Palo Alto to poll for November tax measure

City approves survey to measure residents' interest in infrastructure projects

As rising construction costs continue to imperil Palo Alto's infrastructure plans, city officials are preparing to ask the voters for help.

The city is considering putting a tax measure on the November ballot as part of a strategy to close the $56 million gap in the council's infrastructure plan. The list of projects in the plan includes a new police building, two rebuilt fire stations, a bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101, completion of the Charleston-Arastradero streetscape project and various improvements at Byxbee Park.

On Tuesday night, the City Council took a tentative step toward a November ballot measure when its Finance Committee supported moving ahead with a poll to gauge the public's interest. The poll will be conducted by the firm FM3 Research, which had also performed survey work for the city in 2014, when voters passed a hotel-tax increase to pay for infrastructure.

Since that election, the estimated price tag for the projects had risen from $136.6 million to $235 million, according to Public Works staff. The most expensive project on the list -- the new public-safety building -- now has an estimated price tag of $91 million, up from $57 million in 2014.

At the same time, new needs have emerged. Palo Alto is looking for funds to build a new animal shelter (estimated price tag: $10 million and $15 million), assist with construction of the new Junior Museum and Zoo ($5 million) and implement the priority projects in its newly adopted Parks Master Plan (between $40 million and $55 million).

The poll will target a random sample of 600 likely voters and will rely on landlines, cell phones and email, David Metz of FM3 told the committee Tuesday. In addition to asking about about infrastructure projects and potential taxes, it will also ask about respondents' general feelings about local government and quality of life.

The main question that the council is looking to answer is: What type of tax, if any, should go on the ballot? Councilman Greg Scharff, who chairs the Finance Committee, said he would like to see another increase in the hotel-tax rate. In 2014, he supported raising the rate from 12 percent to 15 percent, though the majority ultimately went ahead with 14 percent. On Tuesday, he said he would like to poll residents on raising that additional 1 percent to pay for the gap in the 2014 plan.

If the city's hotel tax (also known as transient-occupancy tax) goes from 14 percent to 15 percent, it would be tied with Anaheim for highest in the state, according to a report from the Administrative Services Department.

"I believe we should move forward and poll for TOT (transient-occupancy tax), at which point we can fund all projects on infrastructure plan and not cut any of them and keep our promises to the voters that we made when we went to the public and asked them for that," Scharff said.

As for the parks improvements, Scharff proposed a quarter cent sales tax increase. That way, the cost of park improvements will be shared by businesses and residents.

Some, including Councilman Tom DuBois, say that city should explore a business tax -- an idea that voters considered and rejected in 2009 as a strategy to pay for the new police building. DuBois, who is not on the Finance Committee, said at the end of Monday's council meeting that he would like to see the poll consider grade separation (the separation of tracks from streets at the city's four rail crossings) and to poll for a business tax as part of the funding strategy for the project.

But Scharff argued that doing so at this time would be premature. Palo Alto is moving ahead with a plan to select its grade-separation alternative by the end of the year. The city should first select its preferred option and get a sense of its cost before going to the voters for help. He agreed that a business tax may be an appropriate way to pay for grade separations. That conversation, however, is more appropriate for 2020 or 2022, he said.

For most of the residents who urged the council to stay the course on its earlier infrastructure promises. Several of them spoke in favor of completing the hardscape improvements on Charleston-Arastradeo, a phased project that has been in the works for more than a decade.

Paul Goldstein, a longtime member of the Palo Alto Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee, acknowledged that all of the projects on the council's 2014 list remain important. But they should not, he said, come at the expense of bicycle and pedestrian improvements.

"It would be demoralizing and it would undermine faith in our processes, including our Comprehensive Plan process, for the council to go back on its promises to complete these projects," Goldstein said.

Ann Pianetta, a member at Friends of Palo Alto Animal Shelter board of directors, urged the council to support a new animal shelter, which under the current plan would be operated by the city's nonprofit partner, Pets In Need. The city and the nonprofit are now exploring how much they can raise from private funds for the new facility, though the city will likely need to make a contribution to the project as well.

Pianetta urged the council to include the animal shelter on its list of needed improvements.

