Palo Alto mulls new strategies for getting businesses to register | News | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto mulls new strategies for getting businesses to register

City to consider stiffer penalties, new exemptions for nascent certificate program

Simple requests didn't work. Neither did the fliers, the visits or the threats.

Now, with the participation rate still lagging well behind expectations, Palo Alto officials are trying to come up with new ways to get local businesses to participate in the city's new Business Registry. These include a simpler questionnaire, in-person visits from city staff, code-enforcement citations and requirements that businesses seeking other types of permits have their registration certificates handy.

These proposals, which the City Council is scheduled to discuss on Tuesday, Sept. 15, aim to significantly increase business participation in the fledgling program. Launched in March after years of discussion, the registration program was intended to help the city answer some questions deemed crucial for ongoing planning and transportation efforts. These include: How many workers come to Palo Alto? Where do they come from? How do they get here?

Yet after six months of trying to coax and nudge businesses to participate, officials estimate that by end of August only about 2,173 businesses — 69 percent of estimated total — have opted to pay the $50 registration fee and answer the 23-question form, according to a new report from the office of City Manager James Keene.

The rate is certainly higher than the roughly 30 percent that registered by June 1. It should go up even further this month, when the city begins issuing fines of up to $50 ($25 for those 30 days late and an additional $25 for those 60 days late) and with downtown's new Residential Preferential Parking program officially launching (employers looking to buy permits must have their businesses registered). Yet for a data-hungry city that is now awash with planning efforts, the program continues to pose a frustrating challenge.

Staff had reached out to the unregistered businesses several times, the report states, to gauge their concerns. Some opposed the idea of a registry, while others took issue with particular questions (most notably the question requesting the Federal Tax Identification Number, which for sole proprietors is often the Social Security Number, and the ones relating to employers' parking permits). Many requested paper-based versions of the online registry — a request that the city complied with by creating a PDF form.

In most cases, the report notes, those expressing concerns did eventually register after staff contact. Some, however, have continued to oppose the requirement. A few businesses mailed checks without the requisite information, though staff was able to follow up and get the needed information, according to the report.

Staff estimates that there are about 3,150 businesses operating in Palo Alto, though they acknowledge that an accurate figure is difficult to gauge (hence, the need for the registry). In Palo Alto's startup culture, businesses open and close, move and merge seemingly every day and, even with a universally accepted registry, the number would be dynamic.

The new report also notes that some local businesses do not yet have an active business, while others have multiple entities incorporating the same people. To arrive at the figure of 3,150, staff conducted a physical survey and went through more than 200,000 business listings, according to the new report.

One idea for getting the remaining 31 percent to sign up is making business certificates a requirement for other types of permits. This has already happened with the downtown parking program, which officially launches on Sept. 15. The new program will limit parking in the downtown's residential neighborhoods to two hours unless the parked car has a permit. Permits will only be sold to residents with proof of residency and workers from registered businesses. By the end of August, more than 2,000 people created accounts and purchased permits through the city's new online system, Assistant City Manager Ed Shikada told the City Council on Aug. 31.

When the council discussed the new parking program on Aug. 17, members took no issue with the staff's approach in bundling the different permits.

"Hopefully this will generate the results we were looking for for the business registry in getting the information we need," Councilman Marc Berman said at that meeting.

Now, staff is proposing to take this even further. In the new report, staff is recommending exploring further integration between the new business program and other required permits, including use and occupancy permits, fire inspections and police-alarm permits.

"In the ideal scenario, the multiple permits any business might require from the City would be integrated," the report states. It notes that by utilizing the user platform created by the Business Registry, the Certificate of Use process "can be redesigned to improve the interface for staff approval by each department involved, and also dramatically improve the customer experience for those requiring it."

At the same time, the report states, the integration of the data with the business-registry information "can be better utilized by the City."

Other changes that staff is recommending for the program include exemptions for "very small businesses and nonprofits," which could be defined as "companies or nonprofits with less than one full-time employee (including the business owner) present on-site.

For all of its existing gaps, the registration program has already allowed staff to gather some basic data about the local employment scene. Information about the registered employers, including the number of employees and the number of parking spaces provided, has been posted on the city's Open Data portal on the Business Registry Certificate page.

An analysis by staff showed that the businesses registered thus far have a total of 69,136 employees. Citywide, office buildings had about 382 square feet of space per employee (in downtown, the number was 384). Retail establishments had 298 square feet per employee while restaurants had 125. The number is particularly critical for the council given that the city's existing parking codes assume 250 square feet of space per employee — a number that land-use watchdogs have argued is too high and is more appropriate for traditional offices than for the communal layout of a startup office.

The new staff report also noted that in evaluating the square feet per employee in local commercial projects, the total range "varied greatly." About 80 companies reported having less than 100 square feet per employee, which includes 35 companies downtown.

Information about the business registry and a link to registration is available here.

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9 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 10, 2015 at 10:57 am

Our company complied after several threatening letters from the city shoved through our front door. As a reward for compliance, we were immediately billed another $90 on top of the $50 registration for "Business Improvement District" which is vague. While this was mailed to a Palo Alto address, it turns out to be a private PO box for MuniServices LLC, which is a for-profit company in Birmingham Alabama. This whole thing stinks and does not make Palo Alto feel like an inviting place for small businesses.

9 people like this
Posted by chris
a resident of University South
on Sep 10, 2015 at 11:16 am


You own a business and you don't know if it is within the boundaries of the Business Improvement District? There may be some other things you are missing out on.

