November tax measure unlikely in Palo Alto | May 4, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 4, 2012

November tax measure unlikely in Palo Alto

City Council says there's too little time to generate support for measure to pay for infrastucture repairs

by Gennady Sheyner

Citing tight deadlines and insufficient outreach, Palo Alto officials are backing away from an earlier proposal to put a tax measure on the November ballot.

The City Council had been considering asking the voters to either approve a tax increase or pass a bond to help the city close its infrastructure backlog and pay for needed public-safety facilities. But at a retreat Monday, April 30, staff and council members acknowledged that they probably don't have enough time to determine exactly what the measure should include and to do the needed research. The council has until July to craft a measure for the November ballot.

The council discussed Monday a variety of options for a ballot measure, including increases to the sales-tax and document-transfer-tax rates, a parcel tax and a bond that would fund a new public-safety building. Though the council didn't take any votes and could still decide to place a measure on the ballot, staff and council members expressed little appetite for pursuing the option this year.

Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie told the council that staff doesn't believe it has enough time to "do the proper groundwork on any measure at this point."

"We don't think we have enough time to do the research and to see what the voters' sensitivities are," Emslie said. "We think that information is helpful in crafting the measure.

"Secondly, we don't think we have enough time to really engage our stakeholders."

In recent years, the council has had a mixed record with going out to the voters for funding. In 2008, residents approved a $76 million bond to renovate local libraries after extensive campaigning by community volunteers and council members. Two years later, however, voters rejected a city proposal for a business-license tax.

Emslie told the council that if the city were to come up with a measure that's a "fait accompli," it could work against the city.

"The downside of going in with a lack of preparation is that it can set us back significantly for an appropriate time when we would be able to do all that," he said.

The council's list of infrastructure priorities include a new public-safety building to replace the cramped and seismically unsafe City Hall facility the Police Department currently uses. The council is also looking at about $41 million in "catch-up" costs that were identified by the 17-member Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Committee, a task force that released a comprehensive report on the city's infrastructure late last year. The list includes, among other things, $14.5 million for park maintenance, $4.5 million for building maintenance and $8.8 million in improvements to city streets and sidewalks.

The task force also recommended the city increase its annual spending by $2.2 million to keep up with infrastructure maintenance. The recommendation was incorporated into the 2013 fiscal year budget that City Manager James Keene presented to the council Monday.

Keene proposed looking at a timeframe of 18 months to two years for a ballot measure. He said the city needs to prioritize exactly what should be funded in a measure and hold focus groups to gauge stakeholder interests. Under this scenario, the city would spend much of 2013 adjusting the proposed measure as needed.

Council members also emphasized a need to demonstrate to the voters that the city is making tough choices, including budget cuts, to wrestle with the infrastructure problem. Keene's budget, for example, proposes to outsource animal services and to freeze seven vacancies in the Police Department.

"What we're trying to do as a city is not go to the voters and say, 'We need more,'" Mayor Yiaway Yeh said.

He also said that given all the unanswered questions, it would be "tough to do something on this November ballot."

Councilman Pat Burt said that while it's important that the city move aggressively on solving its infrastructure problem, it should not seek to do it in one swoop. The city should set a new public-safety building as its top priority, he said.

Staff plans to return to the council in June with information on how much the facility would cost.

"I think it's really important that we are looking aggressively at what is doable and we continue to make some major progress," Burt said.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at


Like this comment
Posted by Michael
a resident of Downtown North
on May 1, 2012 at 1:06 pm

"We don't think we have enough time to do the research and to see what the voters' sensitivities are," Emslie said. "We think that information is helpful in crafting the measure."

The government is buying time to figure out how best to "market" another tax increase. Instead of scheming over how to market a Bell, CA type revenue grab on the largely informed electorate of Palo Alto, why not address the huge abuses and giveaways that the government gives its own workers. Below again, is the most revelant document in local politics: the City payroll. Anyone who can't spot massive abuses here is probably a unionized city employee.

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 1, 2012 at 1:26 pm

"It is what it is."

What I gained from this article (yes I am hopeful), is that the council has realized that they do not have a solid foundation to go out and ask for a tax increase, bond or whatever.

Clearly, no matter what anyone wants to see cut or modified, the council cannot continue on the course it has been running. It is going to have to make some tough decisions and scale back variable costs and non-essential (i.e., safety) programs. It will also have to look at the future as to how to fund salaries and benefits under the next set of contracts and negotiations.

In other words, the city is going to have to demonstrate that it can make the right choices (for than one budget cycle I might add), if they have any hope to ask for a tax increase of any sort.