"Surely, the care of animals is higher on this list of improvement than parking lots," Ann Pianetta said.


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86 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 21, 2018 at 9:15 am

If the Ross Road obstacle course is an indicator of how the PA CC spends the money they raise from our taxes, then it proves to me they have too much money already.

They could have saved themselves approximately $8M which could have gone to a bike bridge, or something more useful.

I just don't know how they can ask for more money with straight faces. It is a joke, right?

8 people like this
Posted by Bill Bucy
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 21, 2018 at 9:43 am

Bill Bucy is a registered user.

Any additional taxes (except, perhaps, a hike in the TOT) will be paid by residents and consumers. That and the inevitability of rising construction costs makes it is essential for the council to carefully prioritize projects. Parks, museums and bikes are hallmarks of our way of life in Palo Alto. But none of those will mean much if an effective public safety system is out of service during a natural disaster because of inadequate or unsafe facilities.

23 people like this
Posted by HUTCH 7.62
a resident of Portola Valley
on Mar 21, 2018 at 9:43 am

Bad enough Jerry raised the taxes and squanders our money on social programs and pet project. Now Palo Alto (who spends money water) also wants to get in [Portion removed.]

58 people like this
Posted by Joseph E. Davis
a resident of Woodside
on Mar 21, 2018 at 10:04 am

Is Palo Alto still giving out unaffordable defined benefit pensions?

30 people like this
Posted by Commercial Owner
a resident of University South
on Mar 21, 2018 at 10:26 am

Any further increase in sales tax in the city of Palo Alto will simply result in further loss of retail sales in the city and cancel out any benefit of such an increase. Furthermore, retailers in Palo Alto and other communities are already struggling to complete with the likes of Amazon, so this further burden will simply cause more retailers to decide to close.

63 people like this
Posted by PA Cyclist
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 21, 2018 at 10:27 am

What's imperiling Palo Alto's infrastructure plans is stupidity and squandering money on things like the Ross Road obstacle course, as it's been called here. When we need a parking garage on Cal Ave and train over/underpasses, you choose to spend money on a non-problem like the "treacherous" Ross Road? I won't be voting to increase your budget, nor will I be voting for any city council members who approved Ross Road and voted against the Cal Ave parking garage.

30 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 21, 2018 at 10:33 am

"I know not what course others may take, but ...." I always vote NO on sales tax, no matter what it is for. The most regressive tax, the most subject to fraud, the most unevenly collected which creates an unfair penalty for honest brick-and-mortar merchants. Any other tax option would be better.

Part II: We are in a huge construction boom right now == higher costs. Let's make sure the projects are "shovel ready", and, during the next construction bust, then get the bids. Then start the projects. Costs lower, more employment will be welcome. It is just crazy to jump into the construction market right now.

48 people like this
Posted by Tom DuBois
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 21, 2018 at 10:42 am

Tom DuBois is a registered user.

Here is what I said Monday night at the council meeting

"Discussion of tax measures should come to entire Council ASAP for policy direction.

The Finance committee alone should not be determining overall council direction on what policy areas are polled. I believe Transportation funding, and in particular grade separations, which is OUR LARGEST infrastructure project need to be included in polling. This is much higher priority for me than other items mentioned as potential considerations in the Finance agenda for tomorrow night such as the Jr Museum and Zoo’s treehouse Phase 2, Parks master plan, etc.

We also need to poll for a business tax. There’s a lot more data available now evaluating similar taxes in places like San Francisco. The Finance Report is strangely missing this option. I need more info but based on what I know at this moment, I would support a business tax over a Park bond measure or a new TOT or a proposed Sugar Tax - yet we have had no discussion about it. Polling without input from entire Council may lead to a direction that the Council doesn’t support.

We also need to factor in what the school district may do and that should be included in polling."

To expand slightly on those public comments, transportation issues have come out year after year in our citizen surveys as a top priority item - I believe we should find ways to fund projects to improve vehicle flow in town and alleviate congestion that include funding from those commuting into Palo Alto. Not just a tax on residents or property owners. While we haven't defined the precise plan for grade separations yet, we know it will take 20 years to construct and be costly. I believe the prudent course is to start a transportation fund now, and not commit other sources of funding to potentially lower priority projects at this time, without a discussion of the full council.

