Letters to the Editor

Friday May 14, 2004


Editors, Daily Planet:  

The city manager’s “Dear Berkeley Neighbors” letter, dated April 2004 (delivered to my mail box May 10), contains the comment that “Over 70 percent of the fiscal year 2005 General Fund budget will go toward services and programs such as public safety, street and sidewalk repairs, quality programs for youth and seniors, and health services.” Of course, no details are given. 

However, his proposed budget for 2005 (dated May 4) shows (pages 20 and 21) that Public Works derives a whole $802,849 from the General Fund. It is strange that his April letter implies that Public Works is a major user of this $104,081,724 fund. A major user which accounts for less than 0.7 percent! 

The basic fact is that essentially none of the General Fund (property tax) goes to maintain the streets, sewers, storm drains, sidewalks, or buildings of our city. In the complex manner that the budget hides details, there are General Funds that go to capital improvements, but in reality much of this is for deferred maintenance—an unpublicized, steadily growing financial albatross. 

John P. Piercy 




Editors, Daily Planet: 

Kudos on the first part (“City Tax Burden Skips UC Properties,” Daily Planet, May 11-13) of Richard Brenneman’s two-part piece. 

Here are some numbers to augment that Page Nine photo of the UC Berkeley Extension International Center at 2222 Harold Way. 

Back when the addressee was the Armstrong School of Business, according to the County of Alameda 1995/96 Assessment Roll of Secured Property, that parcel (57-2027-4) generated $24,735.76 of tax liability. 

Flash forward to the 1998/99 Assessment Roll. Armstrong Properties Inc. of Davis is now the addressee and the tax liability has shrunk to $836.42.  

Five fiscal years later, in the 2003/04 Assessment Roll, the parcel generates $851.58. 

Conclusion: UC’s tax exemption at 2222 Harold Way costs Alameda County approximately $23,900 each year in lost revenues. 

Jim Sharp 




Editors, Daily Planet:  

I am writing to express my concern regarding John Koenigs-hofer’s opposition to the Rent Stabilization Board (“Kill City Rent Control Panel, Fatten City Coffers, Build Needed Housing,” Daily Planet, May 11-13). 

Mr. Koenigshofer and I share a common goal: to develop more affordable housing for residents who need it. However I strongly disagree with his approach in achieving this goal. 

While our city faces a fiscal crisis, ending the Rent Stabilization Program would be a disastrous move. 

The Rent Stabilization Program is funded by annual registration fees for units covered under the ordinance, rather than public funds. 

It appears Mr. Koenigshofer does not realize that rent control is Berkeley’s largest affordable housing program. 

By keeping rent levels low, low income residents will have greater access to affordable housing. 

One of the main accomplishments of the Rent Board recently has been defending rent control and the rights of tenants in Berkeley. 

Means testing is a ridiculous idea. Housing is a basic human right, and there should not be restrictions on access to rental housing. 

The Rent Board is also established to protect the rights of tenants. Most landlords illegally inflate rents and compromise the rights to tenants. It is important that these people be held accountable and that tenants are protected from unjust evictions. 

Unfortunately Costa Hawkins has weakened rent control. However it is more of an example of why the Rent Board is so important, to protect the rights of tenants, and preserve the affordable housing supply. 

Mr. Koenigshofer implies that rent control resulted in the housing crisis. Costa Hawkins and excessive rent levels lead to the lack of housing in Berkeley. 

I must disagree with his comments. Now more than ever, we must keep the Rent Stabilization Board. We need to expand its outreach and address rental housing habitability. To create more affordable housing, we need the Rent Board. 

Jesse Arreguin 

Director, ASUC City Affairs Lobby and Housing Commission 




Editors, Daily Planet:  

Our city is at risk of a number of specific disasters, and our local government and concerned community groups are working together to minimize the effects of them. A three-pronged warning/ 

advisory system is being worked on. The first warning system is radio—1610 AM. The second is phone—a “reverse 911” system. The third is sound—warning sirens. Each warning method targets specific audiences, and it seems clear that the sirens will quickly alert the greatest number of people. The AM radio station is not listened to consistently in non-emergency times, and reverse 911 calling has an upper limit on the number of calls/minute possible. Warning sirens, which by definition must be loud, catch the attention of people outside (on sidewalks, in cars, in parks) and of many people inside, depending on the number of open windows, screen doors, etc. It is also not dependent on English or Spanish fluency. Once an alert is sounded, residents and visitors will be able to shelter in place and tune into 1610 AM or other emergency broadcast sources, and lives will be saved. 

