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.