22 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 21, 2018 at 10:46 am

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

I'm just curious how polls like this one are conducted. How many people are polled? Renters and owners? Evenly distributed to cover all neighborhoods, thus, hopefully catching all income levels? Are people picked at random? How will the questions be phrased?

I have never been polled like this but would like to be on this one.

50 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 21, 2018 at 10:56 am

Online Name is a registered user.

Just say no and stop wasting money on bike lane "improvements" like Ross and just this week, planting new road poles at just about every Middlefield intersection that didn't already have them. Now I've got to go blocks out of my way to head south.

Please send ME a survey. I'm also confused about the survey because it was just reported as coming in a few months, not already out.

Also, when is the city going to respond to the 740 signatories to the Ross Road petition? Mr. Mello had time to plan to address a Palo Alto Forward "bike salon" tomorrow -- plan he cancelled as soon as word slipped out about the salon and he decided to send a "consultant" instead.

35 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 21, 2018 at 11:03 am

Online Name is a registered user.

@Tom Dubois, thanks for being here and your response. Re plans to alleviate congestion, I invite you to come over to my house so you can see the hazards wrought by the recent striping of Middlefield. Standing in my upstairs bathroom, you can see cars barreling up the wrong lane to get into the left turn lane rather now that there's a 1:3 lane split. You can see cars backing up INTO Embarcadero behind the bus stop that's only 3 car lengths from the intersection right where the road NOW narrows into one lane.

We're expected to spend more money for "improvements" like that when we can't even get a hearing on CURRENT problems?

43 people like this
Posted by Sonja
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 21, 2018 at 11:08 am

The only attractive project in this sory, to me, is a new animal shelter - but after the destruction of the peaceful Ross road (and remember the Mitchel Park Library? I still miss the open-feeling of the old library) I cannot trust the City to do anything right or at cost. Amazingly, the Ross road project has not been stopped, and will infect additional roads and neighborhoods.

33 people like this
Posted by how are developers taxed
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 21, 2018 at 11:08 am

Given so many of our infrastructure needs come from the ballooning of our daily worker population, can someone inform as to how much developers and commercial properties are taxed? They stand to make a tidy profit off all the new office buildings. Is that a naive question?

I also like the Shovel-ready idea to get bids during the next downturn in the economy. Everyone knows construction costs are outrageously high right now.

46 people like this
Posted by uphill
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 21, 2018 at 11:10 am

With the new tax bill limiting SALT deductions to $10K, getting residents to approve any new local taxes on themselves is likely to be an uphill battle.

27 people like this
Posted by Commonsense
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 21, 2018 at 11:17 am

Here is an idea no !

17 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 21, 2018 at 11:22 am

Let me get this straight - let's pick our approach to grade separation before we know the budget? Would you design a remodel without setting a budget first?

31 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 21, 2018 at 11:29 am

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

@PA Cyclist

Thanks for your comment. I hope CC is getting the message that not even cyclists are happy with their very own boulevard. I went through the circle early, before school kids, to go to Bill's for breakfast. I watched a big long bus go through it. Very interesting! He drove up a little bit on the circle skirt curb. Just for fun let's poll those bus drivers, or better yet interview them to get their take on it. The interviewer better have their finger close to the 'bleep' button!

33 people like this
Posted by Just say NO!
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 21, 2018 at 11:36 am

Whose to blame that the cost of the projects has escalated so much since 2014? It is partially due to inactivity of the city, I would like to know what progress has been made on the projects that were part of the 2014 since that time. I have no faith our city / council can execute on these projects in a timely enough fashion to prevent even further cost escalation due to time passed.

The bike bridge over 101 is the perfect example. If they had just built a simple, utilitarian bridge maybe it would be done by now and the cost would not have escalated. Instead they had to do the whole design competition and we have very little progress towards a bridge.

I don't care who will foot the bill I will vote no on giving any more funds to a city that cannot live within its means.

31 people like this
Posted by Carl
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 21, 2018 at 11:38 am

If a 1% increase in the TOT will cover the infrastructure needs, I wonder what the current 14% tax is being used for. Before we I vote for new taxes I’d like some accountability for the additional taxes already being collected every day. Spending is easy, accountability and focus is more difficult.

