Guest Opinion: Real problems need real solutions | February 28, 2020 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - February 28, 2020

Guest Opinion: Real problems need real solutions

by Pat Burt and Karen Holman

Every city survey in recent years shows that the top problems facing us are housing affordability and transportation, including the need to separate our rail crossings before they become gridlocked from Caltrain's upcoming expansion.

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Karen Holman is a former Palo Alto Planning Commissioner, City Council member and mayor who currently represents Palo Alto as president of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District Board. Pat Burt is a former CEO, Palo Alto Planning Commissioner, City Council member and mayor.


11 people like this
Posted by george drysdale
a resident of Professorville
on Feb 28, 2020 at 8:50 am

The problem with city planners is they don't see the driver of building: investor interest in creating housing. There is now virtually no interest in developing for profit housing in Palo Alto I'm trying to knock a vast amount of land in San Jose into the development of around 30,000 units of new meat and potatoes types of apartments for those who can afford new housing (incoming hopefuls to Silicon Valley). The block: rent control in a city which should know better, but always the fear of "displacement" a natural event throughout the history of cities. The solution honest government in California and now Oregon. But there's so many votes to be had by fixing rental prices (rent control). This same thinking has happened thousands to times throughout history. The perpetual folly. The only real solution is perhaps to find other cities because not everybody can live in the dozen or so super-cities in the world. The other great myth homeless people suffer terribly. Go check it out most are partying out, beats work. Check it out social studies types, go "homeless" yourself for a while. Free food, all sorts of support non-profits. Sociology in empirical fashion. Oh, and take the bus to develop your sociological imagination. My next move: I'm going to send out a Bernie Sanders rubber face mask to all registered Democrats in Palo Alto.

George Drysdale

44 people like this
Posted by anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Feb 28, 2020 at 10:21 am

Great Op-ed that identifies the problems and a reasonable solution.
The City should Tax big businesses and ear mark the funds for the specific problems that they wish to address.
We all benefit from Big Tech in a myriad of ways but the truth is that Big Tech and Big companies have not contributed to the communities in which they exist to address the impacts their sucess has created.

Thank you to Karen Holman and Pat Burt for pointing this out in a rational and reasonable way

43 people like this
Posted by 6Djockey
a resident of Green Acres
on Feb 28, 2020 at 11:08 am

Couldn't agree more. Since office development has been approved beyond the limits of roads, parking and other infrastructure, it is only reasonable that those businesses should pay for some of the problems that have resulted. The point is well made that the proposed business tax is a small fraction of the cost of the buildings and is easily affordable by the very profitable big tech companies. Small businesses deserve a break.

15 people like this
Posted by Don't do anything extra
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 28, 2020 at 12:19 pm

No. No new taxes, which will trickle on down to us.

Caltrain needs lots of funds to expand service, including grade separations, which it says are critical in its own business plan. Fine, let Caltrain fund them out of the taxes already being collected for Caltrain in the three counties.

Housing? Those who have chosen to work here are responsible for making their own housing arrangements. Otherwise where does it begin and where does it end? Gardeners, home health care aides, cashier's, retail clerks, restaurant workers, dry cleaning workers, hardware store employees, delivery drivers, house cleaners, Jamba juice workers, new castilleja employees, and so forth and so on. They are all our responsibility to house?

No. Everyone is responsible for themselves. People have made economic choices that we had no part in. Assistance must go only to those who truly need it.

City surpluses ($75 million and $59 million) can be used for any wish list items.

29 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 28, 2020 at 12:44 pm

A sensible editorial.

No new taxes for RESIDENTS but make BIG businesses pay. Enough already.

18 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 28, 2020 at 1:04 pm

"Since 2015, the city has piloted a transportation management association (TMA), which is a nonprofit partnership to reduce commuter single-occupancy car trips by 30%. It has worked on a pilot basis downtown by providing discounted bus or rail passes or carpool apps for modest income workers."

Does "it has worked" mean the pilot TMA has successfully reduced commuter single-occupancy car trips by 30%, or just that it has been in operation? In other words, has it been effective, and how was its effectiveness measured?

28 people like this
Posted by Common Sense
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 28, 2020 at 2:01 pm

Excellent editorial by two people who have served this community faithfully and effectively. Thank you, Karen Holman and Pat Burt, for your work on this critical issue.

We all agree we need more affordable housing and reduced traffic, but we need to pay for it. It is time to make the big corporations help with some of the heavy lifting, and reduce the burden on the Palo Alto tax payer for once. Yes to the business tax!!!

11 people like this
Posted by Dishonest
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 28, 2020 at 4:34 pm

No. No new taxes that we eventually will pay for. We don't need new taxes to pay for housing and transportation. We are taxed enough 9% sales tax here in Palo Alto already. The city just had two years of surplus, one $75 million and the other $59 million. Use those dollars. No new taxes that will eventually be paid by us, consumers and residents.

