Palo Alto hopes for residents' help with 2014 measure | September 21, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 21, 2012

Palo Alto hopes for residents' help with 2014 measure

City to hire public-opinion firm, form campaign committee to assist with infrastructure ballot issue

by Gennady Sheyner

As Palo Alto officials march toward a 2014 ballot measure to fund infrastructure repairs, they are keeping a close eye on 2008 and trying to apply the lessons they learned from the city's last successful bond campaign to the next one.

The City Council unanimously approved late Tuesday night, Sept. 18, a detailed plan for determining which projects should appear on the November 2014 ballot and for reaching out to the community for help in getting the measure passed. The plan includes polling the community, prioritizing the potential projects that would appear on the ballot, forming a campaign committee to promote the measure and drafting the necessary language by the middle of 2014.

At Tuesday's discussion, council members and staff frequently alluded to 2008, when 69 percent of the city's voters approved Measure N, a $76 million library bond. The bond, which funded the recent renovation of Downtown Library, the ongoing reconstruction of the Mitchell Park Library and Community Center and the future upgrade and expansion of the Main Library, cruised to victory after an aggressive outreach campaign from a citizens committee.

The drive for a 2014 bond is a major component in the city's multi-year effort to repair its aged infrastructure, an effort that prompted Mayor Yiaway Yeh to declare 2012 "The Year of Infrastructure Renewal and Investment." The effort gained momentum in December with the release of a report from the Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Task Force, a 17-member committee that tallied the city's infrastructure needs and recommended possible ways to pay for items on the list.

The task force concluded that the city has a maintenance backlog of about $95 million. It also identified a list of needed projects with a collective price tag of $200 million, including a public-safety building that would cost more than $60 million.

But while the public-safety building is a top priority (the existing police headquarters at City Hall is cramped and seismically unsound), council members stressed that they had not yet determined which projects would ultimately appear on the 2014 ballot. Instead, they emphasized that this decision will be reached after extensive community outreach and polling.

They also agreed that citizens must play a major role in the coming campaign if it is to succeed. While staff recommended that the city solicit advice from the infrastructure committee, Councilman Larry Klein said the campaign would require an even stronger presence from community volunteers, including active campaigning from a citizen committee. He pointed to the library bond, which he said "was blessed with people who really did a terrific job in running the campaign."

"Advice is great, but the slogging work of a campaign committee is absolutely essential," Klein said.

He also recommended that staff develop a timeline for getting accurate price estimates for the roughly 20 items on the city's menu of desired infrastructure projects — a list that in addition to the public-safety buildings includes two rebuilt fire stations, a bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101 at Adobe Creek and repairs to the city's streets, parks and buildings.

Councilman Pat Burt stressed that the staff-generated list of items does not in any way indicate which projects will ultimately end up on the ballot. That decision will be made after the council considers both the importance of each project and alternative sources of funding for these projects.

"The communication part of this will be critical to its success," Burt said. "Early misinterpretations of our intent could lead to undermining the initiative."

Members also advocated giving the voters various options for potential bond measures before deciding which has the best chance of passing. The plan the council approved Tuesday night involves hiring a public-opinion research company in November and hiring a communication strategist in January of next year.

Councilwoman Karen Holman said the public will play a crucial role in shaping the 2014 ballot measure.

"If the council picks its top 10 projects, that doesn't necessarily mean that's what will end up on ballot," Holman said. "The public plays a major role in this — the deciding role, quite frankly."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 19, 2012 at 7:40 am

The library bond was passed with the help of the PTA guilt tripping parents by asking them to "do it for the kids" and so many people voted yes without taking time to understand what they were voting for. The pressure at the time was everywhere and enormous. Mitchell Park was in such a bad condition that they felt that this was the only way to get improvements.

I have spoken with many people who felt they were duped now that they have seen what they voted for.

I hope that this 'guilt trip' and 'no other choice' mantra is not brought into play; I want the city council to review all its spending and money wasting projects before I approve of giving them any more of my money to pay for what they should have been paying for over the past x number of years.

Posted by seriously, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 19, 2012 at 8:20 am

I still remember the library supporters line: "...that's about a latte a week to bring all of our libraries into the 21stcentury."

Posted by Timothy Gray, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Sep 19, 2012 at 9:18 am

The Palo Alto political machinery is gearing up to “Sell” the community on the idea of a bond measure to fund the infrastructure deficit.

I certainly understand the need to fix our roads and sidewalks, to underground the utility lines, and to replace the Public Safety Building before a potential disaster comes our way.

