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Does the Utilities Dept. have an 'unlimited' budget

Original post made by Kate on Jul 2, 2014

The latest commandment mailing from Utilities is a prime example of a big budget and "mailed brochures' telling us what to do or not, how to do it and when, and in general, minding our business. The latest missive "A Strong Foundation to Move Palo Alto Forward" was impressive for creativity, color, folded ingeniously like an expensive Hallmark card, and big - the kind of card that takes extra postage. What are we supposed to do with this? Frame it? Save it? Use it as a prayer before meals? Sit down all the kids and make them memorize it? I would like the city to 'come clean'. What is the advertising budget for the our Utility Department? How much does the Advertising Director make per year plus benefits? WHAT are we supposed to do with this???

Comments (27)

Posted by Maybe so, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 2, 2014 at 1:31 pm

They must be rolling in dough, considering how relatively little they pay employees, how much they charge, and no matter how many times you ask them not to, they keep sending you this garbage.

Posted by notagoodidea, a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 2, 2014 at 1:33 pm

Our Utility has big plans on expanding its oversight, that is for sure. When suggestions for improvement are sent along with the Utility bill, that's fine, and useful. What irks me is the comparison notices with 100 other nearby families. I guess I shouldn't complain as we receive the "smiley" face!

Trouble is, there are so many data points to be considered to really compare usage -- how many people are in the house? do they all work or are they retired and at home a lot? do the travel much? is anyone sick and needs a warmer house? have they poured concrete driveways and sidewalks all around their house so don't need much water (but is this really a good idea for the environment?)? do they have a swimming pool (so if you don't do you get extra "credit" for less usage)? no doubt there are more things to be considered!


Posted by Debra Katz, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 3, 2014 at 8:36 pm

The City of Palo Alto Utilities did not send any brochure or other mailing on the topic of "A Strong Foundation for Moving Us Forward" so the vitriol about this piece's expense etc. is misdirected. I do not even know what you are talking about, although it is possible this is a mailing from another city department which I am unaware of.

Not to be defensive, but since you asked...the advertising budget for the Utilities Dept. is very small, especially when you consider that we are sending information and promoting programs for electricity, gas, water and sewer. And my salary, when benchmarked against similar positions in other utilities---most of which only operate one or two commodities, not four---is below average.

To "Not a Good Idea" (why are so few folks brave enough to use their own names?)---the Home Energy and Home Water Reports are sent as a tool to help people determine if and what they might want to do to be more efficient and save money. Anyone who does not wish to receive these reports can opt out at any time.

Customers who want the reports but feel the assumptions being used are wrong, can go to the online site listed on the report and alter/update the information about family size, home size etc. Of course, there is no way for us to know that someone in the family has been home sick etc. and if that is the case, a customer is free to ignore the report...this report is for your interest and benefit...nobody else sees it.

Debra Katz
Utilities Communications Manager
City of Palo Alto

Posted by Me Too, a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 5, 2014 at 4:14 pm

@Debra Katz - first, this mailing, which I also got, appeared to be from the city as "pre-marketing" for an infrastructure bond of some kind. It was very non-specific and looking like an expensive mailing, so it is not surprising it raised eyebrows. It certainly puzzled me.

Second, since you seem to be writing in an official capacity, signing with your title and email address, it seems inappropriate to me for you to comment on the "bravery" or lack thereof of posters on this forum, or to otherwise judge the comments of the taxpayers and customers who post here. You can do that as an individual, of course, but I would not expect that kind of comment from a city or utility employee in his or her official capacity.

BTW, is there any follow-up done to see if the comparison mailings actually impact customer behavior? I believe I read that the utility pays quite a bit to gather the data and send the mailings, so hopefully the impact is measured and positive.

