Palo Alto may seek bond for new public-safety facilities | January 13, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 13, 2012

Palo Alto may seek bond for new public-safety facilities

City Council to kick off discussion this week on bond measure to replace aged police building, fire stations

by Gennady Sheyner

If a major earthquake were to strike Palo Alto tomorrow, it could render the city's police headquarters at City Hall functionally useless and topple the cramped, half-century-old fire stations at Mitchell and Rinconada parks, possibly injuring or killing their occupants.

Those were some of the findings of the Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission, a 17-member panel that has been assessing the city's infrastructure needs and ways to pay for these needs. The group's voluminous report, which was 13 months in the making and released last month, surveys just about every component of the city's infrastructure, from roads and parks to big-ticket items such as the Municipal Services Center and the Cubberley Community Center. But the report strikes a particularly urgent note when it looks at the city's public-safety facilities — buildings that remain one of the city's most glaring weaknesses and top priorities.

The infrastructure commission's report recommends that the city ask its voters to approve a bond this year that would pay for a new public-safety building and for repairs to the two fire stations. Another alternative, the report states, is issuing "certificates of participation" (COPs), debt instruments that would not require a vote but carry interest rates 15 to 20 percent higher than general-obligation bonds. The council had considered issuing these certificates in 2008 but ultimately decided not to.

These options are expected to re-emerge Tuesday night, when the City Council holds its first discussion of the infrastructure report.

The public-safety dilemma is far from new, though it's taking on a higher profile at a time when the council lists both "emergency preparedness" and "infrastructure" as its top priorities. The police building, as the infrastructure commission points out, began vexing city officials almost immediately after it was built in 1971. The small space at the Forest Avenue headquarters required "squeezing functions into spaces not designed for them" — a tradition that remains one of the department's chief coping mechanisms (its document-storage section looks particularly rudimentary — boxes of files stacked against a wall). But, as the commission noted, inadequate space is just one of many problems.

"Over time, legal requirements grew, building-code requirements changed, community service needs (e.g., special events, visiting dignitaries) increased, and information-technology burdens on the building leapfrogged ahead," the infrastructure report states. "What were previously annoyances became severe constraints, hampering the City's first responders in discharging their duties."

The problem has gotten worse over time as conditions "have incrementally and steadily deteriorated relative to potential threats in the form of terrorism, earthquake, pandemics, and the like."

Dennis Burns, who in his role as an interim public-safety director heads both the police and fire departments, pointed to one innocuous but irksome problem in the current police building — an insufficient number of electric outlets.

"We never anticipated we'd need so many outlets to power all our new operations," Burns said.

The council last grappled with the problem of an obsolete public-safety building six years ago, when it appointed a task force to examine the facility and the police department's needs. The task force's executive summary (which is cited in the new infrastructure report) opened with the sentence, "The Task Force recommends in the strongest possible terms that the City proceed expeditiously to build a new Public Safety Building."

Since then, other independent assessments have reached the same conclusion. Last March, a consultant assessing the city's emergency services found the city's emergency-operations center (which is housed in the public-safety section of City Hall) "seismically unsafe" and incapable of withstanding a major disaster. Other deficiencies uncovered by the Berkeley-based firm Urban Resilience Policy include "inadequate telecommunications capacity; lack of current technology needs and equipment for a fully functional center; and, a lack of resilient baseline utilities in the room itself." The report recommends moving the city's emergency operations to a "seismically safe facility with appropriate and functional amenities."

The infrastructure commission, in its own review, called the public-safety building "unsafe and vulnerable."

"Its inadequacies in terms of capacity, operational efficiency, technology, and flexibility were well-documented in the 2006 Blue Ribbon Task Force study and have not improved with time. Public safety should be a top priority for any city but — in terms of proper facilities — that priority has for many years been dangerously deferred in Palo Alto."

But while the problem has been often stated and exhaustively analyzed, solutions have been elusive. In 2008, the council considered lumping a new police building with the library bond only to learn that public-safety is often a tough sell with the public. While residents overwhelmingly supported refurbishing the city's library system, only 57 percent of responders in a citizen survey said they would support a bond for a police building, short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass a bond.