The big deception headed our way is that if you don’t support a big bond measure, you are not supporting public safety.

We do have more than a $400 million infrastructure deficit, and that happened one year at a time by spending all our revenue on operations by letting repairs fall behind or not setting aside an appropriate reserve for known future needs.

That is like a family that uses their “available” cash to take an extra Hawaii vacation each year. Then, when faced with not having enough money to keep their roof from falling in, they raid their children’s piggy banks and college education funds.

Before we go to the voters and ask for a bailout, we need to show a little financial discipline to at least provide a standard and prudent “down payment” by reducing our operating expenses to fund future infrastructure needs by more than the token $2 million that was offered in the current budget.

The formula is clear – prioritize spending on services and then reduce from the bottom. It will be uncomfortable, but not nearly as painful if we don’t do something different than the past. To borrow a commonly known question, “If you keep doing the Same Old Stuff, what makes you think you are going to have a different result?”

We can do better, and it starts with finding at least another $5 million in operating expense to reduce, and use it as a “down payment” on our future. We don’t have to look too far to see what happens when we adopt a “zero down, figure out how to pay for it later” approach.

A shared community vision on spending priorities is the only cure. We cannot accept anything less. By borrowing from our future, we will surely strangle the creativity that has made this place great, because we will be in a position of paying for our historical excesses, vs. building a brighter future. Financial discipline does not strangle, but rather preserves the opportunity to create. We can do better.

Timothy Gray, Park Blvd. Palo Alto

Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Sep 19, 2012 at 9:53 am

Palo Alto Mulls Selling Land In Foothills:
Web Link

Most land in Palo Alto goes for at least $5M/acre (generally in the developed areas, albeit). This 7.7 acre parcel could command up to $40M, if handled properly. The fact that the City is trying to impose secrecy on this transaction leaves us wondering:

1) How little will the City accept?
2) Where will the money go? If it goes into the General Fund--it will disappear in salaries/benefits. If if is targeted for infrastructure, it could reduce the burden on the taxpayers considerably.

The list of infrastructure projects listed in a recent Weekly article we not "priced", so the total cost of this list is an open guess--particularly given the less than effective handling of most pbbublic works projects in Palo Alto. (To make matters worse, the City Auditor never seems to review the construction project outlays for effective money management.)

The City owns about $20B (billion) in land. There is no reason that some of this land should not be sold off (including the Utility) to pay for future infrastructure projects. The fact that the City will be using "ad velorem" bonds pushes the costs of the projects onto the backs of the newly arrived--while requiring those living here over 30 years to pay very little. And renters, who can vote, will not be asked to pay anything, directly.

Better to use the vast assets the City has more intelligently, than simply giving them billions more to fritter away.

Posted by Taxpayer, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 19, 2012 at 9:53 am

I'm happy to vote for new tax revenue for the city, just as soon as they get every city bureaucrat off of the defined benefit pensions that will bankrupt the next generation, outsource the city functions that are grossly overcompensated (IE the 100K secretaries and streetsweepers), eliminate the spurious city overhead (do we need a tree-manager who costs us close to 200K in total benefits), and re-direct money from pet projects to essential infrastructure.

The irony is that if they did these common sense steps that any smart business would do, they wouldn't need another bond.

Posted by Marty, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 19, 2012 at 10:10 am

I will NOT vote for any new bond measures until they have the city employees paid 50 % of their pensions!

Posted by NO!, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 19, 2012 at 10:41 am

Fix city worker's pension plans first! No more double, triple pay for police and fire dept. NO to new buildings!

Posted by Karen Lane, a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 19, 2012 at 10:43 am

I made a vow a number of years ago to vote 'NO' on every bond measure that appears on a ballot. I will carefully consider any measure that uses TAXES to fund projects, including this one.

Posted by neighbor, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 19, 2012 at 10:54 am

This may be a small item, but everyone jokes that newly-paved streets will be the next roads dug up for below-surface works projects. If there were coordination of these projects, then surfacing would be AFTER these projects and not require a second resurfacing.It appears that there is a lot of "make work" for city works people when things are not coordinated. $$$$

Posted by Sandy, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 19, 2012 at 11:02 am

I will not vote on any bond measure that the City presents. They have wasted the funds. Look at the library budget - the City has over spent their budget for the library, which has affected any other projects. I feel that they should start at home - anyone who makes over $100,000 in salary should take a 10% pay cut. Those employees can learn to live with less. No more for the City until they can prove they can responsibly spend the money where it is needed.

