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Political Philosophy for Jack Morton
Preserving Rebuilding and Improving our Community
In the spring, I mailed out a personal message to the community pointing out that our community had not made any significant contributions to City infrastructure and City facilities since the 50s and 60s when our community was being built out. Back then we were a community of diverse economic means. More recently, we have become a community of above average incomes where once affordable Eichler and Mackey homes command prices that buy mansions elsewhere in the country. To my mind these two facts are not unrelated; and understanding the fiscal choices that were made after Proposition 13 will help to put my political philosphy into perspective
New York may have had its Rockefellers, but Palo Alto had its Lucie Stern who, dollar given per resident was I think the more generous. In the heart of the depression, she blessed us not only with a Community Center but included with it a Theatre, plus what were then a one-of-a-kind Children's Theatre and Children's Library. In the 50s, Palo Altans before us added Mitchell Park Library and Community Center, not to omit the Main Library and old City-Hall-turned-Art-Center that were added later. In the 60s, our civic predecessors also approved bonds that enable the acquisition of Foothills Park and then in the 70s turned their attention to reclaiming the Baylands.
This remarkable legacy is our special heritage. The political choices that face us now are simply whether we will honor that legacy by taking the steps necessary to preserve what we as a community have inherited or whether we will side with the shrill voices of those who believe that the financing challenge that has become unavoidable should be handed off to someone else at some other time and the only choice is to reduce services.
Let me elaborate. Proposition 13 deprived local jurisdictions of the power to periodically adjust real estate taxes to meet community needs. In response, counties, cities and school districts not surprisingly modified their budgets to provide only what could be covered with the reduced tax proceeds. City services and school programs were drastically cut and meeting the cost of even reduced service levels has generally meant that infrastructure needs have had to be completely ignored.
Palo Altans, however, were not willing to allow their community to be so savagely impacted. It took awhile for solutions to be worked out. A number of us in the community felt it was a mistake for the school district to fund operational costs by the wholesale selling of school sites. Then an inventive City Council presented the voters with Measure D. That Utility Tax along with a rental agreement for Cubberly and its fields has provided our schools with a revenue stream that to this day has helped PAUSD to continue to be ranked among the top school districts in the state, if not also the country and at the same time gave the community playing fields and space for art groups and non-profits.
Our community is remarkable not just for passage of Measure D but as much for the community support groups and PTA chapters that undertook to preserve valued programs which have effectively disappeared from many California communities. Since the passage of Proposition 13, The Friends of the Children's Theatre, The Art Foundation, The Friends of the Libraries, The Recreation Foundation, The Friends of the Junior Museum & Zoo, The Palo Alto Education Foundation and the All Schools Fund have raised millions in annual operational support and, more recently, for major upgrades to City facilities: The Friends of the Children's Theatre and PTAs annually raise funds to supplement the monies allocated in the City budget.
With a modest $400,000 matching grant from the City, The Friends raised the balance of the $1,000,000 that built the Magic Castle and upgraded the Theater. The Library Foundation for its part has just completed fund raising for a 2 million dollar matching grant that will enable long overdue renovations to the Children's Library; while the Friends of the Junior Museum are currently in the midst of fund raising for enhancements to that much valued and heavily used City facility. In the past year the Friends of the Parks has been founded so that suplemental funding can be raised for park enhancements.
PTA groups have similarly provided additional funding directly to the classrooms; and City programs have been redesigned to provide school enrichment activities. The staff of the Junior Museum provides science modules to enhance the elementary school curriculum, while the staff of the Children's Theatre offer on site opportunities for school plays. The Art Foundation has kept art alive in the Schools and offers after school and summer programs that sell out almost as soon as registration opens. The Recreation Foundation, via the Black and White Ball, supplements the City's recreation budget and has helped to preserve such beloved community events as the May Day Parade and the 4th of July Chili Cook-Off. This year the Recreation Foundation shared the Ball's proceeds with the Education Foundation.
Volunteer efforts have gone to heroic lengths to keep alive what makes our community so special and it is this commitment and dedication that largely motivated me to run for City Council. Their success in preserving community services has rewarded homeowners with an increase in real estate values far beyond anywhere else in the country. My political philosophy is basically to ensure that what is special about Palo Alto survives for the next generation.
