Page One

Council Weighs Plan to Finance Solar Power

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday November 06, 2007

Berkeley could be the first city to pay upfront costs for residents upgrading energy efficiencies and/or going solar.  

Tonight (Tuesday), the City Council will be asked to OK the concept of a Sustainable Energy Financing District. Few details of the financing plan, including its cost to the city, are presented in the two-page proposal, whose goal is to add 125 homes and businesses to the city’s stock of about 400 energy-efficient and/or solar sites. 

Before the regular meeting, the council will hold a 5 p.m. closed session addressing a Verizon lawsuit against the city, based on a zoning board decision not to give permits for the placement of telecommunications antennas atop UC Storage at 2721 Shattuck Ave. The public can speak before the executive session begins. A public hearing on this question will also be held as part of the regular council meeting. 

At 6 p.m. the council will hold a work session on condominium conversion, addressing, among others, questions of simplifying the conversion process. 

The regular council meeting begins at 7 p.m. In addition to the discussion of city financing for energy efficiencies and solar panels, the council will discuss a final version of the procedure for public comment at council meetings, two reports by the city auditor recommending improvements in handling funds at the Nature and Permit centers, and increasing a loan for the Freight and Salvage. 


Financing solar Berkeley  

Cisco DeVries, chief of staff to Mayor Tom Bates, has been working for about six months with staff in the city’s finance department and energy division and the city’s bond counsel to create a Sustainable Energy Financing District. 

According to the proposal, the city would raise funds through bonds or financial institutions and interested people or businesses would borrow the funds for the purpose of making their homes more energy efficient and/or for adding solar panels and solar hot water.  

The city would have a lien on the home or business to assure repayment, and the property owner would pay off the loan—including interest and an administrative fee—through property taxes over 20 years. New owners of the improved property would assume the added tax burden. 

The assumption is that the city could borrow funds for this purpose at a lower interest rate than the individual property owner. It is also assumed that property owners want to make these changes to their homes, but are not doing so because other means of financing is too costly. 

Councilmember Kriss Worthington told the Daily Planet that, while no survey has been taken documenting the number of people interested in going solar, the publicity about the financing district would draw people to have the work done.  

“It’s all about advertising,” Worthington said. “The key thing is that this opens the door for people to move forward” on going solar. 

The two-page report does not estimate staff costs to date or future costs to put together the district.  

The city has written a grant application to the Environmental Protection Agency through which they hope to obtain $160,000 for some of the initial costs. 

The grant proposal names a number of city staff to work on the project, but does not say what percentage of their time will be spent on this project and what priority this project will have over other projects: 

“The project will be managed by the city, under the direction of the principal investigator—Neal De Snoo, energy officer and manager of the Energy and Sustainable Development Office. The city will be responsible for all deliverables, financial management and the overall performance and execution of the project. In addition to De Snoo, seven staff will be assigned to the Sustainable Energy Financing District program, including Billi Romain, sustainability coordinator (management of Build-It-Green process); Alice LaPierre, associate management analyst (adviser on technologies); Timothy Burroughs, climate action coordinator (adviser on outreach and program evaluation); Cisco DeVries, chief of staff to the mayor; Zach Cowan, deputy city attorney; Robert Hicks, finance director; and a new staff person.” 

Build-It-Green, named in the proposal, is a Berkeley-based non-profit. The organization would hold workshops with builders, contractors and solar installers “to develop and market the initiative.” Build it Green’s board includes members who work for local “green” for-profit businesses, including solar installers, construction companies and building materials venders. 


Rules for public comment 

The council will be asked to formally approve rules for public speaking to which it has already agreed in concept, with guidelines permitting the public to speak on all items they wish to. The council’s earlier rules restricted the public to ten speakers chosen by lottery. This was challenged by SuperBOLD (Berkeleyans Organized for Library Defense), which threatened a lawsuit if the rules were not changed. 

While SuperBOLD had wanted the rules to apply to all commissions and boards in the city, the current draft covers only the City Council.  


Auditor looks at permit and nature centers 

The permit center collects more than $800,000 in license, permit and engineering fees annually, but lacks a number of controls, City Auditor Ann-Marie Hogan said in a Nov. 6 report to the City Council. 

Among the problems cited are: sharing of one password among eight employees for computer entry into the receipts file; employees collecting payments do not have separate cash drawers or change funds; six employees have the combination to the safe, which is old and does not have the ability to capture data, such as the identity of the person opening it. 

The auditor has suggested remedies and the city manager agreed to most. They should be implemented by May. 

The nature center and adventure playground take in about $34,000 annually. In her report to the council the auditor pointed out controls she said were lacking. 

One was that Adventure Playground fees were sometimes waived when customers said they were low-income. There was no individual accountability for cash overages or shortages, she said. Among her recommendations is that if it is the City Council’s intent to waive fees, criteria should be established. 


Freight loan 

The council will be asked to approve an increase for the Freight and Salvage Coffee House of $350,000 beyond the original $527,000 loan to pay for city building permit fees for the new venue at 1010 Addison St. The council will also be asked to forgive another $75,000 of the original loan when construction of the new site is complete. The Freight and Salvage, formally known as the Berkeley Society for the Preservation of Traditional Music, has repaid $450,000 of the original loan. 


Human rights 

The council will be asked by the Peace and Justice Commission to approve a resolution for world financial institutions to cancel the debt of impoverished countries.  

The Peace and Justice Commission is also asking the council to call on state Attorney General Jerry Brown to dismiss charges against the San Francisco 8, eight former members or associates of the Black Panther Party charged in the 1971 killing of a San Francisco police officer.  

The resolution notes that the Panthers were “a primary target in the FBI’s illegal COINTELPRO program … designed to destroy and disrupt a number of progressive organizations … [and that statements of guilt resulting from] torture were used to bring charges in the mid-1970s.” 


161 Panoramic Hill 

A new home is proposed for 161 Panoramic Hill, but neighbors in the Panoramic Hill Association have appealed it, due to considerations of safety on the narrow street, particularly during construction. The public hearing on the appeal has been continued to tonight’s meeting. 


Warm pool 

The council packet includes a report on the warm pool, a swimming pool kept at about 92 degrees for the benefit of disabled and frail elderly people. The council has the option of discussing the report by moving it to the action calendar. 

In 2000, voters approved a $3.2 million bond to renovate the warm pool, currently located at Berkeley High School. Since that time the school district decided to demolish the structure that houses the pool and the pool itself. Constructing a new warm pool at Milvia Street and Bancroft Way, now a parking lot, is under consideration. 

Costs are estimated at $15 million. Voters would likely be asked to finance the costs through a bond measure. The cost to the taxpayer is estimated at about $6-to-$8 per $100,000 assessed value of a home, according to the report to the council.