Posted by Jim H., a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 19, 2012 at 11:16 am

Anyone remember the 2005 Storm Drain measure that was approved by voters. City promised a plethora of improved storm drain infrastructure to get the votes. Two years later they said they could only complete a little over half of them due to "increasing costs".

Promise us the world so we'll vote for it and then fail to deliver. It's happened before.

Posted by senor bloger, a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 19, 2012 at 11:21 am

To Timothy Gray,
Please read the Infrastructure report.
The backlog is NOT $400 million.

Posted by Alissa, a resident of Professorville
on Sep 19, 2012 at 11:25 am

Additional money will just find its way to paying bloated city salaries. Look at the Utility Users Tax: it has long outlived the premise it was sold on (Cubberley, I believe), but it lives on as a revenue source for the general fund.

A bond "for infrastructure" is really just a bond to keep the city from having to use its considerable resources on infrastructure instead of bloated public servant salaries and pensions.

Not a chance. Waiting until 2014 isn't going to suddenly make things better. They must think the voters stupid.

Posted by GougedInMidtown, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 19, 2012 at 11:28 am

My answer is NO to this additional request. The city council has proven to be bad stewards of our money on previous requests. While the request for more money seems to be fairly endless (not all of us living in Palo Alto are multi-millionaires) there is no corresponding effort to get wages and pensions in line with budgets. I say NO.

Posted by Cur Mudgeon, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 19, 2012 at 11:51 am

As a 35 yr resident of Palo Alto, I've watched how the recent city council and government has SQUANDERED and mis-managed our tax and bond $. I and everyone in my household will be voting NO NO NO on any expenditures until there is pension reform and the fat cat bureaucrats take a pay cut. Enough!

Posted by Jo Ann, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 19, 2012 at 11:59 am

They should stop citing the library bond measure since the city's poor management resulted in huge cost over-runs.

When the over-paid city managers take a salary and benefit cut, I'll consider it. When they fix idiotic intersections like Town & Country/Embarcadero, I'll consider it.

And STOP sending out all those separate mailings from the Utility Dept urging us to cut energy, asking what it will take for us to pay MORE for utilities and for the glass pumpkin festival!

We've got way more $200K+ city employees than surrounding communities.

Fix those problems first.

Posted by Wheels within wheels, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 19, 2012 at 12:30 pm

Folks, an Infrastructure bond measure is just the beginning. They are hoping to tag on a substantial amount for the refurbishment of the Cubberley Community Center. That's what all these committees are presently trying to decide - how much?

The idea is that if they tag on Cubberley improvements and possible rebuilding as a joint school/Community Center to an infrastructure bond measure, the bond measure will pass. Palo Alto residents will want the city's involvement in Cubberley's future as a community center, and the School District's involvement as a possible new Middle/High School.

Posted by KP, a resident of South of Midtown
on Sep 19, 2012 at 12:34 pm

Bond Measure #__
I am voting AGAINST EVERY BOND regardless of what it's for.
When our city can blatantly scrape paint lines from Middlefield Rd (in front of the "new" library), paint new ones and put in new turn signals, then be told to return it back to the original format, and THEN come back to scrape them AGAIN, only to re-paint them (just a week or two ago), is COMPLETELY ASSININE!
They do not need any extra cash in their hands until they can show they are responsible...I swear they act like my 16 year old son! Idiots!

Posted by David Pepperdine, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 19, 2012 at 1:42 pm

If you want the city to safeguard our money, DON'T vote for Pat Burt!

Posted by Pa-lease, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 19, 2012 at 2:14 pm

Hope!? Hope?? Hope is how they do their jobs? Pa-lease. Get out there, meet greet citizens, debate, then take action.

Posted by measureaddicts, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 19, 2012 at 2:36 pm

Clearly the city doesn't want this kind of work (infrastructure repairs) tied up to the city budget even with over 10% increase in tax revenue in the coming years! What's a PLAN!

Posted by measureaddicts, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 19, 2012 at 2:41 pm

Where have all the money gone?

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 19, 2012 at 3:35 pm

“The backlog is NOT $400 million.”