14 people like this
Posted by No accomplishments
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 28, 2020 at 7:33 pm

I find it amusing that 2 former council members who exercised little to no fiscal responsibly when in office are now looking for new taxes to beverage money due the city. What will the money be used for? Payoffs to settle lawsuits against the out of control PAPD or an iconic bridge over 101?

5 people like this
Posted by No accomplishments
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 28, 2020 at 7:34 pm

"generate money for the city"

11 people like this
Posted by george drysdale
a resident of Professorville
on Feb 29, 2020 at 10:29 am

As far as transportation goes just walk. By walking places you get your cardo workout without having to go to the track or park, etc. You keep your car in the garage and not have to heighten the congestion. When you walk you'll find that places are surprisingly close. If you need to go to San Jose take the bus. Getting on and off the bus you practice agility. Best of all you get to look out the window and if you get in an accident guess who wins. Get good walking shoes and do not jog on concrete sidewalks even if you're young. Housing in Silicon Valley is too expensive and subsidized or 'affordable" housing is rationed according to those most dire in need. It's not gong to be you in other words. Having a very progressive tax system our rich are already taxed enough. New Bernie projects have to come from taxes on the middle class. Remember a fit body is a beautiful body. Lift weight too.

13 people like this
Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 29, 2020 at 11:19 am

Another comment from a writer (LA area) that CA is the biggest economy in the US. I love these comments. The fact that we have large businesses in the area that are at the top of their game is specific to the companies and not specific to the government of the state. While the state government is collecting taxes it is not managing those taxes very well. This state has major infrastructure problems that are payable through the state budget. Those problems are not specific to the companies that locate here which are technology driven. Those companies can choose to leave and set-up a number of other state locations for their businesses. The fact that they are located in this state is driving the infrastructure issues. Any taxes required for the enhancement of the infrastructure issues should be directed at those companies. We already know that the large companies attempt to negotiate a benefit for locating here. That needs to be re-evaluated and re-negotiated.

12 people like this
Posted by Kirsten
a resident of Ventura
on Feb 29, 2020 at 2:22 pm

Taxes are a way to get businesses to pay for those things that an overall community needs. Without taxes, the business only pays for things that directly benefit the owners, and investors.

However, that company does benefit from the projects that the taxes pay for.

Well educated employees are paid for by tax funding for schools and community colleges. Those employees can get to work, and work a longer day, if they have good transit, and are not leaving early to avoid traffic. The lower paid employees, cooks, janitors, receptionists, document librarians, and support staff, can accept jobs in Silicon Valley companies, if they can afford housing.

If these issues are not addressed, it will depress business growth much more than any tax levied by the City of Palo Alto, and this tax offers funding to solve these issues.

As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said in 1927 "Taxes are what we pay for civilized society." I am a small business owner, with only one location, in the city of Palo Alto. But I want to do my part to create a civil and fair society. I am happy to pay taxes to do so. If my micro business can do it, I hardly think that larger, better financed companies will collapse if they pay a comparable tax as what is paid in neighboring communities.

10 people like this
Posted by Angela
a resident of Ventura
on Feb 29, 2020 at 2:50 pm

It’s all about creating a community that you want to live in. A business tax would allow the city to support home ownership for middle-income and low-income workers. Do you want your children to continue to go to schools with good teachers? Then make it possible for teachers to buy homes in this city. Do you want to reduce traffic on El Camino and Page Mill Road? Make it possible for nurses and other local employees to live in the city and ride their bikes to work. Do you want to see your adult children and grandchildren more often? Make It possible for them to live in the city.

A good leader will do what is necessary to build a strong community for everyone, not just for businesses and the very rich.

14 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 29, 2020 at 3:29 pm

Common Sense got it right and he clearly has common sense. So do those two former Planning Commissioners, council members,and mayors who collaborated on the article. They served us so well and I wish they would consider being re-cyled...running again for council. Their voices were always listened to and respected and they had that keen ability to keep us on the edge of our seats, waiting and wondering how they would vote. Glad to still see them on the stage of political discourse.

13 people like this
Posted by Independent
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Feb 29, 2020 at 6:26 pm

@ Angela - neither teachers nor nurses are low income. The average PAUSD teacher salary is $115k, which is competitive w the median household income in Santa Clara county at $116k, and the median tech worker pay of $122k, before considering they work only 9 months, and before considering breacher tenure and their generous benefits.

Let's each stand on our own two feet.

And let's embrace the free market. That is what has made us, and this area what it is.

11 people like this
Posted by No accomplishments
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 1, 2020 at 10:57 am

Karen is building a $5 million dream palace at mid pen. That ego trip will not let her run again. Pat however sends to be trying to rehabilitate his damaged reputation from his poor council tenure so he may be seeking the limelight again

15 people like this
Posted by Allen Akin
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 1, 2020 at 12:54 pm

I've been reluctant to throw my full support to a business tax, thinking that indirect measures like requiring a balance of housing and office production would give the private sector more flexibility. There's been some action along those lines, but not nearly enough, and I don't see more on the horizon. It's time to move on.

A couple of days ago in support of Andy Robin's guest opinion I mentioned that building more housing doesn't reduce housing prices for the same reason that building more freeways doesn't reduce traffic: Neither one does anything to limit the increase in demand.