16 people like this
Posted by allen
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 21, 2018 at 11:45 am

How about this: Just save the money and wait for the next recession. Then when all the construction workers are out of work, do our projects. I know there will be calls then that government should tighten its belt when the public is tightening their belts but this is just the most stupid thing I can imagine. Governments should be spending for their projects when the economy is slack and not now when it is booming and we have to compete for scarce resources. Or, we could get a time machine and go back to 2008 when the city put projects on hold because of the recession and undo those decisions...

15 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 21, 2018 at 11:53 am

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

Tom DuBois is a clear thinker. Since transportation wins in surveys as the priority issue, then that's what we should focus on. I think he also hit on another good point. Since grade separation won't happen in many of our lifetimes and since the true costs and funding aren't defined yet, people want things they and their kids can enjoy now...parks, zoos, and museums. That's just natural, but he is thinking beyond those things that give us pleasure and satisfaction now. His long range plan to set up a transportation fund is an excellent idea.

52 people like this
Posted by Bike to Work Guy
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 21, 2018 at 11:56 am

Ross Road.

Unmitigated disaster for those who bike every day.

I have been run off the road onto the sidewalk on 4 occasions over past 3 weeks.

Cars and Bikes SHOULD NOT MIX.

A separate lane for bikes would have been much less expensive and SAFER.

To keep this project moving forward has convinced me to vote AGAINST every single member of the current CC who run for election.

Its a Palo Alto thing to assemble 10 loud people and assume that the easiest way out is to agree. It has failed us again and again:

J&J Market Replacement Development (GOD AWFUL UGLY)
Alma Center (pocket parks never work)
The list goes on and on!


END THE DESTRUCTION OF ROSS ROAD NOW...before it costs us more money to return to a useful street.

35 people like this
Posted by E. Preston
a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Mar 21, 2018 at 12:21 pm

Well, they've ruined Ross Rd. and now our brilliant traffic engineers are after Charleston/Arastradero... to further constrict this thru route with "beautification" no less. Could there be more fun than being stuck behind a long string of cars from El Camino to tracks and then thru to San Antonio; then the other way from Middlefield to tracks, with the extra added 3 light wait when the train comes depending on commute hours. This route requires even more waiting trying to turn into the neighborhoods. But maybe it will be as exciting--and "attractive"--as Ross Road. And how much does this cost?
Oh, more taxes, so no problem. As long as they don't cut into the city employees salaries and benefits, all will be well.

13 people like this
Posted by HUTCH 7.62
a resident of Portola Valley
on Mar 21, 2018 at 1:03 pm

And to think you guys were voted 6th best place to live in M’erica.

Web Link

Glad I left when I did

21 people like this
Posted by Novelera
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 21, 2018 at 2:19 pm

Novelera is a registered user.

I work for a construction company. We work all up and down the peninsula, in San Francisco, and in the East Bay. For every single project we are awarded, I have to get a business license, which involves paying these entities anywhere from $50 to $200 per year. Since we are a subcontractor, we pay less than General Contractors, but we still pay.

I have wondered for years why Palo Alto is the only town in which we do business that a business license fee is not required.

Are residents of Palo Alto the ones who do all the paying instead of business entities?

5 people like this
Posted by chris
a resident of University South
on Mar 21, 2018 at 3:38 pm

Forget your pipedreams of undergrounding the train.

These Palo Alto people are going to beat to a pulp the issue of funding these simple infrastructure improvements.

The money for less expensive grade crossings will be hard enough to come buy.

24 people like this
Posted by Concerned Observer
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 21, 2018 at 5:05 pm

Concerned Observer is a registered user.

Survey Questions......Should we vote out every city council member come next election because of their incompetence and unwillingness to listen to what taxpayers want?

Should the city manager be terminated?

More taxes aren't going to solve our problems. Heck, we're still waiting for underground utilities that were promised decades ago.

39 people like this
Posted by Abitarian
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 21, 2018 at 6:21 pm

I am sick and tired of this city imposing regressive taxes on citizens in order to pay for the damage inflicted on us by office developers and large tech firms.