It’s hard to figure out what the backlog is. Terminology is confusing. There’s backlog, new buildings, repair of old buildings …

The final IBRC report from December 2011 is at
Web Link

Table 1-1 on PDF page 14 summarizes costs in 2011 dollars. I don’t understand some of the items, but the Maintenance Total is $149 M and the total of new items listed is $210.70 M. Grand total is $359.80. This does NOT include Cubberley, which the press shows as costing $18m

Posted by jm, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 19, 2012 at 4:47 pm

I will vote No until I see discipline about spending priorities made by the city staff and council.

Watching the council and city staff spend money on nice but completely unnecessary pet projects is exactly like the Hawiian vacation family described above.

Most recently millions for a bike bridge that few will use, 4 extra utility staff members (if I remember rightly) who send out those patronizing green newsletters written as if we were all kindergartners and needed to be "educated," the bloated budget for California Avenue, all the highly paid and new staff positions who are paid way over 100K, yet even with the latest agreement will only pay a tiny fraction toward their health care and pension benefit costs, an extra tree expert when Utilities and the City each have their own arborist on the payroll (or did they consolidate after the Cal Ave tree fiasco?), consultants fees to study things the city is considering as if money were no object. On and on.

To say nothing of the massive problem of unfunded retirement obligations that will come due in a few years.

First set the house in order, take care of the existing budget and infrastructure essentials, then decide what extras there is money over for. Only then I will decide on the merits and consider voting for a new city bond.

Posted by Nora Charles, a resident of Stanford
on Sep 19, 2012 at 6:02 pm

As Ceaser, the ultra-intelligent chimp in The Rise of the Planet of the Apes roared when finally pushed too far: "Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!"

Posted by Marty, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 19, 2012 at 6:20 pm

I'll make the city a deal. I'll vote yes on this measure if there is also a measure on the ballot that has the city employees paying 50% of their pensions cost.

Posted by John, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Sep 19, 2012 at 7:50 pm

"Advice is great, but the slogging work of a campaign committee is absolutely essential," Klein said.

From the comments so far it looks like the free spenders have a lot of slogging to do!

Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Sep 19, 2012 at 8:23 pm

> There’s backlog, new buildings, repair of old buildings

That's right. In 1998, the Infrastructure Backlog was about $100M. During the Benest years, it jumped to $550M. Now, a group of amateurs comes up with another list, which they admit does not address all the infrastructure owned by the City, or that the City has some financial responsibility for--such as the San Francisco Creek refurbishment.

It's a real shame that the Public Works people did not have people on staff professional enough to put together a list that was accurate, and complete. This current BRC does address some of the problems, but this group really has no expertise in determining priorities, and/or costs.

It's a real shame that public works is so screwed up in this town.

Posted by chini, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 19, 2012 at 8:38 pm

Issuing a bond is like applying for a new credit card to spend because all the other credit cards have reached the limit. The credit cards would have to be paid eventually - by whoever is still living.

While there's a lot of coverage on the uses of the "new credit card", there's not a lot of coverage on what issuing a bond actually means to the welfare of the city. If the new expenditures will bring in more revenues to pay back the bond, then that needs to be explained too. The public should be informed clearly about the city's plans so an assessment can be made whether another "credit card" will be applied in future to pay this one.

Posted by Midtowner, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 19, 2012 at 9:20 pm

= NO

Enough already

Posted by Wheels within wheels, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 19, 2012 at 10:23 pm

Folks, brace yourselves, the City plans to hire consultants to persuade you to vote for their Infrastructure bond measure!!!

Now, if they don't have the money to complete the backlog of infrastructure needs, how come they've got the money to hire consultants to persuade you to vote them the money!!!

Our City Council and Administration gets more illogical each week!!

Posted by Sw, a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 19, 2012 at 10:24 pm

It is irritating to read that money will be wasted on the public opinion polling agency and communications strategist that the council thinks will somehow change our minds. I will vote "no" on every bond measure until I see a commitment from city management and staff to cut costs and take cuts in salaries and benefits. Afterall, that is what we are doing if we approve an increase in taxes via bonds....reducing our take-home pay.

Posted by Emanuel, a resident of Professorville
on Sep 20, 2012 at 6:07 am

Until the City Council and the City Staff demonstrates that they can and will manage the city budget intelligently, I see no reason to support additional spending via bond measures or any other means.

For example, the City Council routinely violates the Comprehensive Plan by placing the interests of the business community before those of the residents in order to generate more tax revenue. Then the associated In Lieu fees collected are routinely placed in the General Fund to be used without discretion or oversight as the Council sees fit. The same can be said our utility bills.

For that matter have you been to a City Council meeting where the Council first checked to see if there is sufficient money in the current budget to support a specific expenditure?