An airborne siren would alert everyone in the danger zones to take shelter immediately and to tune into emergency broadcasts for more information. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of lives would be saved.  

Richard White wrote a letter detailing a chemical spill involving a freight train last week in these pages. Freight train accidents are commonplace in modern America, and when we add in the various other potential disasters specific to the Bay Area—from radioactive lab emissions to the impending earthquake to the inevitable wild fires to terrorist attacks- being prepared makes sense. When we can react quickly to a disaster via one of these alert systems, we save our lives and the lives of our loved ones, our neighbors, and our visitors to our city. We must put aside momentary annoyance at the loudness of the siren and instead understand that this awful noise is potentially our salvation. Oakland, Richmond, and the UC Berkeley campus recognize this- the rest of Berkeley should have the same chance of survival as those of us who happen to be on campus when the next disaster strikes. 

Jesse Townley 




Editors, Daily Planet:  

Like Kevin Powell (“Cars? In Berkeley? Not a Bad Notion!” Daily Planet, May 11-13), I too am a bemused observer of Berkeley’s parking wars. In a city with the world’s highest per capita of “No war for Oil” bumper stickers, and a place where nobody would ever dream of building a nuclear power plant or toxic waste incinerator, there is yet a small but vocal minority who would have the city build parking garages and suffer all the tons of toxic air pollution generated. 

However, one need not be a car-free Luddite to see that parking garages are not particularly economic or realistic given today’s astronomical property costs. Parking is a low-value proposition compared to other land uses and not something a developer who cares about return on investment would like to build. This leaves only the city to construct parking “improvements” at a time when it is making drastic cuts to the budget and when there are far more cost-effective ways for growing the economy. 

And even if the city had the money and willingness to further subsidize automobile use, plentiful parking is hardly the panacea Mr. Powell seems to think it is. For every Ikea success, there are any number of commercial failures—El Cerrito Plaza and Tanforan for example. Indeed, a glut of parking and direct freeway access has not helped either downtown San Jose or Oakland revive their moribund economies. Mr. Powell cites Palo Alto’s sales tax returns, but fails to mention that its two new $25 million downtown parking garages did not generate more customers as both sit more than half-empty. 

Eric McCaughrin 




Editors, Daily Planet:  

The articles: “Cars? In Berkeley? Not a Bad Notion!” and “Remembering Wendell Lipscomb” in the May 11-13 Daily Planet provide an interesting, and depressing, counterpoint to each other. In the first article, Kevin Powell paints a glowing picture of how adding downtown parking will produce a “vibrant” downtown Berkeley, and “bountiful municipal revenue.” The second article paints a touching portrait of a man who will never see Mr. Powell’s beautiful vision, as he was recently run over and killed by a motor vehicle. 

You can’t scrape old paint off your house. You can’t carry a nail file on a plane. Forty thousand people a year are killed in motor vehicle accidents, and Bangladesh may literally disappear if predictions about sea level changes from global warming are correct. We clearly need more parking. 

Actually, I would have less objection if the city, or some savvy developer, wanted to put in a near-downtown lot with the expectation of making money. What I appear to be hearing instead is an objection to developers who for some obscure reason don’t want to put in parking. Do they know something Mr. Powell doesn’t? 

Robert Clear 




Editor, Daily Planet: 

I must object to the pro-car slant your opinion section has picked up these past few issues. Motorists seem to feel threatened anytime they aren’t the focus of all public transportation funding, even in Berkeley; I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that such attitudes aren’t limited to the ‘burbs. 

Last issue a letter writer argued for more downtown parking with the argument that bringing home a television set or a refrigerator on a bike was not practical. Leaving aside the existence of bike trailers (inexpensive and capable of hauling large loads), the author of the letter seems not to realize that the vast majority of retail transactions in downtown Berkeley are not people buying appliances; they are folks having dinner, enjoying a drink or two, buying clothing, browsing for books--nothing that would require a large cargo capacity. When buying a refrigerator in downtown Berkeley, by all means bring your car; I doubt any mass-transit or bike activist would argue with that formulation. 

