City Council Environment

Looking at the upcoming Storm Drain Fee Vote

Benefits of Los Altos Storm Drain Fee Vote
Written by lalahpolitico

UPDATE: Ballots for the Storm Drain Fee Vote have arrived. Oh, how to decide! The City’s education campaign has not been strong.

As one frustrated public speaker at the April 29 City Council meeting remarked, “We can’t tell WHAT WE ARE GETTING for the fee.”

Lalahpolitico has reviewed many of the hundreds of pages about the stormwater master plan projects and about the proposed $88 average fee Stormwater Fee Report on the City website. The links to the numerous and various documents are here and also here.  Whew! That is TMI for the ordinary person. And at the other extreme, there is the City slide presentation, which is too superficial to satisfy the typical ‘show me’  Los Altos property taxpayer. Lalahpolitico now endeavors to sort through the information for you. And to share a surprising discovery about two City-owned assets.

Updated: May 14, 2019 – Originally we wrote that the Clean Water annual operations would cost $1.1 million a year based on information on a City slide. The mailed ballot material clarifies the cost of annual operations is estimated at $522,000

Highlights: What are we getting?

1)We are getting stable funding for a State and Regionally mandated Clean Water Program which is cleaning up the SF Bay making it safe for critters. Someday the there will be a pedestrian – bike path around nearly the entire bayfront. It will be beautiful.

The Clean Water Program was crafted in 2010 and requires a great deal more operations expense and infrastructure spending than the City needed under older less stringent rules. The grace period for complying was phasing out in 2016.  Then the City got serious about preparing for the transition to higher costs. See more below.

2)We are getting reduced street puddling in a dozen or so locations.  This has nothing to do with the riparian flooding like the Russian River up at Guerneville this year. Here we are talking about relief from 6-inch puddles and occasionally deeper.  [But no deeper than 18 inches. Don’t let the kids splash in the puddles unattended!] I found no relationship between the street puddling in the “problem area” streets locations and our real FEMA flood zones. See more about that below.

Claiming “protection from flooding of property” [homes] as an important community outcome of the Los Altos Storm Drain Fee Vote weakens the City’s education message.

3)We are getting funding for $15.8M of capital spending on pipes or drain improvements in 19 street locations.  These are projects identified as High or Medium Priority in the 2016 Storm Water Master Plan. We don’t get the whole plan.  See more below.

1) Clean Water Program
– a Deeper Dive
City Scales Annual Operations
from $490 to $1.1 M

In the original master plan, the consultant estimated $490,000 a year towards stepped up operations and maintenance of the stormwater runoff storm drains. The labor is also required to perform a list of State mandated compliance testing and reporting on kinds of toxins – aka The Clean Water Program.  That means man-hours.

Just skim this to get a flavor or what is involved. Follow the Yellow. Your head spins!

SCVURPPP Says City Must Do These Clean Water operations

State and Region Mandates for Los Altos Storm Drain & Clean Water….  Chapters 1 to 11

State and Region Mandates for Los Altos Storm Drain & Clean Water… Chapters 12-15

City Doubles Personnel Costs of 2016 Clean Water Estimate

Updated May 11, 2019: The 2019 plan for the typical $88 Los Altos Storm Drain Fee makes some adjustments to the Master Plan – 1) To do only $15.8M of capital projects, not $29M of them {ballot document estimates $611,000 annually} and 2) to increase the expenditure on complying with the Clean Water program and reporting from $490M to $522,000 annually.

Original Estimate 2016 to
Perform the 15 Chapters worth of
Clean Water Program duties

Update May 19, 2019: In 2016 the consultant thought $490,000 would suffice for annual operations. But now the City says $522,000 a year.

Lalahpolitico: The City has updated the Master Plan estimate for annual operations to $522,00 a year. At the state level the majority of us have voted for legislators who passed bills that set in motion more inspection, testing, rules, reporting and red tape … to clean up the SF BAY. Now it’s time to pay for it. 


2) Flooding Prevention
-not included

clipping from Daily Post

As an example of real riparian flooding, this bottom photo shows flooding of the PA San Francisquito Creek – the border between PA and Menlo Park -near University Ave. PA.  Adobe Creek in Los Altos flooded that year too. The prior bridges to LAH at W.Edith and also at Main/Burke were lower than they are now and could be impassable. The risk of this riparian flooding has been reduced for these areas by years of investment not only in the bridges but also in the water channel bed. See the Feb.2, 2018 edition of the Daily Post for a good report on what improvements were made when, where and by which entity for PA.