No pain (no change) = no gain.

Like this comment
Posted by what?
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on May 1, 2012 at 1:28 pm

Can not stand the pain.truly,either way.

Like this comment
Posted by Park expenditures
a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 1, 2012 at 3:28 pm

The city is spending huge sums upgrading many parks, and on planning for upgrading parks.
And a park for dogs, yes, a park for dogs.

Like this comment
Posted by Enough!!
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 1, 2012 at 9:17 pm

Michael, Thank you for your link! These numbers are absolutely outrageous! Lets all remember these numbers the next time they're trying to sell us tax increases and/or Bonds! They must think we are stupid!

Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 1, 2012 at 10:37 pm

Let's see how we can sell a tax increase...we have to wait a year or two to get our act together. Sell it to the "stakeholders". SHOW OUR SACRIFICE by eliminating animal services and traffic enforcement. Sell the bay lands to car dealers for more revenue to pay for bloated wages pensions benefits.

Is this article out of the onion?

Taxpayers are not only being sheared, but bled dry.

Like this comment
Posted by C
a resident of another community
on May 1, 2012 at 11:06 pm

Should read like this "The government is buying time to figure out how to get enough signatures/votes for the upcoming tax measure" Sadly a city with close to 50% renters is doable! Yes it's coming and it doesn't require abit of common sense or logic behind it.

Like this comment
Posted by moi
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 2, 2012 at 10:31 am


Palo Alto families include dogs.

Yes, I am implying that dogs are family members.

Hence, dog parks.

Woof Woof Thank You.

Like this comment
Posted by Jo Ann
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 2, 2012 at 10:56 am

The City KNOWS there's voter resistance to the tax increase. Good they dropped it.

Also, don't forget to mail in your written protest against the utility rate increases by June. It's important that they hear from us otherwise they'll keep increasing the rates each and every year like they've done in the past.

Like this comment
Posted by Kim S.
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 2, 2012 at 10:58 am

You know that when our council make the cuts they'll choose things that mean the most to the tax payers (public safety, animal services). I bet if they got rid of the art committee that decides things like which fountain is the most aesthetically pleasing no one would notice. Just like Jerry Brown taking money from education and dragging his feet on pension changes.

Like this comment
Posted by pablo
a resident of Hoover School
on May 2, 2012 at 2:27 pm

the biggest budget expenses are in public safety, those should be the target of cuts.
attack the big ticket items first.

Like this comment
Posted by Phil
a resident of Downtown North
on May 2, 2012 at 3:15 pm

Not always the best route to take in reducing spending Pablo, referring to your suggested cuts in public safety. The police department for example is already operating with approximately 15% less personnel than they did even ten years ago. Many specialized teams have been eliminated entirely. We have to be cautious and thoughtful about this. Public safety is one of the foundations of our overall quality of life, and we need to provide the men and women who do the job with the personnel and assets it takes to operate effectively and safely.

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Posted by Enough!
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 2, 2012 at 5:32 pm

Phil, You are right! Unfortunately, our city counsel members will not insert pressure on our city management to cut their own pension benefits . NO one is willing to do the right thing. Greed!! Sigh..

JO Ann, Is there a petition online for protesting the utility rate increase like the animal service petition?

Like this comment
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on May 3, 2012 at 9:30 am

In FY 2010, the city budget was $142 million.

For FY 2013, the city's proposed budget is $152 million - $10 million more to spend. Yet they are continuing to cut services in public safety. So where is this extra $10 million/year being spent? 1) as staff retires, the city is filling those open positions with higher salarys, 2) higher pension contributions, 3) higher medical contributions.

Any new tax would only go towards adding to the salaries, pensions & benefits of staff. Until the city does more to reduce those costs, passing any additional taxes will not solve the problem.

I also question the spending priorities; cutting public safety and animal services, while reallocating dollars to the following:

- city council budget is increased by 50% ($147,000) from FY 2012
- city manager budget is $2.58 million, up 9% from FY 2011 ($278,000)
- administrative services budget is up 10% from FY 2012 ($745,177)
- community services budget increased by $990,000 from FY 2012 (this covers parks, recreation)
- Human resources had a big increase from FY 2011 ($400,000)
- Library had a big increase from FY 2011 ($400,000)
- Public works an increas from FY 2012 of $1 million (do we need a zero waste coordinator, an urban forester, as well as an assistant to the city manager for sustainability in the city manager's office?)

Well you get the idea of where your money is being spent.

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Santa Rita (Los Altos)

on May 30, 2017 at 11:06 am

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?