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By Diana Diamond

Do Palo Altans still love their city? If not, what should the city do?

Uploaded: Jan 18, 2019

The numbers are a bit grim. More Palo Altans now disapprove of the general direction of the city compared to previous years, and more residents are worried about whether this is a good place to retire, according to an annual National Citizen Survey. In 2013, 54 percent of residents polled said the city was going the right direction; that number has now plummeted to 43 percent. Just a year ago 51 percent said retirement here would be good, and now it’s only 41 percent.

About a decade ago, then-City Auditor Sharon Erickson started this survey, in deference to the city council’s wishes. She also acknowledged this National Citizen Survey was one of the less expensive in the marketplace because it asked the same questions to a large number of cities, without tailoring their survey queries to specific issues.

And Erickson has been proven right, I think. The questions are broad and open-ended, but the answers lack any depth or specific focus in terms of inquiring why people feel more uncertain about retiring here, or why people living here are not sure the city is going the right direction. Traffic and lack of affordable housing may be the obvious answers, but more probing would be extremely useful, particularly because city staff spends a lot of time on trying to solve the survey’s findings on resident dissatisfactions without knowing the underlying reasons for their answers. Indeed, the council will spend a good half-day on the results at its Feb. 2 retreat.

For me, the city is less desirable because long-standing problems have not been solved: traffic, lack of parking, high utility bills with rates ratcheting up each year, plus, the biggest problem, it just takes too long for the city to get anything done.

Personal examples of these problems:
Traffic – Just getting around town is a congestion experience, e.g., since 2009 the city still hasn’t solved the constant traffic mess at Embarcadero and El Camino, by Town & Country. The traffic lights still are not properly synced, the waits to turn left onto Embarcadero from ECR often require three light cycles, Arastradero Road’ slimming down still has routine back-ups, et cetera.
Lack of parking – I was trying to park at the City Hall garage at 11:30 a.m. and went through the entire part of the public garage twice, without finding a single spot. On my third try, I finally spotted one car backing out, and it required a near U-turn to grab it. I now schedule a lunch for 11:15 to try to avoid this mess. This remains a residential problem because city staff still continue to park fre on te lower two levels. Why? And on California Avenue at 11:45, I found I had to park four blocks from the restaurant I wanted to get to. Anecdotal, I know, but inconvenient.
High utility bills ==My utilities usage each month has been the same for years, but my bills are at least $100-plus higher. We heat two rooms during winter in our house, and I now pay about $500-plus. Unfairly, I think the Utilities Department is required to turn over to the city’s purse about $20 Million-plus a year to the general fund – from these higher utility rates we pay. If the city cared about residents, it could eliminate this turnover, since its annual general fund keeps on escalating up each year to currently more than $210 million to run this city of only 65,000.
Taking too long – an interminable but perhaps city hall attitudinal problem. Remember a couple of years the council talked about having its garages display electronic signs with the number of spaces available? Great idea that hasn’t happened yet. San Jose nearly two decades ago had these signs in all their public garages and they were wonderful. This is not a big problem to solve; the technology is there. The same is true over other council-approved projects -- the bike bridge over 101, the public safety building soon to be constructed (as promised several years ago), two new city garages that are still not even started, and endless other practical ideas to help this town improve.

I know I am being critical in this blog, but I have great hope that a new mayor and a new city manager can speed things up and get projects done faster and better. In the meantime, I would love comments on your concerns, and also ideas on what Palo Alto can do to have residents feel better about not only the direction the city is going but what will ensure people fell this is a good place to retire.