In the May 11-13 Daily Planet, Carol Denney pokes fun at a previous letter writer’s assertion that chemotherapy patients are capable of riding bikes to and from treatment, commenting that she “has no desire to have sick, nauseated people wheeling through dangerous streets.” Apparently Ms. Denney would prefer such incapacitated people to drive cars “through dangerous streets,” putting everyone (and not merely themselves) at risk. May I suggest a bus, a taxi, or a car pool? 

Kevin Powell suggests we stop paying attention and get over our outrage. He cites Fourth Street as a pedestrian paradise due to its laissez faire approach to parking. He apparently shops but little on Center Street or Telegraph Avenue, areas that are hard to park in but very transit-friendly (as is Fourth Street, for all but the very convenience-addicted). He misses quite a few points about auto access, but the most significant is parking itself: it’s a taxpayer subsidy to drivers. Parking your car on a street without meters gives you free rental of a six-by-ten-foot piece of valuable commercial property, and your car’s crankcase drippings eat away at the asphalt beneath your car (asphalt, like motor oil, is a petroleum product, and is similarly soluble), which taxpayers must then pay to re-pave. 

All of this is made more bizarre given the front page piece commemorating Dr. Wendell Lipscomb—killed by traffic. In fact, cars killed more people than guns in Berkeley in the past two decades, so we can see that the problem of excess auto traffic is a non-trivial one. Judging from the tone of the last few issues of the Daily Planet, I fear that Berkeley is succumbing to the “Marin disease”—being green until it is inconvenient. Air quality has been steadily declining in the Bay Area for the past few years, and people are advocating more driving? Not all drivers are automorons, but enough are to make life dangerous for pedestrians, bicyclists, and those of us who must subsidize auto addiction through our taxes. Berkeley has some of the best mass-transit access in the U.S., and a fine set of bike boulevards—there’s no reason to encourage driving. 

Michael Treece 





Editors, Daily Planet:  

You know the Darwin Awards, those tongue-in-cheek prizes for extremely stupid behavior? Berkeley has its own version, with the twist that the grand prize is death. Already one Berkeley kid has died in an accident involving a motorized scooter, and in our South Berkeley neighborhood there’s been another hit-and-run on the sidewalk by a scooter. As I write, local kids are racing up and down the street, helmetless, blasting through stop signs, making an infernal racket and courting extinction. 

Why are these things legal? I have never seen one ridden in accordance with the theoretical regulations: i.e., with a helmet, by someone over age 16, 

and in conformance with the traffic laws. Rather, they are obviously designed for teenage joyriding and bloody mayhem. They have no lights, no horns, no safety equipment, yet they can go extremely fast and are designed to be extremely noisy. 

I was a stupid teen once myself—luckily there were none of these things around then. But have we become so harsh a society that we punish stupid 

teens with death? Time to pull the plug on these moronic machines. 

Paul Rauber 




Editors, Daily Planet:  

Comprehensive watershed plans for both the east and west sides of Grizzly Peak Road should be developed as a preliminary stage to any development in the affected watersheds. The study and plan should be conducted by firms agreed upon by the university and the Berkeley community. The university should agree to be bound by the recommendations of the report. 

Even small-scale construction within a watershed that increases the amount of impervious surfaces will have major impacts throughout the watershed. The accumulated water will course through the watershed more quickly destabilizing everything in its path. Additional water flowing into Berkeley’s creeks will cause greater pressure on the city’s failing storm water infrastructure. A daylighted Strawberry Creek in downtown Berkeley may not have the capacity to handle the additional runoff resulting in chronic flooding and property damage. 

Nature has a way of doing things much better and much more efficiently than we. We shouldn’t underestimate her. 

Tom and Jane Kelly 




Editors, Daily Planet:  

I attended Loni Hancock’s town hall meeting Saturday morning. As expected, it was a limited and biased presentation of our budget problems with most of the blame directed at that perennial culprit: Prop. 13 and that pesky two-thirds rule which thwarts Democrats from raising our taxes and passing a budget. The inference here is that 70 percent of the voters in California got it wrong. 

Anyone who is paying attention is aware of the gross mismanagement, fraud and incredibly generous retirement and health care benefits which are crippling and in some cases bankrupting school districts and city governments. Contra Costa schools are bankrupt because of retirement pay and the life time health benefits for their entire families. This is the fastest growing area in all budgets. State workers can retire at age 50 with 90 percent of their highest years salary and full health benefits. In Berkeley an employee must work only five years to be eligible for benefits. Berkeley City Manager Phil Martz presented a pie chart of the cities expenses showing that services like police, fire, and city employees consume most of the budget. What is not shown is how much is for current services and employees and how much is for retirees and what are the cost projections as retirees increase, live longer and the price of the generous benefits skyrocket. My guess is that the actual service which we think we are paying for will soon be the smallest part of that pie. Don’t expect those “public servants” to sacrifice. The former teachers, instead of restructuring their charitable deal, choose to end school sports, arts, and music programs for the children. 

