Checking the facts | October 21, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - October 21, 2011

Checking the facts

What supporters of Measure E are saying:

"Building a composting facility in Palo Alto would likely save the city at least $18 million over 20 years." (From official Argument in Favor of Measure E)


This figure is shaky at best. It refers to a dry anaerobic digester that would take care of all three waste streams — a largely unproven technology. Costs would rise significantly for a wet anaerobic digester or other alternatives. In fact, the city's consultant, Alternative Resources, Inc. (ARI), found that "higher cost AD technologies present costs which are significantly more expensive than either the lower cost AD technologies or the export (hauling to San Jose or Gilroy) case." The consultants concluded that a dry anaerobic digester could indeed be cheaper than the exporting options, but only if such factors as carbon adders, state and federal grants and contingency costs for exports are added into the mix. For the combination of dry and wet anaerobic digestion, the costs of building a new facility would exceed the exporting costs.

"The current plan for handling our organic waste ... includes continuing to incinerate our sewage sludge" at the Regional Water Quality Control Plant. (From official Argument in Favor of Measure E)


Proponents of E state that incinerating sewage sludge expends more than $1 million in energy and releases "thousands of tons of harmful emissions," and then they ask, "Which option would cost the least and be the best for the environment?" This question is a red herring. A "no" vote on E would not be a vote for continuing to incinerate sewage sludge at the water-treatment plant. Planning for the regional wastewater facility is already ongoing and separate from Measure E, and options for handling sludge in the future include wet anaerobic digestion and other methods, according to the city's Feasibility Study.

"This technology — micro-organisms in closed tanks — is not new. Thousands of plants operate in the U.S. and worldwide." (From "Yes on E" campaign flyer)


While it's true that anaerobic digestion is "not new," combining three waste streams into an anaerobic digestion facility is an unproven method. The city's Compost Task Force evaluated a host of "advanced technologies" and concluded that "there are few commercial facilities with operating permits in North America for advanced technologies," which includes anaerobic digestion. Public Works staff also noted in a recent report that the cheapest option in the analysis — placing biosolids, food scraps and yard trimmings into three separate dry anaerobic digesters — is the "least demonstrated" scenario of the ones evaluated by the city's consultant.

What opponents of Measure E are saying:

"When the government looks to our parks for public works projects, and voters allow it, no park will ever be safe from such land grabs. Once irreplaceable parkland is gone, it's gone forever." (From official Argument Against Measure E.")


Even if voters were to undedicate the 10-acre site, the undedication would not affect any other Palo Alto parkland, nor would it have to permanently impact the 10 acres. Proponents of Measure E correctly point out that if voters pass the measure and the new facility doesn't get built, the council could "rededicate" the parkland in 10 years (voters could rededicate it sooner than that). Furthermore, the only facility that Measure E would allow to get built on the site would be a composting plant. City Attorney Molly Stump wrote in her impartial analysis of Measure E that "the land would sit fallow unless and until a Composting Facility were built."

The plant is "expensive and extravagant — vague cost estimates range from $111 million to $268 million." (From "No on E" campaign flyer)


The $268 million figure is probably far too steep. It comes from the "high-cost" estimate in the ARI study, which applies to much larger facilities than Palo Alto is exploring. The report also includes a low-cost range for various anaerobic digestion scenarios. These options range from $96 million for a dry anaerobic digester to about $133 million for a wet anaerobic digester under the scenario favored by staff. The consultants concluded that it is "likely that the lower cost options would provide a suitable system for the City with the quantities of food scraps and yard trimmings available in the City." Utilities staff also noted in a recent report that the high and low estimates don't represent a "range" so much as a choice between two options.

The proposed plant "provides only 1 percent of the city's power demand at a huge cost." (From official Argument Against Measure E.")


Opponents slightly low-ball the estimates from the city's Utilities Department, which projected in a March report that the generator from the proposed plant would produce 1.5 to 2 megawatts of electricity, enough to fulfill between 1.2 and 1.5 percent of the city's annual electricity usage. Though a small percentage of the city's overall electric load, the electricity would help the city reach its goal of drawing 33 percent of its power from renewable energy by 2015.