Remember back in December 2016 when the City Council voted to raise development fees for office buildings to $60 per square foot and just three months later, the newly sworn-in uber-growth contingent (Adrian Fine, Cory Wolbach, Greg Scharff, Greg Tanaka, and Liz Kniss) voted to reduce the rate to $35 per square foot? See Web Link

There is simply no justification for asking the people to pay more when these highly profitable culprits are not paying their fair share, and not by a long shot.

Something is seriously wrong at City Hall. We are among the most wealthy cities in the world, yet our local government is completely incapable of providing the most basic infrastructure, law enforcement, services etc.

17 people like this
Posted by Sports Guy
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 21, 2018 at 6:30 pm

Sports Guy is a registered user.

We're leaving town at the right time. Good luck. These politicians are a joke.

8 people like this
Posted by Sanctimonious City
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 21, 2018 at 9:23 pm

Sanctimonious City is a registered user.

As a variation of the old debter's proverb applied to taxpayers goes:

A $500 budget deficit is my problem. A $56M deficit is your problem.

Queue the B-roll tape. Next PAUSD will chime in saying they need to raise taxes or else they will start laying off teachers and cutting special ed services.

Liberal government is like a clockwork of shakedowns running on an endless loop.

3 people like this
Posted by Terry
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 21, 2018 at 9:33 pm

[Portion removed.] ... yep, that is what I think about Palo Alto management.

3 people like this
Posted by Tim
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 22, 2018 at 8:29 am

Feel bad for the police. Toured their building a few years ago and it’s a dump. Cops should go work somewhere else where the city cares about them.

4 people like this
Posted by Concerned Observer
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 22, 2018 at 11:22 am

Concerned Observer is a registered user.

Bike to Work Guy is right....time to get rid of the city council members running for re-election. They listen ONLY to squeaky wheels and grease them at every opportunity. Maybe if enough postings like Bike to Work Guy get read by the current council members, they'll start to think about the majority of tax paying Palo Altans.........NOT.

9 people like this
Posted by NeilsonBuchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 22, 2018 at 11:31 am

NeilsonBuchanan is a registered user.

Let's move ahead with Finance Committee survey but bring it back entirely for full Council discussion and action. There is no perfect solution. I hope that survey can guide the Council to setting priorities and schedules for three tiers of projects.

For example, simplify the options such as

A. VITAL (police station, Calif Ave garage, X, Y and Z)
B. DEFERRED (until each project's construction and financing costs are clearer)
C. TABLED (until early 2019 when grade crossing plans comes together for long-range financing)

Council, Finance Committee and City Staff seem to be in an irrational rush to authorize politically expedient projects and let the other projects languish in the fog of uncertainty.

In my opinion Palo Alto DOES NOT have piecemeal option to fund the rail corridor master plan for 20+ years. Caltrain service improvements with multiple trains per hour is coming sooner than anyone expects.

I agree with Tom Dubois and many others that major tax must be levied on the businesses creating traffic and congestion. We individual taxpayers should not have free ride, but business community is escaping proper attention in this discussion. I am disappointed in the narrow discussion at the Finance Committee.

Just to complicate matters somebody at city hall has to think about voter confidence and propensity to approve more taxes. Property tax and interest deductibility is really upsidedown now with severe limitations on many individuals and apparently no limitations on property held by businesses. Who knows what may happen if Dem/Rep power in Congress is shifted on November 7.

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by David
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 24, 2018 at 10:18 am

Please drop the idea of rebuilding the worthless animal shelter. It is a money pit that could easily be contracted out.

10 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 24, 2018 at 10:27 am

Online Name is a registered user.

The city has budget shortfall yet it just asked for another $2,000,000 more for its $4,500,000 council chamber??

Just say no. No more.

Web Link

Unlike the $4.5-million upgrade in 2014, which (among other enhancements) included a refurbished lobby, a reconstructed meeting room and new carpeting and upholstery, the current effort focuses on technology. Under the roughly $2-million plan, Council Chambers will be equipped with a new audio-visual system, a touchscreen at the dais for each council member (with a wireless microphone) and a new lighting system for the room.

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