Posted by Brochure, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 5, 2014 at 7:34 pm

That brochure sounds as if it could come from the city's infrastructure committed or Palo Alto Forward Web Link which uses a similar phrase.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 5, 2014 at 10:09 pm

Debra Katz from the utility department characterized the cost of mailing as small; however, let's work out the costs for those inserts in our monthly utility bills:

2 sheets of paper at 5 cents each = 10 cents
Copying on 4 sides of paper at 10 cents each = 40 cents
Extra postage of 25 cents
Labor of envelope stuffing = 25 cents

Total is $1 per month per residence, 21,000 residences, or about $250,000 per year

Add in staff time including salary and benefits of $165,000, for a total of $415,000 per year

Posted by Kay, a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 6, 2014 at 5:39 am

Please don't send anymore mailers to my house! What a ridiculous waste of money. Try to lower our utility bills, the sewer and drain rates keep going up,as do water rates too. We don't need anymore slick marketing/promotional materials. Some of us have been so heavily marketed by this City that for myself I don't believe most of what I receive from City Depts. If you want to send something, send it online instead of wasting paper! Palo Alto is doing too much self-promotion. We used to have much lower utility rates than all the neighboring communities. What happened???? It's fine if people want to pay more to "Be Green", there are many of us just trying to live on a tight budget. Try to lower our rates. Lots of people on my street are retired with low pensions, give them a break. City workers and management will be much better off when they retire, because of the "golden handshake" they get from the residents like myself, who can't change the City Benefit structure......way too high pensions, way too many mgmt. positions, just keep milking the residents until they move out to cheaper digs!

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 6, 2014 at 6:14 am

@ Resident,

While I am one who agrees that I hate to receive wasteful mailings, your estimate of the cost to print and post the mailer are wildly too high. The whole project would be run at a digitally enabled mailing house that can do variable printing, mechanically stuff and seal the envelopes, then take advantage of bulk mailing rates. One person would manage the project and could do it in less than a week's time.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 6, 2014 at 6:45 am


I think I underestimated the costs. The paper size is not standard, and there is color, and the trifold of the paper would add to the cost. Plus look at the postage on your utility bill envelope, and look up the bulk mailing rates. For the mailing it is probably more like $1.65 per month per resident. So it is more like $500,000 per year.

If you have a print shop that is less, provide a link so we can see what their cost is.

And the city staff time is create the content, and coordinate the printing and mailing.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 7, 2014 at 11:36 am

I have worked in marketing communications for years. Trust me, it can be done for less than you think.

Human hands hardly touch the product while in production. For example, the (multiple) letters are printed on large sheets of paper, mechanically trimmed and sorted. The letters are then processed on a machine which can tri-fold the letters and then mechanically insert into the envelopes. Same machine seals the envelope. Envelopes are pre-printed with the bulk rate postage.

Just about every mailing house in the area has this capability. Some clients will print the product at a commercial site and then have the press sheets transfered to the mailing house for processing.

The cost of printing a two-sheet/four-page mailing can be done for less than a dollar. If you're talking about the monthly billing and the associated collateral that comes from the CPAU, then yes it would cost more than a dollar. And BTW, the color portion of the bills are printed in advance on a huge offset press. They stock the "forms" at a warehouse and then all they have to do is "ink jet" the monthly info, addressee, etc.

Posted by Hey, Deb, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 7, 2014 at 11:39 am

Many of us have been asking three and four times over for you guys to quit mailing us these comparison letters. In spite of that, we still receive them.

On top of that, many of these letters have the facts incorrect regarding family size, lot size, house size: that makes the comparison incorrect. In my own case, I have called three times to correct these numbers, yet still receive letters with the wrong facts and figures. Due to our unusual lot size, house size, and family size, there is NO way in Hades that there are 100 similar families/properties in Palo Alto. AND, after numerous request to discontinue sending us these letters, we still receive them!

We have a newly-remodeled, energy-efficient home with new, energy-efficient appliances. Only the small children bathe at home ( and not every day). Our yard is drought-resistant, approved by the city during the BIG Drought of the nineties. We have new plumbing, no leaks.

I suspect you guys make up some of the numbers in your letters. The only person I know of who gets a positive letter is a man who uses well water for everything but showering and cooking! And, yes, the well is supposed to be capped, but the onLy way he could cut back his water usage any further was to uncap his well!

Please, listen to your customers, and stop making things up!

Posted by Me Too, a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 7, 2014 at 12:01 pm

Here's a link to the CPAU help page on the Home Energy Reports, which includes info on how to opt-out or to receives notices via email only.

Web Link

Posted by common sense, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 7, 2014 at 5:35 pm

Crescent Park Dad,

I've been involved in bulk mail programs as well, and when I looked at my utility bill envelope postmark, I know that the utility is not getting the lowest cost per piece. Also the prices are dependent on the quantity run, and I believe the utility department sends out bills based on when the meter is read, so the printing is not going to achieve the price per piece that you may have experienced.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 7, 2014 at 5:49 pm

I don't disagree on the utility bills and the various pieces of junk that come with it.