— Gennady Sheyner


Posted by svatoid, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Oct 21, 2011 at 7:23 am

Thanks for exposing the lies that the Yes on E proponents are spreading in the city.
Well done.

Posted by Not so fast, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 21, 2011 at 8:29 am

What I notice is that both sides of this issue play fast and loose with the facts, and make mostly emotional arguments. I am disappointed in what I read from both sides of what should be a simpler issue.

Posted by svatoid, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Oct 21, 2011 at 8:47 am

Not so fast--could be. However I think that the Yes on E are prone to greater exaggeration (i.e. lying) than the No on E people.
The article states that the claims by Yes on E contain shaky figures, there questions are red herrings and the system they propose is untested.:
While the No on E claims about parks may be exaggerated and their cost estimates for the facility may be high--we are still talking about $100s of millions of dollars.

Vote no on E.

Posted by Question, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 21, 2011 at 4:22 pm

Yes as a City of Palo Alto Employee I am lucky to have a job, so I can slowly go bankrupt or lose my home ...rather than right away. The first year of pay cuts were one thing - the second year there's no cushion. Over 200 employees now make below sustainable wage for Santa Clara County.

The City of Palo makes direct pay cuts of 11% to employees and to families and then threatens more in the future...then asks for a 111 - 258 million dollar waste treatment plant? How is this all logical?

No customer fees were raised to meet cost of General Fund items. My pay cuts already pay for your Parks, Libraries, Streets and Sidewalks. Now this?

ASK YOURSELF: How all of a sudden do they have 111 million to and 258 million?????

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 21, 2011 at 5:08 pm

This fact check analysis completely avoids a critical issue: What will happen to the digestate/compost end product? This is such a fundamental issue, and it deserves a serious answer.

Posted by nat, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 22, 2011 at 12:55 pm

No one has addressed the composition of the compost created from sewage sludge and food waste. Sewage sludge will leave a toxic residue of metals and should not be used on vegetable gardens.
Compost from yard trimmings and food waste only would be safer to use.

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 22, 2011 at 2:01 pm


It is not just metals in human sewage sludge that are a concern. There are many more toxins. The critical issue is whether this sewage sludge digestate/compost will be accepted (or even allowed) as part of an organic gardening/farming model.

The Editor of the Weekly, if he/she is going to do a 'fact check', needs to address this issue, period. The bottom line question is: What will we do with the stuff? How much will the disposal cost us?

Posted by Cost vs. Benefit, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 22, 2011 at 9:36 pm

At $100,000,000, each household has to pay $3,800 for the project. (Assuming Palo Alto has 60,000 people, in 26,000 households.)

The plant would generate 1.5 MegaWatts. With electricity costing $0.10 per kW/hr, the plant is generating $150/hour. That's $3600/day, which is $1.3 million per year.

So we break-even in 76 years. (Assuming the factory lasts 76 years.)

I think we'd do better to spent $100 million on solar energy, with perhaps a 10 year break-even time.

Posted by Brian Suckow, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Oct 23, 2011 at 11:44 am


I urge voters to just say no to the false choice embodied in Measure E by voting NO.

There is no reason why we can't achieve BOTH the objectives of preserving scarce park land AND disposing of our waste in an environmentally acceptable manner. Why do supporters of anaerobic digestion insist on using park land? Just put this facility in a more suitable location, ideally in partnership with other local cities to gain economies of scale and reduce costs, and we can do both.

Our highly educated community should be intelligent enough to reject such a false choice and demand that our elected officials explore a broader range of locations and partnership options.

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 25, 2011 at 11:03 am

A letter in the 10/24 Daily Post says the land that would be used for garbage processing belongs to the state and is leased to Palo Alto only for use as a park.

This seems to be a major legal issue, yet I have not seen any information about it prior to this letter

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 25, 2011 at 4:00 pm

Re my previous post, I received this information from Palo Alto's legal department:

“There are many regulatory hurdles that will need to be addressed before a compost facility could be built at Byxbee Park. These include clearance by the State Lands Commission, which is the state agency with jurisdiction over the subject you raise. While the City has not yet filed a formal application, the City has discussed the potential for a compost facility at the Byxbee site with State Lands. State Lands' staff has communicated to City staff that a composting operation would be permissible at the site.”

