Palo Alto Weekly

News - November 1, 2013

City still unsure about 2014 ballot measure

With a year until election day, Palo Alto officials approve more polling

by Gennady Sheyner

Faced with a long wish list, a tight deadline and disagreements within its own ranks, the Palo Alto City Council agreed on Monday to conduct more polls before making any decisions on mounting a 2014 ballot measure to pay for citywide infrastructure fixes.

The council went ahead with the recommendations of its four-member Infrastructure Committee, but not without scathing criticism from Councilman Pat Burt, who argued that the full council should have a greater role in the process.

The surveys will explore five different revenue-raising ideas: an increase in the city's hotel tax, a sales-tax increase, creation of Mello-Roos districts to pay for new garages, and two separate bond packages, one focusing on public safety and another centering on transportation.

Burt argued Monday that the committee's specific recommendation of the five revenue options effectively left the council-at-large out of the discussion and unnecessarily limits potential revenue sources.

"I think the way that the polling is being groomed is making some de facto policy decisions," Burt said, questioning the power of the advisory committee.

Though Burt voted with the 6-1 majority (with Greg Schmid dissenting and Gail Price and Karen Holman absent), it was only after his colleagues agreed to add language specifying that the full council, and not just the committee, will get to discuss the poll results and that full council will have the discretion to consider alternative revenue sources to the ones proposed by the committee.

Schmid, for his part, argued the city hasn't provided the public with enough "contextual information" to make informed decisions on the survey questions.

The city's infrastructure wish list comprises about $200 million in projects, with the police building estimated at $57 million and two new fire stations (to replace the two obsolete ones near Mitchell and Rinconada parks) estimated at $14.2 million. Other big-ticket items on the list include a package of bike and pedestrian projects ($25 million), deferred park maintenance ($8.9 million) and an upgraded Animal Services Center ($6.9 million).

Burt also leveled criticism Monday at the proposed Mello-Roos districts, which allow the city to levy different assessments on different types of property owners. He characterized the Mello-Roos concept as one "being driven by individual preferences of members of the committee, and not the council as a whole." He singled out Mayor Greg Scharff, who voiced a willingness to explore Mello-Roos districts during the last two committee meetings.

Scharff briefly interrupted Burt to defend himself, characterizing Burt's comment as "an attack on me personally."

Councilman Larry Klein, another committee member, also deflected Burt's allegation that the committee has overstepped its advisory role and was now setting policy.

"Polling is not policy," Klein said. "It's just polling. It's information. ... If the council doesn't like the questions asked at this time, they can order up another poll come December and January."

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