The City oversold this benefit. Street flooding here in Los Altos is nuisance puddles. It seems a misnomer to call street puddling… flooding.

REAL RIPARIAN flooding starts in creeks and river floodways.  Yes, it can interact with street puddling. Lalahpolitico looked at FEMA maps to see if any of the Los Altos area  Storm pipe & Storm drain projects might be near any  FEMA A or AE risky riparian zones.

In my quest I looked around each City of Los Altos Creek, Channel from north to south, I found that no Storm Drain Fee projects were actually adjacent to any FEMA trouble zones – AE, A.  The closest one was Shasta Street which is within 1/4 miles of Adobe Creek — which turns out to have quite a few A and AE zones along its course.

Los Altos Fema zone

That blue star signifies a Shasta Street project in the Storm Water Drain Plan. That’s how I noticed how Adobe impacted City-owned assets.

As I perused the maps, I saw that two of our City-owned assets – Garden House and Halsey House – are abutting or inside the FEMA high-risk zone. There is continued talk of spending at least several million dollars to refurbish these structures. Musn’t we investigate whether the City will need to elevate the structures on piers 6 to 12 feet high as is being done in the Guerneville Russian River Area?  What will the Flood insurance rates be? Is it prudent to continue to rebuild or even maintain City assets in such a risky zone?

Around the Los Altos area, it is the Santa Clara Valley Water Authority that ‘owns’ the creeks. It does infrastructure planning and construction for the creeks and channels. [However, each city or the county is responsible for creek or channel clean up before winter.]

Google Earth, Halsey House , Garden House, Los Altos

On this Google Earth Map,  please see Garden House at the top and Halsey House near the center. Notice the dirt trail next to Halsey House as a helpful locating landmark. The red highlights denote the paved driveways to these two City of Los Altos owned ‘assets.’

In the past 20 years, SCVWA has done quite a bit of Adobe channel ‘improvement.’  I used to walk in the dirt creek from Garden house down to Redwood Grove with my kids, picking from overgrown, blackberry bushes thriving along the creek.  That is all gone now, as SCVWA has tamed the creek, lining it with concrete or rock and actually blocked pedestrian access.  I am sure the water now mostly stays in its government-determined channel instead of cutting new paths from year to year.  I am sure the new ways have drastically reduced the chance the Adobe can get clogged up with broken tree branches and overflow – FLOOD – onto homeowner property located along the susceptible parts of the University Avenue area.

FEMA Map, Los Altos, Halsey House, Garden House

See that the Garden House abuts an A zone. Funny how a straight line was drawn exempting the building and the parking lot. A bribe back in the day? You can locate Halsey house with the hiking trail landmark from the Google Earth map above. The hatched lines area is the ‘normal level’ creek. Blue seems to be a flood zone that requires special insurance and special construction techniques – elevation of the building on 6 to 12-foot piers.

Before all this very recent investment in the taming of Adobe Creek occurred, City founder Paul Shoup and other early settlers knew what to do with this low-lying Adobe creekbed land. Nothing.  Well, next to nothing.

Paul Shoup kept a gazebo down there by Adobe Creek on what is now Shoup Park.  Apparently, it was used in the dry SUMMER for amateur plays and other games.  The Halsey land was purchased for a small SUMMER cottage and was kept for that seasonal use for a couple of decades.  Notice that the Catholic Jesuit Retreat picked a big hill to settle on.  In the olden days, our predecessors didn’t build expensive buildings on flood-prone land. They only expected to utilize such land in the dry summer, not for year-round human occupancy.

To sum up, the only Storm Drain capital project in the Storm Drain Fee Plan that seems likely to maybe save lives and cars is the Loyola Bridge Foothill underpass.  Even if it were to fill to just 2 feet of rain puddling, a car approaching at 45 mph suddenly hitting that 2 feet might lose control!  [This year a police officer drowned in Houston after driving his police vehicle into a totally flooded underpass in the dark. That was a real riparian flood, not just overwhelmed street drains.]

The City has overstated the impact of this Fee on preventing Property Damage.


3) New Capital Spending on
Pipes and Drains
-Half the Donut

If you flip through the Stormwater Master Plan – with its hundreds of photos of the ‘problems’ at sites all around town as I did – you may get the impression that ALL of the 50 or so underground pipe improvement projects and 30 or so drain improvement projects shown in pictures and maps are what you are getting for the 30-year fee. There are $29M worth by 2016 price estimates.

So are ALL the capital projects in? Nah.

