Editorial: Our crumbling infrastructure | January 20, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - January 20, 2012

Editorial: Our crumbling infrastructure

Citizens commission challenges City Council to adopt program for catching up on huge backlog of needed repairs and improvements

Guided by some of the best minds in Palo Alto, a group of 17 dedicated citizens just completed a year-long effort to identify and recommend ways to upgrade the core infrastructure of the city.

This task was not taken lightly, and the result in an impressive 170-page report that took center stage during a long and wide-ranging discussion Tuesday night between the City Council and members of the Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission.

The panel looked into every nook and cranny of most city departments to find where improvements are needed and then prioritized their findings, looking out up to 25 years. Co-chairmen Leland Levy and Ray Bacchetti, who have served on the council and school board, led the effort, which concluded that the city was woefully in need of more upkeep. Their report defines "infrastructure" as "all that the city owns that does not move on wheels or rest on a floor" and in addition to city offices includes hundreds of acres of parks and open space in the Baylands and foothills, community centers and much more. It did not address city utilities or so-called enterprise funds relating to water, gas, electricity, waste water, etc.

The group explained its rankings of where work is needed as "Keep-up or annual maintenance," "catch-up" maintenance and finally, "new and replacement," for facilities that can no longer meet their designed purpose. The commission determined that catching up on deferred maintenance alone would cost $41 million.

In the current fiscal year, the city has allocated $30 million for maintenance and capital improvement, which the task force found was short $2.2 million to truly meet the city's needs. But the most compelling conclusion of the commission is the finding that five major facilities, including the current police headquarters adjacent to city hall and two fire stations (at Rinconada Park and Mitchell Park,) must be replaced at an estimated cost of $79 million. Replacing the Municipal Services Center east of the highway for an estimated $93 million is by far the most expensive project recommended, while a new Animal Services facility would cost $6.9 million.

In sifting the options, the commission labeled the public safety improvements funded by a voter-approved general obligation bond issue as the best way to begin, while the same projects paid for by more expensive certificates of participation, which do not need voter approval, was the committee's second choice. Other alternatives were presented but the message from the task force was clear — the city can no longer afford to put off replacing the aging police headquarters, which would be vulnerable if a major earthquake struck Palo Alto.

There are plenty of good arguments for replacing the police station, including the findings of five studies over the years. The most recent, in 1998 and 2006, recommended that the building be replaced, a finding the task force said is all the more necessary with today's much stronger focus on emergency preparedness.

The task force devoted a major portion of its report to the desirability of ending the city's lease with the school district for most of the Cubberley school property, a prospect that brought justifiable cautions from two former mayors, Mike Cobb and Lanie Wheeler. They correctly point out that an open, community-wide process for considering the future of Cubberley was just adopted and should be followed during the course of the next year.

The council and community will wrestle with this valuable report over the next few months and, we hope, will place a bond measure on the November ballot to fund a new public safety building and renovate the two fire stations. These are such critical and obvious needs that the council must dedicate itself to getting into the community and making the case clear to the average Palo Alto property owner.

Infrastructure needs have been talked about for years in Palo Alto, but thanks to the work of the citizens commission the problems, challenges and potential solutions have never been better presented for public debate. The test will be whether Palo Alto residents are ready to demonstrate their confidence in the city's leadership at the ballot box.


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