But local history also provides some reasons for hope. In 1927, for example, voters passed a $74,000 bond to pay for a new police building on Bryant Street. The building (which served the two departments until the late 1960s) housed the police department, a jail, fire trucks, fire-department offices, a police court and a basement with a "small pistol range" and storage space, according to Ward Winslow's centennial history of Palo Alto.

These days, Palo Alto faces another challenge — a lack of a suitable site for the new building. City officials had briefly considered two parcels on Park Boulevard, but ultimately declined to purchase the sites because of budgetary woes. Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie told the Weekly that while the city is still keeping its eyes open for potential sites, the city is not negotiating for any particular site at this time.

In the meantime, Palo Alto has been looking at other ways to cope with the small space and make its police and fire operations more efficient. Burns noted that the city's public-safety departments have been placing a greater emphasis on collaboration with neighboring communities. The city, for example, is working with Mountain View and Los Altos on a "virtual consolidation" of the three cities' dispatch services. The move will allow the three departments to easily share information and back each other up during emergencies. It could also set the stage for a real "brick-and-mortar" consolidation of dispatch some time in the future.

In 2010, the department debuted a mobile emergency-operations center, a high-tech van that can function as a temporary dispatch and communications hub should City Hall's dispatch center be rendered non-functional.

These changes could allow the department to make the most of its limited space. But they would do little to protect the police building from a natural disaster such as a major earthquake.

"If nothing is going to change, we're just going to be that much closer to a more significant event that could paralyze the community and have detrimental outcome for our services, especially in dispatch in the Emergency Operations Center," Burns said. "I think that hasn't changed. At some point, we need to come up with another solution because what we have now is not ideal."

The quest for the solution will begin this week and stretch through the spring and into early summer, when the council is set to finalize the possible bond package. Mayor Yiaway Yeh, who declared 2012 the year of "infrastructure," said the council would weigh the recommendations of the infrastructure commission and feedback from staff before deciding whether to place a bond measure on the November ballot.

The council will also have to decide what to include in the bond measure. To wade through the complex report, Yeh plans to hold monthly Saturday meetings that would focus specifically on items that could be included in the bond package. The infrastructure commission proposed including a public-safety building ($65 million) and the two fire stations ($14.2 million), for a total of $79.2 million. That, however, may not be the package that the council ultimately ends up with.

"It's natural that as an independent commission, they would have findings and recommendations," Yeh told the Weekly. "It's also natural that staff will have its own perspective and that the conclusions and recommendations may not be in full alignment.

"That's where the meat of the discussion is going to be."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at


Like this comment
Posted by Marrol
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 13, 2012 at 10:14 am

As I have stated often time on this forum, infrastructure and public safety needs should be the city's top priorities when it comes to allocating public funds. However, I am deeply opposed to creating a new tax measure to accomplish these goals.

Our city leaders and elected officials must set some financial priorities and demonstrate that they have the ability to apply that when planning their budget. If the city made some difficult, but very appropriate cuts in other non-essential programs and services we may be closer to bridging that budgetary gap. Considering the current infrastructure and public safety needs, the city has to question whether or not we really need to operate so many public libraries. Should the city be embarking on, even with the influx of grant money, projects such as the 101 bike bridge, electric vehicle charging stations, golf course redesign, and upgrades to the California Avenue Business District. Many other projects involving park improvements new playground construction have to be suspended. The city also needs to examine whether or not the tax payers should continue to publicly support programs like the Children's Theater, the Lucie Stern Zoo, and various homeless outreach programs which actually serve very few people with few if any real ties to our community.

I realize that tough choices have to be made. Our city leaders and elected officials should have foreseen these vital infrastructure needs, shown some financial responsibility, and planned appropriately. It is the equivalent of someone spending all of their household money on a new car, vacations, and an addition on the house, and now find themselves unable to pay the bills, fix the leaks, and patch the roof. And now they come back to us tax payers, hands out, crying poor, and asking for money to cover their essential needs. I don't think so.

