Should an existing property tax that has eight more years to go be extended indefinitely? This is the question being placed before voters on Nov. 3 by Santa Clara Valley Water District's Measure S.
The measure would fund the Safe, Clean Water and Natural Flood Protection program, which protects the drinking-water supply and dams from earthquakes and climate change and reduces pollution, toxins and contaminants in waterways, including San Francisquito Creek in Palo Alto and the wetlands of San Francisco Bay.
Measure S would raise approximately $45.5 million annually, with a qualifying senior exemption, annual audits and independent citizen oversight.
In 2012, 74% of voters approved the district's Measure B, a $67.67 per residence parcel tax, which is expected to raise $548 million by 2028 for the Clean Water program.
Measure B only funds these projects through 2028, however. Measure S proposes additional funding annually until voters rescind the tax. It would not increase existing rates — an average $.006 per square foot annually — but the district's board could raise the parcel tax up to 2% annually for inflation.
If approved, Measure S would provide $263 million for flood-control projects, $54 million for seismic upgrades to Anderson Dam, $51 million for removing trash and homeless encampments from creeks, $155 million for creek restoration and wildlife protection and $53 million for environmental education and conservation grants. The measure requires a two-thirds majority approval to pass.
The measure has drawn both support and some opposition from Palo Alto residents. Other sources of funding for flood control and clean-water projects, notably from the state and federal governments, could dwindle due to natural disasters, continuing effects of the coronavirus pandemic and economic downturns. The open-ended tax would guarantee that work on projects that won't finish by 2028 could be completed, according to some Palo Alto residents who live in flood-prone neighborhoods.
It's an argument supported by Gary Kremen, Valley Water board member for district 7, which includes Palo Alto and Mountain View.
"Not knowing if funding will run out in eight years limits long-term projects," he said in an email. "Proper planning can save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars as we face an uncertain future with climate change and potential droughts, floods and wildfires.
"The current Safe, Clean Water program needs updating. Why would we wait to fix something we know is not working perfectly?," he said.
While many of the projects would benefit the south bay, Kremen said there are projects directly benefiting Palo Alto and Mountain View residents. The measure would fund $31.5 million to continue the San Francisquito Creek project (upstream of U.S. Highway 101), providing flood protection for approximately 3,000 homes and businesses in Palo Alto.
Valley Water has already paid the largest share of the downstream-of-101 funding, he noted.
The measure also provides $46 million to continue the San Francisco Bay Shoreline Projection Project, which is a partnership with the California State Coastal Conservancy, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and regional stakeholders. It provides tidal flood protection, restores and enhances tidal marsh and related habitats, and funds recreational and public access opportunities including in Palo Alto and Mountain View, he said.
The measure "provides $53.1 million in grants and partnerships for cities like Palo Alto and Mountain View, agencies, organizations and individuals for water conservation, pollution prevention, creek cleanups and education, wildlife habitat restoration and wildlife corridors and crossings, flood-inducing blockage removal, and access to trails and open space. The past example of this is (work on) Matadero, Adobe and Permanente creeks," he said.
Additionally, the measure provides $38.7 million to continue the ongoing coordination with local cities and agencies to help clean up large creekside homeless encampments that may contaminate waterways. It is estimated that 25% of the homeless live in creeks, he said.
Some leaders in Palo Alto's Crescent Park neighborhood, which has been significantly impacted by flooding along San Francisquito Creek, submitted a letter to the water board on July 14 supporting Measure S.
The residents said they have waited 22 years for flood protection on the creek. Since the disastrous 1998 flood, they have experienced five other near-miss flood events. As plans for reconstructing the Newell Bridge progress and residents look forward to the second phase of flood control construction at the Pope-Chaucer bridge, they don't want a lack of funding to hinder flood-control projects.
"(We) still do not have any protection against the primary culprit for the flooding of the Crescent Park and Duveneck/Saint Francis neighborhoods, the Pope-Chaucer bridge. It is beyond time to upgrade the Pope-Chaucer bridge and the downstream weak spots in the creek, including the Newell Road bridge, to contain future high flows," residents Norm Beamer, Thomas Rindfleisch, Xenia Hammer, Steve Bisset, Hamilton Hitchings and Trish Mulvey wrote.
"Now that the Highway 101 to bay reach has been upgraded, thankfully with generous support from Valley Water, it is crunch time when we must maintain the funding priority and capacity to finish the Highway 101 to Middlefield bridge reach," they wrote.
But since the letter was written, Mulvey has withdrawn her support for Measure S citing several concerns, including the indefinite nature of the tax. In many ways, she said, the proposal is misleading.
"The current Safe, Clean Water and Natural Flood Protection program and projects are funded until 2028 to ensure public health and safety and address environmental stewardship and climate change. No current project and no local job is at risk," she said in a statement.
The current program "includes a sunset date so that voters can again decide whether we are getting our money's worth from any proposed program renewals. A sunset date is not part of Measure S, and that is not a minor matter."
"When Measure S says it will remain in effect 'until ended by voters,' it doesn't mention that gathering over 30,000 valid signatures of registered voters will be necessary to bring repeal of this tax back to the ballot," she said.
Mulvey thinks Valley Water could propose a better measure in the next general election that could fix flaws in the measure.
Measure S doesn't disclose that more than $300 million of 30-year bonds will be sold, and repayment with interest and banking fees will cost more than $650 million. The proposed measure fails to mention the yearly tax increase of at least 2% on the minimum residential parcel size of one-quarter acre, she said.
The measure also does not include a clear budget for how the money would be spent nor a link to an expenditure plan online, she said.
"When Measure S says it includes 'independent citizen oversight,' it doesn't explain that those citizens are appointed by the Valley Water Board itself, or that the board does not have to follow the citizen's recommendations," she said.
Proponents of the measure said in their published ballot rebuttal that the independent monitoring committee provides oversight of all spending and project progress, and public reports are available online.
Kremen said, "Funding can be used only for the specific purposes identified in the program and is totally subject to local control with oversight from an Independent Monitoring Committee."
Measure S is supported by Save the Bay, the League of Conservation Voters; Silicon Valley Leadership Group; The Health Trust; Palo Alto Mayor Adrian Fine and City Councilwoman Alison Cormack; Mountain View City Councilman Lucas Ramirez; Yoriko Kishimoto, a Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District board member; and many other environmental and civic groups.
The Sierra Club's Loma Prieta Chapter, however, is not supporting the measure, it announced on Sept. 5, largely out of concerns over funding for community grants for habitat enhancement and other programs.
"Environmental groups are especially concerned about Valley Water's history of missing commitments on stream stewardship and habitat restoration projects, and the use of parcel tax funds for mitigations that are already required by law," they wrote.
Katja Irvin, Loma Prieta Chapter water committee chairwoman, said, "With so much in flux in our society, and also in the world of water, now is not the time to extend the tax without a defined end date. Valley Water needs to come back in four years when the public is not stressed and distracted by so many crises."
Voters need more time to see what Valley Water accomplishes with the 2012 Measure B program, she said.
"Environmentalists especially need to see progress on habitat restoration projects such as creek restoration at Almaden Lake."
Kremen said there were issues with how long it took to process grants as well as the overhead costs associated with grants.
"Not uncommon when there is tension between giving away money and being sure it is used prudently. A fix in progress."