I was answering the question of cost of a single mailing to all PA utility customers - consisting of 4-pages on 2-sheets of more/no less.

Posted by notagoodidea, a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 8, 2014 at 11:33 am

Most Palo Altans want to reduce their energy/water use and welcome the tips the Utility dept. prepares and which come with the monthly bill. It's the reports with a comparison to 100 like households that seems like a waste of money.

Yes, you can opt out, but the reports still cost money to prepare, and how can the reports be helpful without tons of data? By the Utilities own admission, we are encouraged to log on and report/update the house size/family size for example. But that is really not enough. Many work long hours away from home while others work at home. Some might be sick and need a warmer house. Some may travel. Some may belong to a gym and shower there.

And, what about the neighbor who doubles the concrete driveway and adds concrete walkways and patios all around the house? While it will cut down on water use, is this good for the environment? Is this increasing global warming with more concrete use?

What about the neighbor who grows many vegetables in the garden? Maybe another neighbor chooses to have a pool? How do you compare all those factors? Is it fair to give the big home a smilely face when they use far more engery than a smaller home?

The way it use to be, was if you use more engery/water, you pay more which can be a good way to help raise awareness and more conservation. And, our Utility could come up with what they consider a reasonable amount of water usage per person. More usage than that could then be charged at a higher tier.

That makes more sense to me than our Utility asking me to update my profile.

Posted by opt out, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 8, 2014 at 3:18 pm

I was able to opt out of the comparison letters. I did so when they first came out.
I am surprised that anyone is having difficulty with it.
I was asked if I wanted them in email form instead and I said ok.
I have not gotten an email comparison since 8/9/13 so I figured they dumped the program.
I read that there is data to show this sort of stuff reduces consumption, but that research might be from the people that sell the comparison program. ;-)

For example, a quick google search yields:
Web Link

See the bottom pages? Look familiar?
Maybe it works on some people even if the comparisons are silly and uninformed.

Posted by pa, a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 8, 2014 at 9:57 pm


These comparison letters simply make residents feel bad. I conserve water, drive a Prius, turn off my lights, yet I get these mailings in color print telling me that I am a bad Palo Alto citizen compared to my neighbors. Two of the houses on my block are not occupied awaiting construction, several homes are occupied by the elderly (in two cases just one living elder person) whose kids have been out of the house for decades and other neighbors don't care much about landscaping -- it is not fair to compare their homes to mine, we are a young family with kids: we do laundry, shower, water our lawn (conservatively), use electricity to watch TV and play video games, cook, etc. Please stop making us feel bad about living our normal lifes in Palo Alto. STOP these comparative mailings! STOP, please -- be green and save money on postage. Obviously, this was a poorly thought out promotion by the city bureaucrats trying to create tasks for themselves to look busy and justify their position rather than savvy marketing people who would have considered every aspect of cause and effect of this absurdity. STOP sending comparison mailings, I don't even open them anymore ... they make me feel bad, there is nothing I can or intend to do differently.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 8, 2014 at 10:12 pm

It seems that our Utilities Dept is good at charging us fees but giving us no way of reducing our fees.

We can't opt out of trash collection, we can't choose to put out trash cans once or twice a month to save money. We can't get vacation holds on our trash. They don't give us any options.

Instead they tell us to be more conservative in our consumption and then put up our charges. If they really want to help us reduce our utility bills, then let us reduce our trash charges too.

Posted by Opt out, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 9, 2014 at 8:22 am


Just because someone drops shoes at your feet doesn't mean you have to wear them. Your issues with the comparisons is what I meant by "silly". I think the fact that you are not told what category you and you "neighbors" fit in or who these hypothetical "neighbors" are speaks volumes. The utility company does not have enough data to make a valid comparison, so it makes one up to try to create competition. What they don't do is expose you to how these neighbors are using less energy. Are they conserving or taking more trips to Europe leaving their house empty for weeks on end? Notice the paper was written by law students, is that the right background for good statistical analysis on utility usage? This is really about trying to foster the feeling that you could be doing more like your more saintly neighbors. ;-). Just opt out. I did. I recall doing it by email even.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 9, 2014 at 5:40 pm

@ Resident. An educated guess would be that it is less-expensive to run a 1-size-fits-all trash/recycling program than to set up individualized options.