Like this comment
Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 13, 2012 at 10:40 am

Places we could have used for a Public Safety building:
Expand the existing building using the Downtown library
At the site of the Main Library and Art Center
Sold the College Terrace library site and used that $$ towards PS building.

We can still:
Move city hall into some existing office space in Palo Alto and use that whole space for a new building
Use some of the land at the golf course
Turn Mitchell Park into our Main Library and use that site for a satellite library and PS building

We should absolutely
Stop funding ANYTHING that is not infrastructure or public safety related for a number of years until we get caught up. There is no reason that things like the Children's Theater and the Zoo can not become self-funded thru private fundraising, ticket sales, events, etc. Unless we have a safety hazard in our parks or fields, lets hold off spending public $$ on them.

Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 13, 2012 at 10:52 am

So, this is your way of punishing the city for not cutting back on the services you personally find extraneous? Don't build that police building - that'll show 'em! And who suffers? All of us, after the earthquake, pandemic or other disaster.

The residents should support the bond measure. It will be our way of saying we understand what's really important around here.

Like this comment
Posted by commonsense
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 13, 2012 at 11:02 am

Post Office!!!

Like this comment
Posted by Marrol
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 13, 2012 at 11:34 am

Excuse me Resident, but I would like to see our city leaders and elected officials demonstrate an understanding of what's really important around here. They have and continue to spend millions on non-essential programs and services, seemingly ignoring the vital needs that exist in public safety and infrastructure. I'm tired of them coming back to the tax payers with a hand out. When they show some fiscal responsibility and foresight, close some libraries, contract out our animal services, and suspend non-essential capital improvements, then come back and talk to us. If we keep filling the trough, they will keep coming back for more. It's time for it to run dry and hold them accountable.

Like this comment
Posted by Hey, Henny-Penny--The-Sky-is-NOT-Falling!
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 13, 2012 at 11:53 am

> The infrastructure commission, in its own review, called the
> public-safety building "unsafe and vulnerable."

How many safety “experts” were on this committee which needs to be fully seen for what it is—“Friends of City Hall”?

> Last March, a consultant assessing the city's emergency
> services found the city's emergency-operations center
> (which is housed in the public-safety section of City Hall)
> "seismically unsafe" and incapable of withstanding a major disaster.

And just how did this “consultant” come to this conclusion? Earthquakes are characterized as having a point-of-origin (called the epicenter) and a magnitude. Secondary shocks also can occur, which are very hard to predict, unfortunately.

So .. we know that the Loma Prieta earthquake (epicenter not too far away on the San Andreas Fault, with a magnitude of 6.9 [Richter Scale] did absolutely no damage to the police station, or any of the other Palo Alto Public Safety facilities. So.. what “disaster” did this “consultant” dream up? (Notice the shift of wording from “earthquake” to “disaster”.)

The City now has a $500K mobile communications center, that can easily be activated (or so sayeth the Palo Alto Police), and there are mutual aid agreements in place that would allow the telephone company to shift the 911 termination from the current call center to one of several surrounding cities (or so sayeth the Palo Alto Police). So, the claim that the emergency center is going to go “poof” is not going to be easily substantiated short of a 8+ (RS) earthquake occurring right under City Hall.

Like this comment
Posted by Joseph E. Davis
a resident of Woodside
on Jan 13, 2012 at 12:28 pm

Here's an idea. How about we whack the salaries and benefits of our overpaid and mostly useless "public servants" by a large amount (I'd suggest 50%)? We could either put that money towards whatever real needs there are, or refund it to the long-suffering taxpayers

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 13, 2012 at 12:37 pm

I will be willing to pay for the new police building if the city stops funding PACT.

Like this comment
Posted by Robin
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 13, 2012 at 1:03 pm

First, be smarter with the money you have. Once waste is addressed, consider additional taxes.

Palo Alto clearly has not done the former. The examples of waste are numerous, starting with overpayment and overstaffing of the city bureaucracy.

