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Sewer Fund used inappropriately

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Saturday May 19, 2001

The City Council asked two commissions to monitor the city’s Sewer Fund, which generates about $14 million a year in local fees, because of “inappropriate use and allocation.” 

The Citizens Budget Review Commission and the Public Works Commission have begun an examination of Sewer Fund uses and the quality of sewer work performed as part of the city’s 30-year Sanitary Sewer Plan, which has so far cost city residents and businesses $71 million. 

The Sewer Fund is generated by fees collected by the East Bay Municipal Water District that bases the fees on a per-gallons rate. 

According to the Municipal Code the “Sewer Fund is a restricted fund reserved for the purpose of operation, maintenance, rehabilitation and improvement of the city’s sanitary sewers.” 

A legal opinion written by the city attorney in 1991 specified the funds could not be used for any other purpose. 

According to a report to the council by City Auditor Ann-Marie Hogan, the city’s sewer fund was being used to pay the salaries of two city workers employed by the First Source Employment Program “in apparent violation of the Berkeley Municipal Code.” The program oversees a city policy that requires companies that contract with Berkeley to offer available jobs to residents first. During 1999 and 2000, the Sewer Fund paid over $120,000 toward the employees’ salaries. 

Hogan said when the funds were first diverted from the sewer fund in 1988, it was appropriate because the vast majority of city contractors were working on the sewers. But as the city became involved in 

capital projects such as the renovation and seismic retrofit of the Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center, the First Source program was overseeing a variety of projects which had nothing to do with the city’s sewers. 

Hogan said it was probably a budgetary oversight and not deliberate misuse of funds. “Using the funds had outgrown its rationale,” she said. 

Along with many Bay Area cities in the early 1980s, Berkeley was issued an order by the California Regional Water Quality Board to fix leaky and broken sewer pipes because raw sewage was finding its way into creeks and storm drains which were emptying into the Bay, according to the Sanitary Sewer Program Study prepared by the Public Works Commission.  

The Sewer Fund is partially used to pay for a 30-year program of replacing or repairing half of the city’s 2,745,600 feet of sewer lines. It is also used to cover sewer administration costs and regular maintenance of city sewers. The program was initiated in 1985. According to the study, over 15 years, the city has completed more than 29 percent of the repair work. 

While it appears the city is over half way to its 30-year goal, Commission Chair John Piercy says there is some question about the quality of the work, which is being overseen by the Public Works Department. 

Public Works Commissioner Carlene St. John told the City Council on Tuesday that at the end of the 30-year plan, the city will still have sewer problems that will require attention because of normal wear and tear and because the city is on a earthquake fault. “It’s like repainting the Golden Gate Bridge,” she said. “You got keep doing it and doing it.” 

The City Manager’s Office has proposed a 3 percent increase in Sewer Fund fees in next year’s budget to cover the rising cost of labor and an anticipated public information campaign to encourage property owners to repair sewer lines on private property known as upper laterals. 

Piercy said the Budget Commission and the Public Works Commission will work together to determine if the sewer plan is funded properly, the work is being carried out competently and that fees are being correctly charged.  

“We need to have some kind of clear statement about how these funds are being used,” said Mayor Shirley Dean at Tuesday’s meeting. “It has to be clear if these funds are being used or abused.” 

Councilmember Linda Maio thanked the two commissions for their presentation to council and for working very hard on “not one of your more sexy items.”