Council Rejects Fountain Rehab, Cuts Commissions By MATTHEW ARTZ

Friday April 22, 2005

The fountain at Civic Center Park will stay dry indefinitely after the City Council Tuesday unanimously rejected a proposed $600,000 renovation.  

The council also voted unanimously to eliminate the Citizen’s Budget Review Commission and the Civic Improvement Corporation as well as to combine the Fire Safety Commission with the Disaster Council. 

The council split on reducing the meeting schedule for other commissions, agreeing to forward suggestions for further cuts to the city manager by May 17. 

In a pair of narrow votes, the council directed the Planning Department to consider rezoning Ashby Avenue and Gilman Street below San Pablo Avenue to allow for more retail shops and auto dealerships, and approved $60,000 for a July 4 fireworks show to be paid for by higher marina fees. 

Tuesday’s meeting was dedicated to budget issues. This year the council faces a $8.9 million structural deficit. At the same time it must determine how to allocate an extra $10.5 million that the city expects to receive over the next four years, mostly from property tax revenue. 

City Manager Phil Kamlarz has urged the council to allocate the funds for capital projects rather than preserving city programs. But, in the case of the fountain, pressure from groups facing decreased funding made the project politically costly. Pool users flooded councilmembers’ inboxes with e-mails demanding that a share of the money slated for the fountain go to keep one pool open this winter. And at Tuesday’s meeting other groups, angry over funding reductions, took aim at the fountain. 

“I think that services [for youth] are a more pertinent need than a fountain full of water,” said Mark Gambala of Berkeley Youth Alternatives. 

While rejecting the $600,000 fountain renovation, the council agreed to spend $40,000 on additions to the fountain depicting turtles and honoring indigenous peoples and $60,000 on foundation work to prepare the fountain to spout water when the council decides to pay for the project. Local Native American advocates had lobbied city officials for the turtle art installation.  

Councilmember Darryl Moore proposed dedicating some of the money saved to keep one pool open this winter. Although Mayor Tom Bates concurred that there was strong sentiment for the pool, the council couldn’t vote for proposal because it wasn’t on their agenda. 

The rejection of the fountain project means that the council still has approximately $4 million in revenue to allocate for next year’s budget, which they must approve by the end of June. Last month, the council set aside $3.5 million in unanticipated tax revenue from the current year’s budget for a series of projects, the most expensive being a $2.4 million allocation for a new police dispatch system. 

Renovation of the fountain, which arrived in Berkeley in the 1940’s and stopped working about 20 years later, was to be the centerpiece of a redesigned Civic Center Park. The park upgrade, which includes a new play area near Center Street, is scheduled to proceed with money primarily from Measure S, a 1996 city bond initiative for downtown improvements. The bond, along with some state financing, was supposed to pay for the fountain as well the other park upgrades, but rising construction costs sent the total project over budget. 


Citizen Commissions 

The council Tuesday struck its first blow against Berkeley’s 45 citizen commissions. At the suggestion of Councilmember Kriss Worthington, the council eliminated the Citizens Budget Commission, which city staff had merely requested to reduce meetings from once a month to four times a year. 

The commission had typically been quiet on budget issues, but last year urged the council to reopen union contracts and reject tax increases. 

City brass has asked the council to scale back commissions and commission meetings in order to free up staff for other projects. But when it came to further commission cuts, the council was sharply divided. 

“It’s pretty much an absurd idea,” Worthington said. He and Councilmember Dona Spring argued that the city wouldn’t realize any reduced staff time because issues that would otherwise have been settled by commissions would instead go to the council.  

Councilmember Gordon Wozniak replied: “We have to find some savings here. To say this is a sacred cow is foolish.” Mayor Bates suggested reducing meeting frequencies for commissions, but allowing them to appeal to the city manager for additional meetings. 


West Berkeley Zoning 

A 5-4 council majority, hoping to boost sales tax revenues, voted to order the planning department to consider new zoning rules for Gilman Street and Ashby Avenue west of San Pablo Avenue. Councilmembers Linda Maio, Max Anderson, Spring and Worthington opposed the proposal, saying that changing zoning rules would threaten industrial businesses in West Berkeley. 

“If they rezone, we’re gone,” said Mary Lou Van Deventer, owner of Urban Ore. She expected her rent to quadruple if zoning were changed to allow retail businesses at her site. Substantial portions of Ashby and Gilman are zoned for industrial uses. However, with city sales tax revenue stagnant and auto dealerships—the city’s highest sales tax contributors—threatening to move, city leaders have urged opening up more of Gilman and Ashby to commercial uses. 

“We need that sales tax,” Wozniak said. Councilmember Darryl Moore, whose district includes the southern portion of West Berkeley, said it would have been “inconsistent” for the council to talk about increasing sales tax revenue at previous meetings and then request that that the planning department maintain a balance between land zoned for commercial and industrial uses. 

Opponents of rezoning the two freeway arteries asked that the city reconsider zoning for all of West Berkeley rather than looking only at the major corridors. Planning Director Dan Marks, however, said the department didn’t have enough staff to undertake a complete review of the West Berkeley Plan. Lack of manpower is forcing the planning department to put other projects on hold, including implementing changes to the University Avenue Strategic Plan, establishing quotas on restaurants on Euclid Avenue and reviewing zoning rules for San Pablo Avenue. 


Fourth of July Fireworks 

Berkeley will once again celebrate July 4 with fireworks at the marina this year. The council voted 5-4 (Olds, Spring, Wozniak, no, Worthington, abstain) to raise the marina fee to pay for the annual $60,000 celebration. The event was at risk because marina fees are already slated to increase 10 percent a year for the next three years to pay for repairing the marina’s dock. The fireworks celebration will increase the fee by less than one percent. 

“It’s a hallmark of our town,” said Councilmember Linda Maio in support of the fireworks. Councilmember Worthington said $60,000 was too much to spend on one event, and Councilmember Betty Olds based her opposition on the plight of animals on the marina. “I’m sure they all think they’ve moved to Iraq,” she said, concluding that the festivities disrupt wildlife that hasn’t finished nesting. 

The council held off making cuts to other special events until May 10.