Posted by Vote-NO!, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 25, 2011 at 6:03 pm

> ASK YOURSELF: How all of a sudden do they have 111 million to
> and 258 million?????

"They" don't have $111M to $258M .. but the financial community who will buy the bonds, and the utility rate payers, and the customers of the various City-provided services who will pay higher rates for services in the future do have this sort of money (over the next 30 years).

One can only wonder if anyone who claims to be a "City employee" has the slightest idea how municipal finance works? The bottom line is that there is no "they" .. just "we the people" .. who end up paying the bills for all the money that "they" spend that is originally "ours".

But just to keep things simple--Vote NO!

Posted by Fred Balin, a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 25, 2011 at 9:05 pm

Fred Balin is a registered user.


Kindly let this audience know (1) whom you communicated with within Palo Alto’s legal department, (2) what question(s) you asked to elicit this statement, and (3) that you confirm that this is indeed an exact quotation as you have indicated.

Thank you.

I have been informed that “No on E” leadership has inquired with the State Lands Commission to confirm or deny the statements attributed to them.

Posted by David Bubenik, a resident of University South
on Oct 25, 2011 at 9:28 pm

Hello pat

Since my letter to the Palo Alto Daily News apparently started this ruckus, I should respond to your communication from the City Attorney’s office.

First, it’s gratifying the City acknowledges that the State of California controls the land in question. However, I would like to see the evidence for the claim that “State Lands' staff has communicated to City staff that a composting operation would be permissible at the site.” Maybe they will provide it in this forum.

Meantime, in the spirit of fact checking, here is a letter from the California State Lands Commission to Palo Alto Senior Assistant City Attorney Cara Silver, dated June 28, 2011. I do not see any indication in it that “a composting operation would be permissible at the site.”

”Dear Ms. Silver:

“I am writing to update you on the status of California State Lands Commission (Commission or CSLC) staff's review of CSLC Lease No. PRC 7348 which involves sovereign lands, known as Byxbee Park, leased to the City of Palo Alto (City). As you are aware, Commission staff received a complaint alleging mismanagement of the leased lands and non-compliance with the lease terms. Commission staff's review so far has identified certain key points that need some clarification.

“First, there appears to be some boundary discrepancies between the parcels as identified in the lease and amendments, the parcels as identified in the City's Baylands Master Plan, and the parcels as actually fenced and used. According to information presented to Commission staff, 1992 appears to be the time period the boundaries between the two documents diverged. Please provide me with any information relating to these apparent discrepancies.

“Additional information that we will require includes a detailed description of the current operations on the leasehold including whether these parcels have been opened as a public park as anticipated in the lease and finally the details of the proposed composting operation and where it will specifically be located.

“We would also like to conduct a site visit, to get a better understanding of the actual layout of the leasehold parcels. The Palo Alto citizens who contacted us initially have requested to attend any such visit and that sounds reasonable. I will try to schedule this with you in the near future.

“I recommend that the City refrain from taking any irreversible actions regarding this matter until Commission staff has reviewed the requested information. I will contact you shortly regarding a site visit.

“Thank you for your assistance with this matter.

Sincerely, Eric B. Milstein, Senior Staff Counsel”

Posted by Vote-NO!, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 25, 2011 at 10:27 pm

Here are three documents relating to Lease No: PRC 7348:

Web Link

Web Link

Web Link

It certainly seems that if the 10 acres that Measure E is targeting is in the area leased to the City by the State that "un-dedicating" this land might not be something that the City can do, since it doesn't really own the land. If this is true, the whole premise of Measure E is kind of mute. Even if there were some way to get the land use approved by the State, it certainly suggests that the Measure E leadership did not do their homework, and that they have been making a lot of claims that are not currently true.

The simplest thing to do is Vote NO! and let this thing sort it self out in the coming years. There is nothing urgent about the current situation.

