We’re Broke — Let’s Keep Spending!

Tuesday May 04, 2004

Our city is in a financial crisis and we are being told that there may have to be cuts in vital services and a tax increase. Under these circumstances is it right to be planning a $5-$6 million replacement fire station in Fire District 7? The facility to be built in northeast Berkeley will have 7,200 square feet and 1,500 square feet of decks and will house three Berkeley engines. The three-person crew will, in addition to the decks, have 3,200 square feet of living space. The project has been presented as the additional multi-jurisdictional station specified by 1992’s bond Measure G. It is, however, called “Replacement Station No. 7.” Bond money will indeed pay for the construction, but let us remember that bond money is a loan and our taxes pay the principal and interest on that loan. Furthermore, the costs of maintenance and operation must also be paid for with our taxes that fund the city’s already inadequate yearly operating budget—the same budget that currently cannot pay for all our vital services, let alone the additional costs this project will incur! 

The existing 2,500-square-foot Fire Station #7 is located three blocks from the proposed site of the new station. The proposed site must be purchased from the East Bay Municipal Utility District at fair market value. In addition, a small right-of-way owned by the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) is being acquired by giving EBRPD 8 acres of waterfront property. The existing station is the only one in Berkeley that has neither been seismically retrofitted nor improved as specified in Measure G. In fact, the city has failed for decades to maintain it. Councilmember Olds has said repeatedly that the station is so infested with termites it’s ready to fall down. If the city did not employ an exterminator over the past 20 years, how will they maintain a behemoth new station which, due to its problematic location, will always have maintenance problems? Architect Marci Wong wrote of the site in 1999 “Constant dampness due to building into the hill and constant shade may result in maintenance, mold, and mildew problems.” Costs for the project continue to rise above the $5 million budget. For example, we now learn that the site needs to be raised four feet due to drainage problems. 

A much less expensive alternative plan to expand existing Fire Station No. 7 was proposed over two years ago by an architect with fire station design experience. That design would house two Berkeley engines and four firefighters, and eliminate the need for a three-point exit turn (which slows response time). The budget for this alternative would be about $1 million, a savings of at least $4 million over the current proposal. 

Why was this option never given consideration? No issue raised by opposing residents and experts in wild-land firefighting has been given consideration. The plans went through the Zoning Adjustments Board, Design Review, and the City Council virtually untouched. This was a “done deal” for political reasons rather than safety concerns. Minds had been made up before the project was ever presented to the public for scrutiny. The current plan was developed during the booming late 1990s, when money was no object. Now money is an object, and politicians are trying to distance themselves from the monster buildings that have been completed on their watch (as Councilmember Linda Maio is with respect to Acton Courtyard).  

City officials have “sold” this project to hills residents as necessary to save their lives in case of a wildfire. This is not true. The city simply had bond money to spend, a neglected old station, and understandably nervous and fed up voters. However, an oversized, exorbitantly expensive building will not save lives. Since the 1991 fire, the Parks District has increased its personnel and equipment and the LBL fire station has been converted to a county facility. Those important changes should be accompanied by regular and expert vegetation management on our private and public lands. That will go a lot further in promoting fire safety than this ill-conceived, overly expensive project that will be a financial burden on the city for decades to come. 

Mayor Bates is proposing tax increases for the November ballot. Since our taxes are currently paying for millions of dollars in interest on unspent bond money that is earmarked for this project, shouldn’t the less expensive alternative of renovating Fire Station No. 7 be considered now? Wouldn’t it make sense to pay down the existing bond principal by the extra $4-$6 million the proposed project would cost? This would result in an immediate reduction in principal and interest payments and would reduce the amount of any required tax increase. If the city is in a fiscal crisis, but spending lavishly, something is very wrong. It is blatantly unfair to pour money into an unnecessary project in northeast Berkeley while expecting other parts of the city to bear the twin burdens of higher taxes and reduced public services. 

If we don’t act now, this plan will shortly become reality. The Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) will meet on May 13 to approve recent changes to the project. Let your voice for fiscal responsibility be heard. Attend the ZAB meeting (7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 13, Old City Hall), call the mayor’s office (981-7100), and/or your councilmember’s office. 


Minor Schmid, Marilyn and Richard Collier, Doris Nassiry, Cindy Fulton, Stefan Carrieri, John Ngai, Lisa Brunet, Dr. and Mrs. Russell F. Henke, Nathaniel R. Henke, Mrs. Louis E. Weichold, David and Inja Johnson