Palo Alto has a generous menu of options when it comes to tax measures that may appear on the November 2014 ballot, but with a little over a year left until elections, officials are still struggling to figure out which money-raising path to pursue.
The City Council's Infrastructure Committee, which is tasked with recommending a ballot measure to pay for infrastructure fixes, on Tuesday once again declined to choose an option. Instead, after discussing different funding mechanisms, including Mello-Roos districts and hikes to the city's hotel and sales tax rates, the committee agreed to pursue further polling to inform the decision.
The Tuesday afternoon meeting was the committee's third in-depth discussion of funding options and like the two prior meetings, it produced no decisions about the 2014 ballot. The idea of creating Mello-Roos districts, which captured the committee's imagination last month, took a hit Tuesday when staff and consultants recommended scrapping it.
The districts, which would assess downtown's commercial property owners a tax to pay for new garages, would require approval of a two-thirds majority from residential taxpayers, a threshold that the city's pollster, Fairbanks, Maslin, Maullin, Metz and Associates felt was too high. Staff shared the pollster's skepticism.
"No matter how those boundaries are drawn, we really don't believe it's a viable option going forward," said Sheila Tucker, assistant to City Manager James Keene.
The four-member committee wasn't ready to throw in the towel on Mello-Roos, a mechanism that was used successfully to fund improvements in San Francisco's Rincon Point and at Port of San Francisco. Mayor Greg Scharff directed staff to look for the "lowest possible amount" the city can tax the residential parcels, a formula that would leave the business owners carrying most of the cost burden for the new garages downtown and around California Avenue.
"Intuitively, it seems that someone who lives in the neighborhoods is not the one creating the problem," Scharff said. "The parking problem seems to be created by the people who own the office buildings and the retail."
Consideration of these districts is also complicated by the city's other efforts to address the increasingly dire problem of parking shortage. One of these is the formation of a Residential Parking Permit Program, which involves residents buying permits for unlimited parking on their blocks. Anyone who doesn't have a parking permit would be limited to two-hour parking.
Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd wondered Tuesday if that effort would make residents less likely to spend any more money on solving the parking issue. It also doesn't help that FM3's prior poll showed only lackluster voter support for a bond that would pay for new garages (53 percent for a California Avenue garage and 52 percent for a downtown one, well short of the 2/3 threshold needed to pass a general-obligation bond). But Scharff argued that with parking now on top of seemingly every agenda, the polling numbers may be outdated.
"Parking has become really high-profile," Scharff said. "Professorville residents have come and spoken to me about this and indicated they'd like to see more parking garages. That's really in the last 10 days or so. I think this may have moved.
"Every newspaper article in Palo Alto is talking about the parking problem and what we're going to do about it," Scharff said. "I bet those numbers are up."
Committee Chair Larry Klein agreed that another poll could be useful, calling it a "threshold question." if the new poll shows that only 50 percent of people in Palo Alto are willing to spend more money on garages, "we have a pretty definitive answer." If it comes back 70 percent, Klein said, it's a whole new game.
Scharff and Klein also shared Shepherd's concern about asking people to pay for too many parking solutions. The poll that will be conducted in the next month will explore the idea of offsetting the assessment costs for people who pay for a different parking solution.
The Mello-Roos poll will be followed by others. The committee and staff remain enthusiastic about the prospect of raising hotel taxes by either 2 percent or 3 percent, with the proceeds allocated for infrastructure projects such as replacing the city's outdated police station, upgrading two old fire stations and paying for various transportation and parking improvements. Another less promising idea is raising the sales tax by 1/8 of a cent. Both of these ideas will also be polled for.
Councilman Marc Berman agreed with his colleagues to authorize the further polling, though he warned against throwing too many measures at residents. Exploring Mello-Roos, hotel-tax increases, parking permits and all the other ideas will create "a lot of confusion among voters about what the heck is going on."
"It seems like we're throwing a lot of things into the fire at once," Berman said. "I don't know how a resident who isn't fully focused on this stuff is going to react to that."
The new round of polls will be conducted in the next two months and is expected to return to the council for consideration in early December.