Instead what we are getting is a subset – only the High and Medium priority projects according to one easy to miss slide in the City’s ‘roadshow’ presentations last month. There are $15.8M worth by 2019 estimates.

 Video: Capture Rain Where It Falls

Lalahpolitco: Omitting the Low Priority projects seems to be a good thing.  Those ‘problem spots’ seemed to addressable by simple remedies. For example, The City could educate people to 1) not allow leaves and toys to accumulate on top of a storm drain and 2) to reduce hardscape along their street frontage, replacing it with permeable materials. [Greentown Los Altos urges you to convert your asphalt to “swales’ for your home frontage. See GTLA Show Up for Waterways ]

Furthermore, quite a number of the Master Plan’s low priority pipe improvements were in locations that experience no more than 6-inch deep water puddles once during a decade! That is insignificant puddling, not street ‘flooding’.  So let’s just skip those. OK? Or just treat the area with permeable swales as suggested by Greentown Los Altos.


Storm drain vote, Los Altos

A slide from the City of Los Altos storm drain fee  ‘roadshow’. Lalahpolitico added red and blue highlighting and synonyms for clarity. Stars show the approximate location of high and medium priority capital projects. The total adds up to $~15.8M.  The annualized cost if funded over 30 years is ~$611,000.

Learn More about the
Capital Expenditure Projects

Buried in the Stormwater Fee Report, a place I would never expect to see it, is a well-summarized list of the High and Medium priority projects plucked from the 2016 Storm Water Drain Master Plan with street locations and some project specifics. [The Fee Report document is mainly about alternative financing approaches!]

If you see a project is planned for near your home, you can find more specifics by delving into the Stormwater Drain Master Plan. The appendices A to N are here. The plan document is organized from North to South, by Drainage Areas:  Adobe, Hale and three Permanente areas.

There is no timetable for construction at this time.  However, high priority projects may occur first because they reduce annual operations expenses the most.


Los Altos Storm Drain Fee HIgh Priority Projects 2019

Starred projects have already been completed or dismissed (I believe Milverton is County not City). They are not included for the purposes of calculating the proposed fee/tax.

One trash capture device – approximately 6 ft. by 6 ft. was installed about two years ago beneath View Street. Costing over $400,000 to construct, it is designed to capture trash and debris that escapes from the downtown triangle into the storm drain system. Once or twice a year (?) personnel go inside it, and the accumulation is removed.


Los ALtos Storm Drain Fee Vote - Medium Priority Capital Projects

Here is the list of the Medium Priority Projects.

Los Altos Politico BottomLine
The Political Scuttlebutt
The Fairness or not


Two City of Los Altos council members – Anita Enander and Lynette Lee Eng –  both voted No to putting the fee to a property owner vote. Why was the vote 3-2? Ostensibly because ‘Los Altans already pay enough in taxes.’

Lalahpolitico:  In reality, they seem to want to put pressure on the City Budget. They continue to bad-mouth the maturing Hillview Community Center project and the still nascent Los Altos Library potential rebuild. They seem to look for ways to delay, reduce or derail those popular projects

Lee-Eng  talks up ‘needs’ that compete for City Budget, needs like ‘Deferred Maintenance of City Assets.’  That is code words for the Grant Park kitchen, the boarded-up Halsey House, and the soggy but functional Garden House. Lee-Eng is riding on the publicity of a ‘crime wave’ and about ‘slow response’ of police to calls from South Los Altos.  She seems to be unhappy that our newly hired additional cop is assigned to schools and not to South Los Altos? She advocates for a shiny new police station to compete for City Budget General Funds or to compete for voter approval for new property taxes.

At the April 29 council meeting, both Enander and Lee-Eng jockeyed to keep the Downtown Vision Plan implementation – such as a trial run of more outdoor dining – off the Council Priorities. But in the end, members gave up on ever agreeing on how to winnow priorities down to 3.  Instead, everyone got to keep their fav on the list for a total of 7  priorities.

As Enander said on April 29, the passage of the Storm Drain Fee would free up $500,000  in the General Fund.

It seems she’ll be watching like a hawk to make sure that $500,000 cushion isn’t used to buy a couple of “extras/upgrades” for the Hillview Community Center project nor used to take some baby steps with the Downtown Vision.

Los Altos, Storm Drain Fee, Rate card

The City’s proposed preliminary and actual fee structure. See below for a conversion of single family home rates to ‘per tenth of an acre’ rates.


According to the Storm Drain Fee Report consultant, the fees need to be set in a way that is legally fair.