So .. just Vote NO!

Posted by Tom Jordan, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 26, 2011 at 8:19 am

On the issue of State ownership of the 126 acre Landfill, where the 10 acres that are the subject of measure E are located, the controlling fact is that the City has signed three lease agreements with the State Lands Commission ("SLC") making specific contractual enforceable promises concerning the parcel closed in 1992 and the parcel closed in 2000 to open those parcels to the public as a passive pastoral park in 1992 and 2000, respectively. Not only did the City not fulfill its contractual obligation (those lands were first opened to the public in 2011, not as a park but as a closed capped unfenced dump. The City profited from its illegal actions in not opening the parcels as promised by, instead, charging the Refuse Fund rent on the acres that were supposed to be park. The amount the City profited in in excess of $20M paid by every Refuse account in the City.The SLC trusted that the City had complied. In February we filed a formal Complaint with the SLC advising it of the true facts. The SLC letter to the City is posted above by David Bubenik. Read it. Do you think that the City will get SLC permission for a Garbage Plant after the SLC visits and verifies the situation. What would you if you were the SLC? I have asked the SLC to confirm or deny the quote in the posting by "pat of Midtown" above. We should have their answer today. Stay tuned.

Posted by Vote-NO!, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 26, 2011 at 9:18 am

> The amount the City profited in in excess of $20M paid by
> every Refuse account in the City.

Very interesting.

There are also concerns that the Utility was illegally charging ratepayers for water-related services, under Prop.218:

Web Link

"The scope of this report is limited to the Proposition 218 requirements that cities cannot charge ratepayers more than the cost of providing utility services, nor can they use revenue from ratepayers for non-utility purposes. The intent of these requirements is to prevent cities from overcharging ratepayers for utility services, and using the surplus funds for other city purposes."

This idea of charging "rent" on land you already own, or maybe even don't own, certainly seems to fly in the face of the "spirit" of Prop.218. Unfortunately, the Palo Alto City Auditor has no stomach for digging into controversial matters, and there don't seem to be a lot of local lawyers who will dig into something this complicated on a "pro bono" basis.

There is a possibility that the water-related overcharges are as much as $40M (given that Prop.218 was passed many years ago). The Jarvis-fought lawsuits in SoCal have helped the Palo Alto City Government to become aware of their "problem", but they do not seem to have laid out the legal issues for the voters/property owners/ratepayers, who ultimately have to pay for their mistakes.

Given this $20M, and a possible $40M number, there is a huge "black cloud" involving the credibility, and integrity, of the City Manager's Officer--and all of those Department Heads involved with managing the various aspects of the City's operations.

Not only should the Voters reject Measure E, but there needs to be a strong call for an Audit by the Office of the State Auditor.

Boy .. what a MESS!

Posted by Paul Mazaika, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 26, 2011 at 12:38 pm

Despite the promised cleanliness of an anaerobic digestion plant, a review of other operational facilities in East Bay MUD, and Ontario, Canada show that cost, odor control and waste management remain as constant issues. All these plants still have development plans to further suppress odors, because the existing odors are noxious. In fact, the Ontario plants are run at reduced capacity in order to help control odor. Experience with these facilities have shown the need for additional filters to separate organic waste from contaminants, and that both the contaminants and the solid waste after the digester still need to be disposed somewhere. It makes no sense to put this kind of smelly waste plant with its associated operational buildings and truck traffic in the middle of a bayland park in an urban area.

Vote No on E.

Posted by No On E, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 26, 2011 at 12:39 pm

How can anyone with a brain have any faith in the financial competence of Palo Alto Utilities? All they know how to do is raise our rates 25% each and every year WHILE creating DIS-incentives to conserve and/or recycle because we're not using enough energy??

How much paper do they waste sending out glossy enclosures in our bills and separate mailings "comparing" our usage to our neighbors whose homes, lot sizes etc. bear no relation to our own.

I'm so tired of "green" as an orthodox religion that ignores reality.


