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Traditional Allies Divided Over Parks Measure CC: By MATTHEW ARTZ

Friday October 29, 2004

Spanning 96,000 acres in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, the East Bay Regional Park District is the largest local park system in the country. But when its residents go to the polls on Tuesday, only those who live along the bay shore from San Pablo to Alameda will see a new park tax before them. 

After watching previous tax measures in 1998 and 2000 fall shy of the two-thirds threshold because of light support in Eastern Alameda and Contra Costa counties, the park district decided this year to create a separate tax district that appeals to their surest base of support. 

Before voters in Berkeley and neighboring shoreline towns, including Oakland and Richmond, is a 15-year tax that would raise $42 million for maintenance and landscape upgrades in parks within the newly created zone. Homeowners would pay $12 a year and landlords would pay $8.28 a year for each unit in a multi-family unit building. 

The tax proposal has divided pro-environment groups and re-energized Friends of Parks, a small group of former district officials and environmentalists who claim the district wouldn’t need the funds if it cut down on bureaucratic red tape. 

“The tax is bad government,” said Harlan Kessel, who served on the park district’s board of directors for seventeen years before retiring in 1994 and now is a member of Friends of Parks. 

“It isn’t right to balkanize the district and make the poorest section pay for improvements that will serve the entire district,” he said. 

The Green Parties of Alameda and Contra Costa counties both oppose the measure on grounds that it is a regressive tax against the shoreline communities.  

Steve Bloom of the Alameda County Green Party said he feared that if the tax passed, the district would divert money in its general fund slated to go to parks in the new tax zone to parks east of the Berkeley hills. 

Norman La Force, chair of the East Bay Public Lands Committee for the Sierra Club, compared the Green Party’s stance to “a right wing Republican argument against proper stewardship of public resources.” 

“If you followed their argument no one in Berkeley should be able to use Golden Gate Park, because they don’t pay for it,” he said. 

The measure, co-authored by La Force and Arthur Feinstein, executive director of the Golden Gate Audubon Society, provides funding for 80 projects, including $400,000 a year for maintenance at Eastshore State Park. The creation of the park, which runs from Emeryville to Richmond, was part of a decades-long effort by the Citizens for an Eastshore State Park, of which La Force and Feinstein are members. 

La Force said the state parks department has no money to pay for operations and maintenance at the park and without the tax measure the park “will continue to limp along.” 

The regional park district pays for maintenance of two other state parks, Crown Beach and Lake Del Valle, La Force said, although the money for both parks comes from the district’s general fund, not a special tax district. 

In addition to Eastshore State Park, the tax revenue would be slated to go to environmental maintenance projects and habitat protection at parks in the tax zone including Tilden, Sibley, Alvarado, Redwood, and Anthony Chabot. Specific projects have not yet been prioritized. 

Opponents of the tax argue that the district is flush with money and doesn’t need to seek additional funds from voters. Eighty percent of the district’s funding is tied to local property assessments. Last year, rising assessments netted the district an extra $4 million, according to park officials. 

“I know they have a lot of money and I know they waste it,” said Karen Weber, the district’s former personnel director and a member of Friends of Parks.  

La Force and other environmental advocates previously belonged to Friends of Parks in the 1998 campaign against the district’s tax, but several have since reconciled with the park district over its policies and left the group. 

Weber, who was on bad terms with the district when she left in 1996, said it suffered from a bloated bureaucracy that consumed resources that could go to park maintenance. She claimed the district spent $2 million annually on a 14-person public relations department and according to the opponents’ ballot arguments the district pays six assistant general managers between $138,466 and $167,568 each per year. 

District General Manager Pat O’Brien, who said his salary is $180,000 a year, countered that the district will lose $12 million in state funding over the next two years and that it has initiated a hiring freeze and cut departments five percent across the board. 

“The park district isn’t a static agency,” he said. “Costs have gone up the same as revenue.” 

He insisted that the district would not re-direct general fund dollars away from the tax zone and defended the limited geographic scope of the tax. 

“Are we to say that because two-thirds of the people in Brentwood don’t want this that people who live on this side [of the hills] shouldn’t have the chance to have parks maintained at a higher level?”