Michele Lawrence bemoans that 50 billion dollars is not enough for education, which now includes child care, health care, condoms, taxi cabs to pick up students and take them to school, half a million dollars for Oakland teachers cell phones, free lunch programs for obese children, etc. She suggests that California teachers are underpaid even tough they are the highest paid in the United States, work only nine and a half months a year and by all measures are failing at imparting knowledge to their students. There was absolutely no acknowledgment that anything but more money would fix the problem. 

Loni Hancock laughed at the suggestion the Gov. Schwarzenegger could trim government fat and eliminate fraud as a way to balance the budget. Smiling, she spoke of his learning curve in the way of how things really work in Sacramento. Her implication was that corporations ruled and controlled the legislature. There was no suggestion, however, that perhaps unions or special interest groups such as lawyers have any influence. The bankrupt Oakland school district is closing five schools. They are also renovating one. Because of a sweet heart deal with a builders union, the original bid on the project rose so high that it negated the savings from the closing of one of the five schools. When school employees were instructed to pick up their pay checks in person, hundreds went unclaimed. Fraud? Yet, Loni could only single out the prison system for “being expensive and incredibly wasteful.” 

When citizens were allowed to speak, a long line assembled. The first few speakers loaded praise on Loni and selfishly rambled on and on. The speaking was then limited to two minutes. Most wanted assurances that their particular wants and needs would be included in the new budget. Some complained and placed blame for our problems on certain groups. One woman blamed the “Rich” for all our troubles, and although I do not agree with most of the policies of Loni Hancock and Michele Lawrence, I felt this was an unfair condemnation of them. 

Michael Larrick 




Editor, Daily Planet: 

Over the past year our neighborhood has increasingly suffered from the noise of gasoline-powered scooters, mini-bikes, and go-carts. We ask that this situation be remedied by banning these “motor-driven vehicles.” 

Berkeley was a leader as one of the first localities in the nation to ban the use of gas-powered leaf blowers. All of the reasons for prohibiting gas-powered leaf blowers apply to gas-powered scooters, even more so. Plus there are additional, compelling reasons for banning the scooters. 

The main concern with scooters, as with leaf blowers, is noise. The scooters are as loud or louder than gas-powered leaf blowers, but the problem is worse. A neighbor may use a leaf blower once a week during part of the year for 10 minutes or so. Scooters are frequently operated for hours on end by groups of individuals. Scooters are used for recreation, not transportation, and the operators may spend hours in a neighborhood. They are often used by several individuals together so someone living in our neighborhood may have to endure a groups of up to five scooters, with the engines running, stopped on the street or sidewalk in front of one’s home. The noise is horrendous. 

As was noted during the debate on gas-powered leaf blowers, small gas engines are very dirty, emitting much higher levels of pollutants than an automobile operated for the same period of time. 

Moreover, these scooters are frequently operated in violation of several provisions of the California Vehicle Code in a manner that endangers the lives not only of the operators, but also of pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers of automobiles. These include: 1) running stop signs and red lights; 2) driving on the wrong side of the road; 3) underage operators; 4) carrying a passenger; 5) driver and/or passenger failing to wear a helmet; 6) driving on sidewalks; 7) failure to use lights at night; 8) conducting races; 9) riding in parks, schoolyards, and other prohibited areas.  

The scooters are being driven in Strawberry Creek Park, on the track at Rose Parks School, across the Berkeley pedestrian/bicycle overpass bridge, in the dog park at the Berkeley Marina, among other inappropriate places. We ask that the Berkeley Police Department increase its enforcement against these violators. 

As this nation is suffering from an epidemic of obesity, we also note that the mostly young people operating these scooters would be better off getting exercise by riding bicycles. 

These scooters and similar devices are used most frequently during summer. We ask that the City Council move promptly to prohibit the gasoline-powered scooters so that our neighborhood may enjoy some peace and quiet this summer. 

Ric Oberlink and 33 neighbors