Cities and school districts are the political entities that most directly benefit us and which our votes can most directly impact. Both have contributed to our high property values. But in terms of taxes, cities are at the bottom of the pecking order; and our high real estate values do little to help with funding community needs. The City receives less than 10% of the real estate taxes we pay. Add to this the fact that the majority of the properties in Palo Alto are either pre-proposition 13 or were purchased more than 10 years ago and you will understand why the less than $200 that the average real estate tax of $1,750 provides covers only a small part of the cost of the services that most of us so value. While adding new housing is inevitable and if properly managed desireable, we need to be aware that the taxes from housing do not cover the cost of the services enjoyed by the new resident so we need to be more judicious in the amount and location of new housing and not simply densify areas of the community simply to add living units.
Cities and schools districts like churches need to raise extra funds to pay for major capital improvements. When our city was newly developed, the infrastructure, schools and community buildings were spanking new. Homeowners moving into our community 40 and 50 years ago paid real estate taxes that included an annual assessment to repay the bonds that funded the city facilities that they enjoyed. Once the bonds were paid off the assessment terminated. Any new facilities or major improvements require that voters pass measures to fund the capital projects. Menlo Park, Redwood City and Mountain View all approved bond measures to rebuild their libraries. Palo Alto's bond didn't quite get the 66.7% needed to pass. Was asking the community to upgrade all the library facilities at one time overreaching? Did Council haggling over relocating two tennis courts put voters off? I can't believe that the community really did not want to replace the overcrowded and antiquated facilities at Mitchell Park. In retrospect, I think the measure asked for too much at the wrong time. The dot.com bubble had just burst and asking voters to approve $49 million to upgrade three libraries and the Art Center just didn't seem prudent to enough voters to get the two-thirds majority needed to pass a revenue bond.
Certainly, Children's Library has desperately needed renovations to its 30s structure and the heavily used Mitchell Park & Community Center does need to be replaced with a state of the art facility that will provide a homework center for adolescents, more space for art classes and recreation activities. If you doubt me, visit the site at 4:00 in the afternoon on a weekday. Now that the Library Foundation has raised funds that along with a matching grant from the City will cover the cost of the renovations to the Children's Library, it seems to me appropriate to go back to the voters to ask for funding simply for a new library and community center at Mitchell Park, the City's most heavily used facility.
The City's capital needs are extensive and include renovation of the Art Center and expansion of the Police Building. The Art Foundation has underwritten the architectural costs of improving a building that was built in the 50s as a City Hall, not an Art Center. Their plan is to request a matching grant from the City so that like the Library Foundation and the Friends of the Children's Theatre have already done, the Art Foundation can substantially upgrade a city building with a combination of City and community funding. I fully support such partnerships that enable the City to leverage tight City monies for the betterment of the community at large.
Financing of our city will only get more difficult. Rickey's Hyatt has given up trying to satisfy the neighbors' demands and with its closure goes a million dollars in hotel tax, all of which went directly to the City. Because the city only gets 10% of each dollar in sales taxes, it will take almost 100 million in future sales to replace that revenue. After years of struggling with neighbors about its remodel plans, Albertsons has recently sold Alma Plaza and with the sale goes the increase in sales tax revenue that would have come with the remodel. At the City level, five Council Members recently yielded to vocal opposition and voted to eliminate the recycle and composting functions at the landfill, next to the water treatment plant. The General Fund stands to lose the 4 million dollars in rent that the Refuse Fund now transfers to pay for the environmentally responsible recycling that most of us happily participate in. The loss of that rent represents the bulk of the Library's annual budget.
Preserving the community services that we so value will require the majority of us who are not always present at Council meetings to take seriously the opportunity to demonstrate with our votes our strong support for preservation of what makes Palo Alto so special: its community and educational programs. We have taken the first steps in that effort: We passed a fee increase for the storm drains followed by a parcel tax for the schools. Hopefully not to far in the distant future we will pass a bond measure for the rebuilding of the Mitchell Park Library and Community Center. Living in Palo Alto has benefited most of us handsomely, the community now needs the majority of us to speak up for prevervation of the programes that maek the community what it is
Council Member Jack Morton
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