Berkeley’s Stormwater Property Tax: Where’s the Money?: By L.A. WOOD

Friday October 29, 2004

For nearly a hundred years, Berkeley has struggled to maintain its storm system of inlets, culverts and pipes that carry rain and other surface waters to our creeks and into the San Francisco Bay. Historically, our city has always placed a very low priority on the general maintenance and the annual repairs of the storm system. However, in 1992, there was a serious legislative move to fix Berkeley’s beleaguered storm system when voters authorized a new stormwater property assessment.  

Now, more than a dozen years later, Berkeley’s half-inflated stormwater program has finally hit bottom. This crisis has raised questions of fund misrepresentation and program mismanagement.Voters deserve to be told the truth about Berkeley’s Clean Water tax dollars and why this mandated program has been allowed to go down the drain.  

Some voters may remember the stormwater initiative back in the early 1990s. The idea of a storm tax was sold to residents with the rhetoric of environmental protection, and moreover, with the provision that this tax would be a placed into a designated fund. In the beginning, the stormwater fund was never intended to fully support all our municipal stormwater activities or to completely pay for the system’s under-funded capital improvements. This fund was adopted to help support the city’s stormwater permit process with its newly mandated state and federal requirements.  

The stormwater property tax also funded Berkeley’s participation in the Alameda County stormwater support group, a consortium of East Bay cities that share consultants and work together to meet the legislative requirements of the Clean Water Act. They identified several existing municipal activities that are required by our federal stormwater permit, including street sweeping and storm drain cleaning. Although these costs had traditionally been paid out of the general fund, the City of Berkeley began to transfer all the costs for these pre-existing maintenance tasks to the stormwater fund.  

The stormwater property tax initiative was not meant to simply be financial relief for general fund activities. The long-term impact of this funding shift has struck a fatal blow to the development of the city’s stormwater program. Predictably, this fund is broke, which in turn is being used to justify no improvement in performance.  

The annual assessment of 1.9 million dollars for the storm fund has been used for some maintenance costs, but with almost no money allocated to capital improvements. Today, this practice continues to have undeniable consequences. Recent emergency repairs of the collapsed culvert downtown and past flooding problems have all been exacerbated by the lack of an active replacement program of the system’s aging components. The contamination of Blackberry Creek several months ago is a perfect example. Though the city was quick to claim victory in fixing the pipe break near the creek, the fact is that this “fix” represented nearly all of this year’s capital allotment for stormwater improvements.  

Much like the tale of the little Dutch boy plugging up the hole in the seawall, we are trying to shore up a rapidly deteriorating storm system with a convenience-store approach that has forced taxpayers into paying top dollar for these unscheduled repairs. Even more troubling, there now seems to be no escape from the growing number of emergency repairs or to head off the serious flooding likely to occur during the rainy seasons ahead.  

In the last dozen years, our local legislators have missed numerous opportunities to raise the stormwater tax through another ballot measure. Granted, culverts and storm drains are not very sexy issues, but in terms of budget outlay, the storm system’s infrastructure has always been a costly and critical expenditure. However, the last decade of city budgets shows inadequate funding in this area which has led to a backlog of necessary repairs that adds up to tens of millions of dollars.  

Lack of capital improvements is not the only problem to plaguing this program. Even street sweeping and storm basin cleaning are currently at the same level, or lower, than they were 12 years ago. When some stormwater consortium members began to increase permit activities, like Oakland did with its street sweeping, Berkeley chose to opt out.  

Public Works, which manages the city’s stormwater program, has had difficulty keeping up with our permit’s requirements. In fact, Berkeley’s permit should now be called into default over Public Works’ failure to implement inspection programs for both commercial businesses and restaurants.  

Unquestionably, city staff has provided disastrously poor direction for our stormwater program at the expense of both taxpayers and environmental protection. In private industry, the magnitude of this budgetary bungling would have caused heads to roll. Furthermore, this failure is shared with the San Francisco Bay Area Regional Water Control Board which, in each round of program review, has continued to exempt consortium members from Clean Water compliance. The board’s message to do what is “practical” has stifled the development of our county’s stormwater program and continues to prop up Berkeley’s Clean Water scam.  


L.A. Wood is a Berkeley resident. ›