And the reality is that the guys driving the trucks are going as fast as they can through their routes --- it would certainly bog down their efficiency if they have to refer to specialized chart, that has to be updated on a weekly basis.

And no offense, but you're probably the only one that consistently complains about this.

Posted by notagoodidea, a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 9, 2014 at 6:42 pm

@opt out: The point of this thread concerns our Utilities wasting money and effort on the comparisons reports. Most residents want to conserve and try hard to do so. Our Utility should also conserve and not waste money, time, and effort.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 9, 2014 at 6:48 pm

CP Dad

No offense, but your thinking is rather last century, similar to the last century trash service we are offered.

Perhaps the reason I am the only one who mentions this is because I am the only one with family members who have a successful system as I have described. In fact, one family member has a choice of two providers to choose between dependent on which system suits her family's needs best. One is a flat rate and the other actually weighs each lift and charges accordingly. This is done automatically by computers, not by guys on the truck reading charts.

In the 21st century we have chips and chip readers. The chips are on the can and the reader is on the truck. The guys on the truck only pick up those cans that are out on the curb and the chip reader does the counting, no charts or any extra work for the guys. In fact, because on any given week since there would be less cans to pick up due to the fact that people would only put cans out when they were full and definitely not if they were on vacation, the truck route would take less time and probably save money for the utilities company too.

In the scenario described where there is a choice, the trucks recognize their own cans by color. Because cans need to be weighed, they are also locked (with a 4 number code) so that people don't use any can other than their own. The lock is opened as part of the lift and so is the weigh. The only disadvantage that I notice is that instead of cans being out in a neighborhood on just one day of the week, they are out on two days which means that there always seems to be cans on the street.

How many half filled cans are regularly put out each week in Palo Alto? If the resident could choose whether or not to put out their can it could be a win/win scenario.

Posted by Hey, Deb, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 9, 2014 at 8:01 pm

On the second-to-the-last time I called to ask that these mailings be sent, I informed the young woman who took my call that we had checked our neighborhood and talked to our neighbors. What we found out was that absolutely none of them had as many people living in their home as we did, only one had a house as small as ours, only one had a yard the same size, though two had smaller yards. No home had more than three family members, most of whom were home only to sleep. Two of the homes had foreign owners who go back to China twice a year for a month at a time. Several have owners who are executives and must travel often for work, some being gone 1-3 weeks per month, leaving only 1-2 people loving in the home.

This young woman told me that by " neighbors", the letter means 100 people spread out through Palo Alto who have homes, lots, and families of the same size!

There is NO way there are 100 families of the same size living in the same size house on the same size lot--I would doubt there are ten! I truly think they make this stuff up.

Posted by PA, a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 10, 2014 at 1:43 am

Agree with Hey Deb's posting above. Same is true for my neighborhood, house and property. Thank you for doing the analysis.

Get rid of these excessive costly mailings! SAVE TREES! SAVE TAXPAYER'S $$$

Then again, you may be effecting Debra Katz' Utilities Communications Manager City of Palo Alto busy work that justified city paid (taxpayer paid) overtime.

Posted by opt out, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 10, 2014 at 10:50 am


Actually no one on this thread has spoken to the effectiveness of this program. They have only pointed out that the comparisons are useless. While I agree that the comparisons are bogus, I don't know that the mailings don't cause people to conserve. So if the purpose of the mailings is to cause people to conserve, none of us have the data to demonstrate that this program is not effective. Now if this programs mailings annoys you as it did me, opt out or ask for a soft copy like I did.

Posted by wayne, a resident of Ventura
on Jul 10, 2014 at 6:49 pm

Opt out? Are you kidding? My report said I was doing "great" compared to my neighbors, whoever they are. I'm so proud!

Somebody mentioned showers and cooking: I'm reluctant to reveal my secrets but . . .

Posted by opt out, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 10, 2014 at 11:37 pm


Well truth be told, I have a 2nd fridge from the 90s in the garage cooling drinks 24/7 in an effort to help my neighbors feel better about their electric usage conservation. Just doing my part to assuage the guilt they experience over these mailings. I'll interpret your post as a grateful recipient of my efforts. You are welcome, btw.

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