On average, big tech companies *gain* revenue for every employee they hire here. (If not, they simply choose not to hire!) On the other hand, increasing the supply of housing, transportation, water, parks, schools, and so many other things that each of those new employees needs has costs, and most of those costs aren't borne by the hiring companies.

For the companies, demand has benefits that exceed its costs; for the public, supply has costs that exceed its benefits. That's why demand is essentially unlimited, and increases in demand will continue to overwhelm any increase in housing and transportation we can fund with regressive taxes on the general population.

A business tax would help nudge the economic situation back toward balance. It would help fund increase in supply while also slowing down increase in demand.

I sympathize with those (Annette :-)) arguing for a specific tax, but I think we've reached the point where we have so many things that need to be done that a general tax is more appropriate. This will become urgent if the State forces cities to build more housing without providing any way to fund the transportation, parking, water, schools, and so on, that new residents will need.

Karen Holman and Pat Burt are right. The City needs the funding, a higher proportion of the costs needs to be borne by the companies whose growth is causing the housing and transportation shortages, and it's certainly possible to design a tax to meet those goals without damaging the local economy.

11 people like this
Posted by george drysdale
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 2, 2020 at 9:18 am

The problem with putting a bite on the tech companies is that Chinese subsidize their tech companies. Massive as the big tech companies are they need government help. Tax the tech companies and they will leave to cheaper cities who will welcome them. Get use to all the homeless in California, the homeless don't have to freeze during the winter. There are no solutions just trade offs. Dan Walters has it right under Newsome and his Democrats construction of apartments is going south. Coming up: Super Tuesday. Will Bernie win so we can make massive cuts to our military? Welcome to California where the number one public enemy (really, in terms of economic damage and construction) is Governor Newsome!

13 people like this
Posted by Good idea.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 2, 2020 at 1:58 pm

I support the business tax. My family founded a start-up here--now a much larger company. We have never minded paying taxes to support better transportation and services that support our employees. It is the right thing to do.

14 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 2, 2020 at 3:48 pm

" Tax the tech companies and they will leave to cheaper cities who will welcome them."

That's fine. Palo Alto's done its part. It's time to give some other place its chance.

11 people like this
Posted by margaret heath
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 2, 2020 at 8:26 pm

There is a good argument to be made that a business tax is needed to help fund grade separation to accommodate the extra trains and cars during commute hours. Also to fund the city’s TDM program. A business tax should also pay for the administration and enforcement patrols for the neighborhood parking programs as these are costly and a direct result of the increased density of office employees parking in neighborhoods during the last ten to fifteen years. Both because of increased density in existing offices and in new office construction which still uses the outdated 250 square feet per person to calculate parking needed and traffic impacts. Finally, a business tax could eventually fund a comprehensive shuttle system around town.

Like San Francisco, a progressive tax rate may likely be the most acceptable to voters, with the higher tax being paid by companies with the most number of office employees. There may not be much support for more than a nominal tax for lower wage retail employees and other businesses that serve the public such as medical and dental offices, or non-profits, and owners of individual and small businesses. There is a good case to be made that hotels should be exempt as they recently took a big hit with a large increase in their occupancy tax rate.

There is an additional argument to be made that now is the time for a Palo Alto business tax. When Prop 13 passed, Palo Alto’s property tax revenues were split approximately 50-50 between residential and commercial property owners. Fast forward to 2020. Residential property owners currently pay approximately 75% of the property tax and commercial property owners pay approximately 25%, which number will continue to decrease year over year because of 13 loopholes. These loopholes allow the transfer of commercial property to be structured in a way that a change of ownership can take place without a new property tax assessment.

13 people like this
Posted by Alison Hicks
a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 3, 2020 at 12:41 am

In 2018 Mountain View had a business tax measure on the ballot that passed with the support of 100% of our city council and over 70% of voters. I voted for it because our businesses have grown tremendously in Mountain View. That growth has seriously impacted the city, particularly in terms of traffic congestion and housing prices. Our city was being compelled to provide urban services without the business taxes that most urban places have. We structured our business to be progressive - taxing small businesses much less than large ones - so that we would not drive out businesses that could ill afford bigger taxes. And we hoped it would provide an example for others in Silicon Valley struggling to address the impacts of growth and maintain quality of life in their cities.

5 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 29, 2020 at 2:20 pm

Dumb bot-driven thread revival aside, this thread is relevant to something:

The current work-at-home social-distancing directives have resulted in 1970's level traffic. Although I'm in a high-risk group for Covid-19, I'm not sick now, and, I sure have been enjoying walking neighborhood streets with such "normal" traffic. It is really, really nice around here without a zillion extra autos.

I think we need employer-based business taxes, and, we should use them to discourage overly-dense local employment, and other measures to reduce the amount of auto traffic back to today's (March 29th, 2020) levels. Unrealistic? I don't think so. I think a combination of measures designed to reduce the number of office employees who don't need to be right here would be very effective at restoring the livability of the city to what it once was.

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