Look no further than our awful planning department, which demonstrated time and again that it wan't up to the job by delivering slow, lousy service for high fees, was recently expanded. We hired more bureaucrats and wasted more money (not to mention adding to the ridiculous public pension debt we're incurring due to the out of market benefits we give our public employees). Hiring a private sector firm in a competitive bid situation would have saved the taxpayers millions. Or, firing the underperforming planners and replacing them with people who were up to the task.

I'm tired of the city pleading poor. I will not bail out a government that is incapable of making efficient use of our tax dollars.

Like this comment
Posted by bill g
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 13, 2012 at 1:09 pm

Henny Penny obviously has a degree in geology and can predict what would occur during an earthquake. I doubt it, but he/she can make judgments anyway without (probably) reading either the 2006 report or the current IBRC one. Further, the Mobile Operation Center is meant to be a temporary solution. It is not designed to function for days or weeks if the main dispatch center is totaled.

Merrol has some very good points. Stop spending money on groups' pet project, e.g. a bicycle bridge, and set aside the money for a number one priority - Public Safety. No new projects should be started until all of the IBRC ones are addressed. We don't have limitless funds, only limitless appetites for our wants.

Like this comment
Posted by Hey, Henny-Penny--The-Sky-is-NOT-Falling!,
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 13, 2012 at 1:32 pm

> Henny Penny obviously has a degree in geology and can predict
> what would occur during an earthquake

This is earthquake country, where hundreds of earthquakes occur yearly. Most news accounting give the epicenter and the magnitude--for people who either do, or either don't, have geology experience. It's difficult to believe than anyone on the IBRC brought such experience to the table.

> the Mobile Operation Center is meant to be a temporary solution

The police claim that this unit can operate for indefinite periods of time. If it can't, then they have been misinforming the public. The unit has its own power generators, and has plugs for tapping grid power. It's not intended to be slept in, but tents could be provided, much like the US Military uses when it is in combat.

Since the City was founded, there have been no "emergencies", or "disasters", that have required an extended response by the Police.

Oh, one final point--the largest number of people killed during the Loma Prieta Quake ('89) were in a government designed, and operated transportation structure--which was no doubt "certified by experts" .. until it fell down and killed a large number of people.

Like this comment
Posted by jardins
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 13, 2012 at 2:58 pm

If Palo Alto goes ahead and decides to build a new police/public safety building, it needs to carefully study the new one in San Mateo: that cost $30 million, not the $80 million that we've been told is needed for our building.

A few years ago, LaDoris Cordell said that the PAPD deserves "a Cadillac" of a building, and that spending $80 million was merited. Why?

Like this comment
Posted by guest
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 14, 2012 at 6:03 am

When after years of other rationales, you hear that a consultant says that "earthquake safety" demands taxpayer spending on civil servant offices, you know the claim is bogus.

Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of another community
on Jan 14, 2012 at 10:57 am

Just a point to keep in mind: The epicenter of the 1989 quake was 80 miles from here.

Palo Alto was incredibly lucky in that one. Did you see the Santa Cruz downtown or Watsonville -- at the epicenter -- after that quake? Complete rubble. Geologic issues (landfill) caused the horrible Oakland and SF tragedies.

PA got LUCKY in 1989...though there was some huge damage nearby (Stanford's old bldgs.)

Have a look at some photos of 1906 in Palo Alto to see what UNLUCKY looks like.....and we're way ovedue for a repeat of that one. There is no reason to expect luck to protect Palo Alto in future quakes -- after all the San Andreas travels right under us.

But if a rich and supposedly smart community like Palo Alto can't do anything but complain that preparedness is silly, that is a script they can recall after the quake.

I find the attacks on public employees disingenuous Most of the city salary totals reflect the cost of living here and cost of benefits. Both of those are absurdly high. Most PA employees certainly can't afford to live here...yet PA expects them to commute from Gilroy or Stockton etc.

