens, you can be sure that we'll seeing an endless stream of this kind of bureaucratic flim-flam in coming years as the bills for profligate pension grants to union municipal workers come due.


5 people like this
Posted by Bob Wenzlau
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 3, 2017 at 3:43 pm

Bob Wenzlau is a registered user.

There has been an extensive discussion of this measure at with many of the challenging questions addressed:

Web Link

Our Campaign for Palo Alto Stormwater is a citizen committee that grew out of the Blue Ribbon committee the City formed to review our stormwater infrastructure and develop a budget and structure to the current assessment. While staff provided support, this was a group of citizens. Some carried an environmental issue, some a fiscal issue and others an infrastructure issue.

Again, there is spirit toward voting no for this measure a a broad proxy on our City. My voice would be to vote YES as a proxy on an infrastructure that has worked (the streets do not flood), and will continue to work (the streets should continue to stay dry).

The questions of Administrative support were chatted in an earlier article. There is direct and indirect administrative support. The direct support is for the engineering, compliance and maintenance services. The indirect is an overhead charge that supports legal, building etc. Of course no one likes the indirect charge, but this is often a feature of life where the enterprise recoups some overhead.

I disagree with Yeah No of course. While I too have suffered from the pace, I see that a plan now is place, infrastructure has been built and is being extended upstream. All the funding is in place, and for the most part we must participate in the EIR processes, but equally not stymie these improvements.

To those that would say the "science says no" on "piping groundwater into the ground" that is not the tactic taken in this measure. One tactic is to allow some storage of the rainwater, and the other is to allow for gradual infiltration.

I am confused by Online's rhetorical statement about lack of progress. The largest conduits of the stormwater management system have either already been expanded, or will be completed in this next phase. We will have completed what we judge as "high priority" where greater than a foot of standing water accumulates. There are some places where the grading of the streets, and less the storm drains hamper progress -- this is part of what can happen on crossing Middlefield. While very important if you live on that intersection (such as Lowell), the collection system is working.

I am confident in our win, but equally count on each property owner getting their ballot back quickly!


7 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 3, 2017 at 3:59 pm

Over the next 15 years, this new fee will generate over $60M new dollars. Has anyone actually laid out $60M of work to be done (well, actually about $45M given the 25% cost of "administration"?

Got to wonder how many people living here in Palo Alto today will be living here when this new "fee" expires? It probably would be better to lay out these sorts of programs in ten-year segments, rather than longer ones.


9 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 3, 2017 at 4:06 pm

Bob, I do thank you for your efforts but the storm drains at Lake Lowell at Middlefield are NOT working.

You yourself were nice enough to check with the city and reported back that the repairs were scheduled for THIS summer, more than 2 years after the storm drain repairs on Middlefield presumably took place. I provided you with the dates of the communications with the city, March 2015, since the city had evidently lost / couldn't find the records of the complaints.

Lake Lowell is both wide and deep and turns into a river rapidly running down Middlefield during rainstorms.

What you're seeing/hearing here is the spillover frustration from residents/ taxpayers on a myriad of issues. Again, it would seem that the PA Utilities has more than enough money to keep advertising its composting program and to subsidize the general fund through constant rate hikes.

Re the special election, there was a recent article estimatjng the cost of the special ballot on whether to change the school names at close to $1,000,000. Why couldn't they combine to 2 special ballots to save us some money? $1,000,000 would pay for a lot of storm drains!


9 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 3, 2017 at 4:15 pm

A friend of mine rents a place in Palo Alto. He told me that he has received three ballots for three different people in the mail. As a renter, he should not be voting on this matter, but he received a ballot.

It would be interesting to review the list of addresses to see how many invalid ballots have been issued by the City Clerk's office. One might wonder why the City Clerk did not clean up the voter list prior to issuing the ballots.


Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 3, 2017 at 4:30 pm

@Online-Name:

This storm drain fee "election" is run by the City of Palo Alto, not the County Registrar of Voters. The cost of this election is very inexpensive, compared to the bloat that is interjected into elections by all of the State laws that encumber the most electoral processes.


8 people like this
Posted by ballot question
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 3, 2017 at 4:35 pm

I thought it odd that we needed to give our name and address on the ballot, itself. I thought that votes in elections were typically considered private. Are residents who favor the fee the only ones who need to pay it?


3 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 3, 2017 at 5:53 pm

Joe, I always assumed the storm drain election was run by the city; that's why I'm objecting to the extra cost. The could combine it with the $1,000,000 school name ballot.


20 people like this
Posted by margaret heath
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Mar 3, 2017 at 5:54 pm

margaret heath is a registered user.

Given that the city of Palo Alto transfers at least $18 million a year from our Utilities bills to the city's General Fund, then pours millions into projects that should have a much lower priority than basic infrastructure, I find the city's argument for this tax is unpersuasive.


2 people like this
Posted by ChrisC
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 3, 2017 at 6:43 pm

I've not seen a ballot in my mail. What did it look like?


Like this comment
Posted by Paly Grad
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Mar 3, 2017 at 7:20 pm

ChrisC,

The ballot arrives in a 9" x 12" white envelope.


Like this comment
Posted by ChrisC
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 3, 2017 at 7:27 pm

Thanks. I just looked through my junk mail pile, and it is not there. I guess I didn't get this one. :-|


2 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 4, 2017 at 1:10 am

The "Consternation over post office" thread does not bode well for ballot-by-mail.


4 people like this
Posted by Name. with vote?
a resident of Triple El
on Mar 4, 2017 at 7:53 am

I also wondered if a vote that requires a name associated with it is a legal vote.