If you can't find a local contact for the BID, I'm sure the city can give you one.

4 people like this
Posted by Jane
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 10, 2015 at 1:56 pm

My understanding is that Palo Alto has been unusual in not requiring businesses to register with the city in the past.

Also, from what I have read there is no fire code that limits the number of people working in a building.

4 people like this
Posted by WilliamR
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Sep 10, 2015 at 2:12 pm

@ Jane--

That's an interesting comment about the fire code. Restaurants and places like that usually have occupancy limits posted, but I never thought about offices needing one.

9 people like this
Posted by Palo Altan
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 10, 2015 at 2:49 pm

Palo Alto is no longer a suburb. It has become an office park with ugly Ken Hayes designed, oversized commercial buildings. The residential neighborhoods are overwhelmingly being purchased by foreign investors. Palo Alto is fast becoming an uncomfortable place to live.

5 people like this
Posted by Bob
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Sep 10, 2015 at 2:51 pm

Why bother? It can only bring you heartache and regulation. I thought this was the land of the free? I thought Palo Alto liked making it easy for startups. I guess not.

2 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 10, 2015 at 2:56 pm

The tax i.d. requirement was a huge hurdle; glad that's fixed. The OpenCounter user platform is also problematic. Unless it has been changed, it requires users to accept 9 pages worth of Terms of Service before using the registry website. The paper version of the registry is a simple 4 page document that bypasses OpenCounter. If you haven't yet registered and want to get the deed done quickly, I suggest the old-fashioned approach.

1 person likes this
Posted by Kazu
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 10, 2015 at 3:06 pm

From the MuniServices website Web Link :

"We help local governments prosper by discovering and recovering revenue while reducing transaction costs"

Why doesn't Palo Alto just drop the whole registry thing? A Business Improvement District should live up to its name, not make things more difficult for business owners. And why is this being contracted out to a third party? Are MuniServices and its parent, PRA Group, collection agencies?

2 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 10, 2015 at 3:25 pm

Did Embarcadero Media get the earliest record ID in the Business Registry Certificate list by being first to sign up?

8 people like this
Posted by Downtown Worker
a resident of Menlo Park
on Sep 10, 2015 at 3:47 pm

Downtown office buildings had 384 sq ft per person, while restaurants had only 125. This ties in with the TMA data showing that it's retail and restaurant workers, not office workers, who are disproportionately drivers.

It's pretty clear now that it's service workers from our vibrant downtown retail and restaurant districts that are causing Palo Alto's parking problems - and our City Council is responding to this by trying to punish office workers rather than helping the service workers!

The council has had four meetings about the office cap, but they've done nothing to help service workers avoid driving. They've done nothing to create a new parking garage either.

Can we focus on the real problems of either helping the service workers find alternatives to get to work, or building a parking garage so that they can drive and park?

5 people like this
Posted by Russ
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 11, 2015 at 3:51 pm

Perhaps some clarification is needed. The Business Registry is a program initiated by the city of Palo Alto.
The Downtown Business Improvement District assessment is a program run by the Palo Alto Downtown Business and Professional Association, which has been in place since 2004.
Muni Services is a third party vendor that helps with invoicing and collection of the fees. That fee only applies to those businesses within the boundaries of the downtown district. The pooled revenue goes to improve the district.
You can learn more by going to and clicking on the page,”Where do your fees go?”

4 people like this
Posted by Marie
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 11, 2015 at 4:24 pm

The Business Registry program is simply a way to get a business tax started. They needed a pretext to slip it by the community, so they said they were asking businesses to provide parking and transportation information. The city isn't very good at data analysis and doesn't use the information that is available now, so I doubt they'll find the business registry information useful. But the whole point is to get businesses to pay this fee, and then start increasing the fee every year so it becomes a revenue source. Of course council will deny this is the case, but look at the business tax they tried to foist on the community in 2009.

The Business Improvement District is useless. If you look at the list of things they claim to do, all of them involve "partnering" or "working with" other entities, who actually do the work.

The BID (aka Downtown Business and Professional Association) is using the business registry data to send bills out to businesses that the BID didn't know existed downtown. It's pathetic that the BID, which is supposed to serve downtown, doesn't what businesses exist in its boundaries. If the BID were to go away tomorrow, nobody would notice. Except for Russ Cohen, who wouldn't get a paycheck anymore.

1 person likes this
Posted by Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 11, 2015 at 8:00 pm

If the city thinks its so important to get businesses to register,why does it charge $50 to do so? I'm not a rocket scientist, but I bet if they dropped that fee, they'd get more participation.

1 person likes this
Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 12, 2015 at 10:20 am

SteveU is a registered user.

They may have way more compliance than stated.
Their 'Palo Alto business' mailing list is riddled with errors.

We got 2 different Notices for a home based (no non-family employees) that had been shut down for over 5 years, Including the clearing of the Resale Number with the state.

We also are still getting Postal mail for:
a prior business, closed in 2000
a business name we never used (Comcast mails us 1 a week to this)

<slap> When you SELL a mailing list with N names, there is negative incentive to purge stale entries.
<slap>When your business is Printing and Mailing, there is little incentive to pare the volume.

2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 13, 2015 at 12:38 pm

Enjoyed looking through the registry to see who is a compliant business and who isn't.

2 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 13, 2015 at 5:38 pm

Stop whining and act. Red tag every business until they show evidence of registration. Make it stick.

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