Posted by No On E Also, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 26, 2011 at 12:51 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

Posted by Jo Ann, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 26, 2011 at 1:24 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 26, 2011 at 5:54 pm

> “There are also concerns that the Utility was illegally charging ratepayers for water-related services, under Prop.218:”

I think this is true.

Below are some excerpts from a city manager's report dated March 31, 2009
Web Link

As a result of the initial investment made by the City and its citizens, Palo Alto's residents and businesses have enjoyed favorable rates and utility services provided by the City's municipal utility. The services provided by the Gas, Water and Electric Funds provide a return on investment to the General Fund in the form of Utility Fund transfers, as established in the City's Charter.
The UAC reviewed the R. W. Beck Utility Funds Transfer Study in March 2000 and concurred with staff's recommendation to change the transfer methodology as follows:
• For the Water Fund, increase the transfer at an annual rate of 3 percent per year from the initial level of $2.044 million for FY 2000.
More recently, the City decided to conduct a review of the methodologies for the water, gas and electric equity transfers. The City hired the firm of Black and Veatch in 2008 to review the water fund equity transfer. After examining the water equity transfer methodology study and the practices of other public agencies, staff decided to cease the equity transfer to the General Fund from the Water Fund beginning in FY 2010. (BUT PROP 218 WENT INTO EFFECT JULY 1 1997.)

The total equity transfer from Utilities Funds for FY 2009 is $15.07 million. .... Since the equity transfer from the Water Fund will cease in FY 2010, the Water Fund revenue requirement is reduced by the amount of the transfer amount, or approximately $2.75 million.

Text of Prop 218 is at: Web Link

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 26, 2011 at 5:54 pm

Q: “A letter in Monday’s Daily Post says the land that would be used for garbage processing belongs to the state and is leased to Palo Alto only for use as a park. This seems to be a major issue in terms of Measure E, yet I have not seen any information about it prior to this letter. Is it true?”

A from City Attorney Molly Stump: Exactly as I posted above

Posted by Fred Balin, a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 26, 2011 at 8:30 pm

Palo Alto Online had an article about about it in February, Pat:
Web Link
Thank you for this follow up.

Posted by Tom Jordan, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 27, 2011 at 8:52 am

Re my post of 10/26 at 8:19 and related posts of others: The attorney in charge of Santa Clara County for the lands owned by the State responded promptly early yesterday that there have been no meetings with him or his immediate staff requested by Palo Alto regarding the Landfill. He could not say for certain that the City had not spoken to some clerk in their office who answered the phone or received an email (their office is too big for an attorney to make such a sweeping general statement), but he knew that his staff, the staff that counts for Palo Alto, has had no meetings or requests for meetings from the City of Palo Alto. Second item of note on this matter , is that the words quoted by "pat of Midtown" from the City legal department were from the City Attorney herself. I will suspend my opinion on this until after I talk to her to see what contacts with the State she bases her words on. I simply want to establish the true facts, not argue about what those facts mean. Every person is entitled to their own opinion, but we not entitled to our own facts.

Posted by Tom Jordan, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 27, 2011 at 7:47 pm

Late this afternoon the City Attorney and I spoke by telephone and we agreed that the limited contacts that I know the City has had with the State are the only contacts. So we are agreed on the facts, but greatly disagreed on the interpretation of the facts. She relies on an exchange of emails in January 2009 (nothing since) of a Department of Public Works ("DPW") employee with a desk clerk at SLC who is the initial contact at the State for any member of the public with general questions. The DPW employee inquired in general terms about continuing open air windrow composting on top of the Landfill after it closes -- no mention of a Garbage Plant or of how long or of what scale of composting or the area of land concerned. The clerk responded in the most general terms indicating that the State has at times approved composting as long it had regional use and benefit and the State would charge rent, followed by instructions on how to file an application with the State. No application was ever filed and there were no further approaches by the City to the State. Decide for yourself if those facts support the words in the City Attorney's email to "pat of midtown". The City Attorney insists that the facts support her letter. Decide for yourself. There is much more I could say but the agreed facts are what are important, not the interpretations. The only interpretation that counts is the State's. I am content to wait and see what the City does. I predict failure.

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