I've always assumed the right to private voting to prevent targeted actions that influence voters, or the risk or threats that can arise when voters' names are associated with votes.

Are votes such as these, where a name is on every vote, legitimate?


3 people like this
Posted by Bob Wenzlau
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 4, 2017 at 7:55 am

Bob Wenzlau is a registered user.

Online Name, Please sent your photo documentation to the Mike Sator, Director of Public Works. They have asked for the photo documentation you have collected. If you want, drop me a copy at bob@wenzlau.net. (I have no special status, but obviously have worked hard to represent these stormwater topics, and as such have come to know the city's strong engineering team.)

Online, there is a citizen oversight committee for stormwater also allows a separate venue to vet these needs. I do appreciate that it is hard to get any project to a threshold of improvement, and I have plenty of fixes that seem to get lost inside city hall.

Actually, if the measure losses as you have promoted, the focused citizen oversight would be likely disbanded, the capacity to focus on your drainage needs gone, and you would likely enjoy your occasional pool for eternity -- you get what you vote.

I also smiled at those who mused that the City is messed up because they don't even know where to send the ballots. Yeah, our city again, just can't get it right. However, the County maintains the tax roll that the City relies upon for mailing the ballots. Oops, but do facts really matter.

Another day of rain ... another day of work for the storm drains!


5 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 4, 2017 at 9:12 am

Bob, it is not my job to do the work of the Dept. of Public Works and that's my point about the city's lack of responsiveness and accountability.

I've given you the dates of the communications twice (3/21-3/31/15). I just checked my email files again and see it's referred to internally as Water Main Replacement Project 25.

Granted, the city's lack of responsiveness to citizen complaints /concerns is a hot button issue. How many years did the Transportation Dept ignore pleas to synchronize the Town & Country traffic light? 8? How many years have we had to deal with bogus traffic studies and fight the same battles over and over again? while the city wastes money on bogus 3D models based on faulty data?


10 people like this
Posted by Justin
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Mar 5, 2017 at 11:17 am

I voted no. Much of the new proposed fee appears to basically be a new unspecified revenue stream for the city. Perhaps similar to the tens of millions of excess garbage & utility fees that the city periodically 'discovers', and then squanders on some conveniently revived useless pet projects. Additionally, the city appears to not have a revenue problem, but rather a spending problem. Any new revenue is pretty much handed out as raises, and then the wailing of 'we are so poor we can't do anything' starts that cycle over again. Most recently, the city is planning to spend $1M on a well documented failed bike rental program. Why? I must assume to pad some city staffers resume and to add a very expensive 'green' point to the city web site. If the city can afford to literally throw away a million dollars, I am not inclined to approve any new or higher taxes.


2 people like this
Posted by Cynic
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Mar 12, 2017 at 12:22 am

I don't see answers from Bob Wenslau about why are the voters names are on the ballots. I thought it is a citizen's right to vote anonymously.

BTW, someone asked why's that renters get to vote too. Renters got it pretty good, they vote on how much subsidies they get essentially. Property owners are forced to pay for more and more to maintain and update infrastructure and city services. The percentage of renters here in Palo Alto are now are at about 44% but growing. All of you property owners will be subsiding the renters great quality of life as the property owners go downward. Whoppee, right?


4 people like this
Posted by Retiree
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 18, 2017 at 11:17 pm

I am very conflicted about this. I really like the city to implement their drainage projects. However, the administrative fee scares me. I am afraid that if this passes, the city will hire a bunch of people and we are stuck with them for the rest of their lives (and our lives) to pay for their unfunded pensions. The government employees now get salaries that are better than average private sector jobs. On the top of that, they have an amazing retirement plan unlike some of us that after working for 40 years will have to support ourselves by social security and 401k plans. So, I would probably vote No for this ballot and hope that the city can find money from the general fund.


Like this comment
Posted by Stephen
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 19, 2017 at 8:28 pm

To Cynic: You realize that the costs of property taxes paid by the owner are passed on to renters as part of what makes up the rent, right? So renters are not getting a free ride in this case - i.e., they are likely to be the ones paying the property taxes on a rental property, albeit indirectly.


2 people like this
Posted by Bill
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 23, 2017 at 7:41 pm

Hey, look at the Council agenda for April 3, 2017!

The City Manager is seeking approval to submit 85 YES votes in favor of the stormwater fee for city owned parcels.

Web Link


2 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 23, 2017 at 10:09 pm

Why does the City get 85 votes?? Absurd. The vote must have come back really really close for the city to dream this one up!

At most, the city should get ONE vote, not 85, but why does the city get to vote at all when it's voting on siphoning more money into its coffers for its out-of-control spending, absurd salaries and enviable benefits packages!

The system is so rigged to do everything they can to soak the residents. Whatever happened to delivering cost-effective service, not enriching the city coffers and retirement funds?


2 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 23, 2017 at 10:52 pm

Hey, if the City is paying stormwater fees on 85 parcels, then it should get 85 votes.
Oh, wait a minute...


2 people like this
Posted by Zayda
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 24, 2017 at 1:06 am

@Cynic and others
I too tried to get answers about why the ballots are 'identified'. The response I got was conflicted and confusing and raised some interesting questions.
Web Link


2 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 24, 2017 at 10:16 am

I've got a well-built detached garage. Do I get 2 votes? If you've got a separate shed or playhouse, do you get another vote?


Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 24, 2017 at 12:26 pm

I think it's by parcel number. E.g. APN 120-27-011 (City Hall). You'd need to subdivide.


1 person likes this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 24, 2017 at 12:49 pm

I was being sarcastic. Hard to believe, I know. But seriously, why does the city get 85 votes? Or any votes?


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

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