The fee is approximately a rate per square footage of your lot. There are 12 size categories which make some simplifying assumptions about lot coverage by type/size of the parcel.   I see no need to set the fee per exact square footage rather than by size ranges.  So Fine.

The reasoning given by the consultant for the structure of Storm Drain Fee is that the rain falls on your lot which is of a certain type and size class.  And given the allowable lot coverage,  a certain typical amount runs off your typical lot into the storm drain system. Hmmmm.

A public speaker April 29 said he has a level lot, his roof runs off to his front and back yards, his driveway is level and runs to the left and right, not to the street. Therefore he does not understand the rationale.

Lalahpolitico: I don’t understand that rationale either.  Isn’t it actually mainly the water that lands on the streets coated with auto gunk that runs into the storm drain systems?  And we all access the Los Altos streets, right? Perhaps we should be taxed for the street frontage of our homes? What about flag lots! Or what about lot steepness or flatness? Or if we could charge a city gas tax, the more you drive your car, the more you pay? E-cars exempt, except for lithium run-off!

On the other hand, if you overfertilize your yard or spill nasty stuff in your yard, not all of it may percolate down into your soil. This could be the case when there are heavy and frequent rains — your yard soil could become oversaturated.  In that case, some of the toxins are very likely to run into the street and into the storm drain system. Please stop spilling toxins outside!

Table: Convert Single-Family fees to 
Representative fee per 10th acre.

The rates for single family homes have been converted to ‘tenths of an acres.’ You can see the fee structure assumes that SFH have less lot coverage and more permeable area per parcel. Now you can more easily compare SFH parcels to those non-single family parcel.  Fair enough?

These “what ifs we structured the fees differently it would be fairer” are all silly.  All these other rationales and fee setting mechanisms for the Storm Drain Fee are too cumbersome and too costly to devise and administer.

But there is one aspect of this Storm Drain Fee that can feel unfair.  Homeowners who live in the 19 locations who sometimes experience some nuisance street puddling are going to enjoy a windfall gain side benefit.  We collectively are paying for infrastructure that will rid them of a nuisance. Eh, So what? Remember the main benefit for ALL OF US is a clean SF Bay.


Reasons to Vote YES

I know it seems odd the Storm Drain Fee indirectly helps the following initiatives, but it does. It does so by leaving more headroom in the City’s General Fund coffer.

So if you support any one of…

-Smooth Completion of the Hillview Community Center Project
-A Main Library rebuild
-Downtown Los Altos Enhancement projects

and/or you

-want to Save SF Bay for critters and regional parks expansion

Then Support the Los Altos Storm Drain Fee.


Reasons to Vote NO

If you really can’t afford to live in Los Altos anymore, go ahead and vote No to an $88 fee/tax increase. Council member Pepper said at the April 30, 2019 meeting that the City should look into rebate programs that could help out those feeling pinched by Storm Drain Fee, including the elderly. Too bad this was not put into place before the election to boost the chances of a majority of votes approval of the Storm Drain Fee.

Los Altos, Storm Drain Fee Vote ballot

Make sure your completed ballot arrives no later than 5 pm, June 18. Vote counting starts June 19 bright and early …open to the public.

How the Votes will be Counted

Each PARCEL has a vote. For the Storm Drain Fee to be approved, the Yes parcel votes have to number more than the No parcel votes. Suppose there are 12,000 parcels in the City of Los Altos.

You can be sure plenty of the 33% of people who always vote No on any and all taxes will properly fill out and mail back their ballot. If you want to vote Yes, do not be complacent. Do return your ballot before June 18 no later than 5 pm for hand delivery to the City Clerk’s office.

Vote Counting occurs on June 19, so if you mail it even by July 17 that might be too late.

If the No turnout approaches 100% of people who always vote No… that is conceivably around 4,000 parcel No votes.  The Yes/undecided turnout needs to be over 50%.  It needs to be 4001.

Suppose the total turnout is only 5,000 ballots out of 12000 ballots mailed to parcel property owners.  In order for the fee to pass,  the votes must be at least 2501 Yes parcels to 2499 No parcels.

Remember if the NOs win it, not only could desireable city endeavors be impacted – the community center, the library, the downtown – but the City will have to DO everything in the Storm Water Plan even without the fee.  That increased level of spending is mandated.  That means a hit to other ordinary services. Roads? Police?


About the author


Norma Schroder is an economics & market researcher by trade and ardent independent journalist, photographer and videographer by avocation. Enthralled by the growth of the tech industry over the decades, she became fascinated with the business of local politics only in the past several years.