Working in PA must be incredibly stressful. The letters on these pages make it clear that the locals despise their own employees (especially police and fire personnel)

I can't imagine why anyone would want to work in this contentious community and be subject its selective and selfish whims.

Like this comment
Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 14, 2012 at 11:28 am

“…complain that preparedness is silly…”

I don’t see anyone complaining that preparedness is silly. What we are complaining about is the lack of fiscal responsibility that puts us in a position of having 5 libraries and no public safety building.

As for “selective and selfish whims,” tell that to the special interests groups who convince the city council to spend money on non-essential projects at the expense of basic infrastructure and public safety.

Like this comment
Posted by Lindsay
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 14, 2012 at 8:20 pm

"I can't imagine why anyone would want to work in this contentious community and be subject its selective and selfish whims."

I find it quite easy to imagine how getting paid out of market salaries and pensions unheard of in the private sector for working a union job with zero accountability to actually produce anything would appeal to a lot of people. The point above about the planning department by Robin was spot on. Joseph E Davis' comment is even more so.

Like this comment
Posted by Me, Myself and I
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 14, 2012 at 8:31 pm

"If a major earthquake were to strike Palo Alto tomorrow..."

Judging by the inexcusable condition of our sidewalks, I thought the big one had already hit. If the city spent a lot less money trying to fight high speed rail, there would be more available for infrastructure projects.

Like this comment
Posted by Jack Meoff
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 16, 2012 at 3:19 pm

So many experts posting nonsense and they still continue to spew out the same crappola. No wonder the city never moves forward!

Like this comment
Posted by skeptic
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 16, 2012 at 11:25 pm

We already have a police department and a public safety building. We apparently have a new mobile headquarters van, yet we supposedly need to build a new police headquarters in case of "terrorism, earthquake, pandemic, or [most terrifying of all!] the like." Not sure why police are needed for a "pandemic" - somebody planning to riot? Or perhaps we'll need police to shoot the infected army of undead zombies after our brains? Chill people.

Like this comment
Posted by Safety First
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 18, 2012 at 2:29 pm

Dear Skeptic,

I urge you to take a tour of our police department (which is also our "public safety operations headquarters") in the seismically unsound BASEMENT of City Hall. I did. It was an eye opener.

Put it on the ballot. I'll vote for it in a heartbeat.

Do your homework. This is a very real problem.

Like this comment
Posted by Read the USGS studies
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 18, 2012 at 3:14 pm

Is the present location structurally unsound?

Fact: it survived the Loma Prieta quake; no seismic retrofits were required to render it 'safe'.

Fact: until the next 1906-type San Andreas fault earthquake occurs, only Loma Prieta-type earthquakes will occur. (Information source: USGS studies, which serve as the basis for earthquake insurance actuarial calculations.)

Fact: according to historic, geological evidence over the past several thousand years, the period between 1906-type earthquakes is no less than 150 years, and no more than 300 years. (Information source: same USGS studies.)

Inference: the next quake which could have enough energy to affect present public safety facilities will not occur before 2056.

Suggestion: start building a City plan to replace/revamp these facilities over the next 40 years, not the next 5. Start saving for it now.

Observation: it may well be that the present police HQ is not configured for the needs of a 'modern' department facility. If so, then argue on the merits. Don't obfuscate the issue by using earthquake scare tactics. The data and the studies by USGS do not support earthquake susceptibility as a valid reason to use new tax revenues to build new facilities.

Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.


Post a comment

Posting an item on Town Square is simple and requires no registration. Just complete this form and hit "submit" and your topic will appear online. Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

We prefer that you use your real name, but you may use any "member" name you wish.

Name: *

Select your neighborhood or school community: * Not sure?

Comment: *

Verification code: *
Enter the verification code exactly as shown, using capital and lowercase letters, in the multi-colored box.

*Required Fields


Registration now open

Sign up for the 33rd annual Palo Alto Weekly Moonlight Run and Walk. This family-friendly event which benefits local nonprofits serving kids and families will take place on Friday, Oct. 6 at the Palo Alto Baylands.

Register Here