Mountain View Voice

News - November 8, 2013

Council: Bond measure for pricey facilities a no-go

by Daniel DeBolt

This week City Council members faced survey results that found too many voters don't share the council's enthusiasm for some long-desired new facilities.

As a result, Council members said Tuesday that they did not want to ask voters in next November's election to approve a bond measure that would increase taxes to pay for facilities that could cost tens of millions of dollars each.

The proposed projects include a large new community park; replacing the 1950s-era Community Center and Aquatics Center at Rengstorff Park; a grade separation to sink Rengstorff Avenue under the railroad tracks; replacing the city's oldest fire station at Rengstorff and Montecito avenues; a new Emergency Operations Center and public safety dispatch facility; and a new police and fire administration building, which could cost $35 million to $65 million.

To fund such projects with a bond measure, two-thirds of voters would have to say yes. In a poll of 700 likely voters, the best result was for a bond measure for new park faculties, which mustered only 56.3 percent voter-approval. The least likely to pass was the grade separation at Rengstorff Avenue, which got only 51.7 percent approval. The survey had a margin of error of 3 percent.

"There isn't a pressing need in (voters') minds for any one of these particular facilities," said Brian Godbe of Godbe Research in Tuesday's council study session.

"The reality is the public doesn't really have these conversations we've had about what our needs are," said council member Margaret Abe-Koga. "A poll with no education done, you are probably going to get these kinds of results. We need to do a better job of educating the public and making a case."

Sinking Rengstorff Avenue under the Caltrain tracks was estimated to cost $45 million in 2004.

"Grade separation has been on books for years and years," said member Jac Siegel. "We just haven't been able to fund it. We went to Washington and asked. We don't have any money internally to do anything really significant."

Voters happy with city services

The survey found that 93 percent of likely voters were "satisfied" with city services, down from 95 percent in 2006.

"Voters are satisfied with the way things are," said council member Mike Kasperzak. "A case was not made for why certain things are needed. What does a grade crossing get us? It doesn't get into that level of detail. I think going into 2014 is a non-starter. I don't think it's worth putting any more into that."

The survey found that a two-thirds majority of voters would only approve a property tax increase of $19 a year for every $100,000 of property value, not enough for city staff members to recommend a ballot measure in 2014. A parcel tax increase of $24 would be needed to generate a $50 million bond.

The survey's questions indicated that there is some concern about the city's emergency facilities withstanding an earthquake, including Fire Station No. 3, which council member Abe-Koga said is actually a favorite station among firefighters because of its "traditional" design.

If the city's dispatch center were to be destroyed, "We would have the ability to (have) mobile dispatch out of our mobile command van, but that is pretty rudimentary," said police Chief Scott Vermeer. He added that in January, the police department will go live with a virtual consolidation of emergency communication operations with Sunnyvale and Palo Alto. "We will be able to dispatch from Palo Alto or Sunnyvale. There will be a quantum leap in next few months to have a more robust response."

Council eyes alternatives

"I think we should not consider raising taxes," said council member Ronit Bryant. "Let's see what we can do with what we have. And there's 2016. I always prefer to wait until it hurts."

Council members said they wanted to look at other funding sources and ways to save money on costly projects. One way around voter approval would be for the council to approve a bond itself, but that would require a source of new revenue to pay it off. Such a bond could be had by committing property and sales taxes from the phase two of Merlone Geier's San Antonio shopping center redevelopment, from which Merlon Geier promised $2.7 million in property and sales taxes. A new shopping center on city property known as the "Moffett Gateway" at Highway 101 and Moffett Boulevard could also provide lease revenue. City staff members said that the city could get a $20 million bond if $2 million a year in new revenue could be found. The bond would be paid off in 15 years.

The city could also more than double the city's relatively low business license fee to the same fee level as nearby cities, making another $350,000 a year. Such an increase would require voter approval, but survey results showed some promise that voters would approve.

"If you double my business license fee I don't think it would kill me," said council member John McAlister, who said he pays the city $60 a year for his business license as the owner of the Baskin Robbins on El Camino Real.

The survey also indicated that voters may approve an increase in a tax on hotel stays known as a "transient occupancy tax," which would raise nearly $940,000 a year in new revenue. Mountain View would have to match the highest hotel tax in the county, raising rates from 10 percent to 12 percent.

New park land or new community center?

There's $19.8 million in existing funds that could be used for a better community center, collected from fees paid by real estate developers to acquire new park space in the city. The "park land dedication" funds are often used to acquire space for "mini-parks" and build park facilities in undeserved areas of the city particularly in residential areas of northern Mountain View.

If the city follows through with recent plans to renovate the center rather than build a new one, the park fees might cover it.

"That's something we could do right now," said Abe-Koga, saying she supported the idea.

"Do we really need to go out and buy four more mini-parks or do we rehabilitate what we have?" asked Kasperzak.

McAlister was the only member to express opposition to the idea.

"I would be very hesitant to use open space fees," McAlister said. "Developers are finding money to buy space — we should be able to find money to keep this going."

Email Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

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