Until the City Council and the City Staff start demonstrate that they can manage the City of Palo Alto's budget like the multimillion dollar business that budget represents, I see no reason to vote to support placing any financial encumbrance on the backs of the residents.

One step in the right direction would be to require that the published cost of any bond issue include not just the amount of the bond but the cost of the associated interest until that bond is paid off. Then the residents would know the real cost of the measure for which they're voting!

How about placing that on the ballot in 2014?

Posted by Timothy Gray, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Sep 20, 2012 at 9:33 am

The City Infrastructure report categorized the "Infrastructure Deficit" as in several categories like "Catch up", "Keep Up", "Special Projects" or replacement needs, and then there are prudent reserves for future needs. We all know that things don't "wear out" all at once, but we do know with some precision the "useful lives" of those assets and setting up prudent reserves for the day they do break is a common business practice.

Whether the "Deficit" is $300 million or $400 million does not change the need for fundamental change in the City's budgeting and spending.

Last year the budget did make room for setting aside $2 million for future reserves, but we need to do more. Perhaps $6 million would be a start. We need to roll out the data that compares Palo Alto with other cities, and trim to those levels. There are assertions that Palo Alto has management costs greater than cities twice its size. The size of our unfunded Healthcare benefits and Pension cost may offer greater surprises as we dig deeper.

Like him or not, Bill Clinton said it best: "It's arithmetic!" Collectively we need to say: "Show me the numbers."

Sure, belt-tightening is painful, and it does not make friends, but it is essential that we make financial balance our number one priority. Pushing the problem off to the future with a bond measure only creates greater deficits. Let's get the job done. The sooner the better.

Timothy Gray

Posted by Voter, a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 20, 2012 at 11:43 am


"Sure, belt-tightening is painful, and it does not make friends, but it is essential that we make financial balance our number one priority. Pushing the problem off to the future with a bond measure only creates greater deficits. Let's get the job done. The sooner the better."

I think it's clear the public agrees with your statement above, but its a promise that is often made by local officials and rarely delivered. Can you provide some specific plans for cost savings you would target as a city council member? What is your position on pension reform, specifically the continuation of defined benefit pensions? Regionalization or outsourcing of inefficient city services? The overall size and growth of city government?

I am a legitimately frustrated and undecided voter, and I think the public would benefit from as much detail as possible.

Posted by NO!, a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 22, 2012 at 8:13 pm

No way. The city is among the worst stewards of public money this side of Bell, CA. And the fact that they're planning on wasting my tax $$ on more consultants to try to convince me otherwise is telling indeed.

Not a chance. Stop the rampant waste first. Try growing a spine and paying the union city bureaucrats what theyre worth instead of double. And quit wasting money on bike bridges and other luxury expenditures.

Posted by Benefit of the Doubt, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 23, 2012 at 4:34 pm

Jim Keene has taken city management in Palo Alto a long way toward respectability. Before he took over there was scandal after scandal in CIty Hall. Incompetent management abounded. Emily Harrison and Gary Baum were running amok. No one was minding the store. The department heads were all playing political games. HR, Public Works, the City Attorney, and other departments were a complete mess. The crony system prevailed. Jim has cleaned house for the most part. Give the new administration benefit of the doubt.

Posted by Timothy Gray, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Sep 24, 2012 at 9:58 am

Regionalization is a theme that needs to be embraced by the City of Palo Alto. Some ideas will work and others will not, but we need to explore the possibilities with an open mind.

For example, we all know that disasters do not confine themselves to political boundaries, yet we have a separate director of Emergency Preparedness, and a portion of the Public Safety facility involves an Emergency command center, yet these seem to be resources that could be shared with Stanford? Mountain View? Los Altos? Menlo Park? etc.

This kind of consideration, and full participation by the citizens in the results of the analysis should be a first priority of City Leadership.

Perhaps there are other aspects. The possibility of a shared Evidence Room needs to be explored. There must be other opportunities for regional cooperation -- vs. the not-invented-here perspective.

Another artificial barrier is City Departments. Already, Police Chief Dennis Burns fills the additional role of Fire Chief, putting Public Safety under a single Director. There are more opportunities like this.

With Palo Alto City costs believed to be significantly greater than cities of comparable or even greater size, we must be open to benchmarking, and then having a public discussion about significant variances vs. turning out the P.R. to justify the higher expenditure.

We can get to the bottom of this with solid arithmetic. Let's get it done.


Timothy Gray

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