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Council Could "Stay the Course," Vote to Continue $2 Billion, 400-Year Long Undergrounding Program

PWP's recommendation reverses its earlier proposal to shut down the program and stop collecting its associated tax

Published on Monday, February 4, 2019 | 6:20 am

After more than two years of community consultation, Pasadena’s City Council is poised to decide tonight the fate of a massive program to relocate power and communication lines underground, a program that the City started in 1968 to beautify Pasadena by restoring scenic views of the mountains overlooking the city and to reduce electrical outages.
By completion, the program could have cost as much as $2 billion and taken 400 years to complete. Even then, it’s doubtful it would ever move 100% of all above-ground wires below the ground surface.
So far the program has enabled the City to remove overhead electric, telephone, and cable TV utility lines from more than 46 miles of major arterial streets in Pasadena and relocate them underground.
But the project is very long term that some say technology might completely outpace its goals. And it once fell victim to an embezzlement scheme by a city employee who siphoned off over $6.5 million before his activities were discovered.
By March 2016 — a little over a year after the fraud was uncovered and its perpetrators charged — Pasadena Water & Power had second thoughts about the program and recommended its discontinuation after the Dept. completed the work allocated to the Hill Avenue and Alpine Street Underground Utility Districts.
PWP also suggested at the time that collecting the Underground Surtax be stopped.
The Dept.’s re3commendation cited the program’s high cost and extremely long timeframe as underlying reasons. It may no reference to the funds embezzlement.
The City Council then did not immediately vote on the 2016 recommendation. Instead, the Council directed PWP to “collect community input prior to making a determination on the future of the Underground Utility Districts Program and Underground Surtax.”
This week, Pasadena Water and Power, through the Municipal Services Committee, will be putting forward a recommendation at Monday’s City Council meeting to continue the underground utilities program after all.
Specifically, this newest recommendation would be to continue construction of underground utility projects in both existing and future underground utility districts created pursuant to Pasadena’s Underground Utility Districts Program.
Tonight’s recommendation also reverses the Dept.’s 2016 call to stop collecting the surtax – the Underground Surtax – and says the taxing should continue to fund construction of the underground utility projects.
An Agenda Report prepared by PWP said the Municipal Services Committee of the City Council already approved the recommendations during a meeting on February 13, 2018.
The decision is to “stay the course,” to continue the program and the tax is apparently the result of the public meetings and community outreach related to the program.
“Taking into account public feedback received to date and the authorized uses of the
Underground Surtax fund, staff has revised its recommendation to: continue collecting the Underground Surtax and use the Underground Surtax funds… for the purposes stated in PMC Section 4.24.050 in addition to projects associated with underground utility districts…” PWP said in the Agenda Report.
The Agenda Report showed the Underground Surtax fund balance has grown to about $50.7 million by end of June 2018, since actual expenditures on these projects have not been occurring as rapidly as initially envisioned.
In the fiscal year 2019 capital budget, the City Council approved some $6.1 million from Underground Surtax funds for projects related to the underground electric distribution system, fiber optics-related communication and traffic signal systems, which are all covered by the purposes stated in the Underground Surtax ordinance.

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