Faced with a damning audit showing that Palo Alto's nascent business registry is riddled with data that is inaccurate, incomplete and inconsistent, a City Council committee agreed on Tuesday night to take a fresh look at the program's reasons for existence.
According to the audit, which was performed by the office of City Auditor Harriet Richardson, the registry showed business trends that "were inconsistent with comparable economic data." Houman Boussina, the senior auditor who performed the review, noted that the registry shows the number of businesses dropping between 2015 and 2017, which seems to contradict data from other data sources such as the U.S. Census Bureau.
Earlier this year, the city contracted with the firm MuniServices LLC to take over the administration of the program, a switch that officials hope will improve data reliability. Councilwoman Karen Holman recommended further strengthening the program by requiring businesses to register when they sign up for utility services or apply for use-and-occupancy permits.
But even if these reforms help with accuracy, council members and staff indicated Tuesday that they have some broader questions about the registry and its goals.
"We know there's an issue with the philosophy of the business registry," Committee Chair Adrian Fine said. "I suggest we bring that to the council."
The council introduced the program in late 2014 as a way to get data about the number of businesses and employees in Palo Alto, information that was intended to inform the council's efforts to implement new transportation and parking programs. Starting in 2014, businesses were required to fill out an online form that asks questions about employee counts, commuting trends and available parking and pay a $50 fee (later raised to $54).
Councilman Tom DuBois also recommended that city staff conduct further analysis about why the number of businesses had appeared to have dropped (at least according to the registry) and conduct "spot checks" on businesses to see if they had registered. Fine said he cares less about the year-to-year trends and more about the broader questions about the program.
City Manager James Keene agreed that the city's purposes for the registry aren't clear. He acknowledged the errors and attributed them, in some part, to confusion over the registry's purpose and insufficient resources to properly administer the program.
"Clearly, the neighborhoods aren't satisfied, you guys aren't satisfied," Keene said.
To date, the city has not been using the registry's data, Keene said. He noted that since the registry came online, he hadn't looked at its data once.
But even though city departments haven't been using the data, that does not necessarily mean that the program is useless, DuBois said. Given how unreliable the data has been, he said he was not surprised that the people aren't using it.
"I think we should spend the time to get the data," DuBois said.
The committee voted to accept the audit, require the additional analysis about gaps in the data and then return in November with the new information, before the issue goes to the full council.
Several neighborhood leaders also supported the idea of improving the registry, which they see as an important tool to address the city's transportation challenges.
"With parking and traffic issues continuing to plague Palo Alto, we believe the registry is an extremely valuable tool," Sheri Furman and Rebecca Sanders, co-chairs of the group Palo Alto Neighborhoods, wrote in a letter to the council.
If managed properly, they wrote, the program can provide important data about parking requirements, traffic demand and displacement of community-serving businesses.
"We hope the city councilmembers and incoming city managers will voice strong support to improve the Business Registry, as well as the larger process of using registry and other data to better inform city planning," the letter states. "Such support will help encourage staff and contractors to ensure the Registry improves in quality and usefulness."