Council Approves Private Solar Power Financing Concept

By Judith Scherr
Friday November 09, 2007

More than 100 home and business owners may get long-term low-interest loans through the city to add energy efficiencies and/or solar panels to their properties, if a financing plan hatched by the mayor’s chief of staff, Cisco DeVries, pans out. 

The council voted unanimously Tuesday to support the plan in concept.  

Also at the Tuesday meeting, the council decided to hold a special Dec. 11 meeting to hammer out changes in the Condominium Conversion Ordinance, and they began to look at initiatives that might be on the November 2008 ballot, homing in on a $15 million measure to fund a new warm water pool for the disabled and elderly. 


Solar scheme 

The public financing plan advanced by Bates’ chief of staff Cisco DeVries is for the city to obtain money, from banks or bond issues, which would be lent to home and business owners to make their properties more energy efficient and/or to add solar panels and solar water-heating systems. 

The scheme promises to offer more favorable interest rates than private owners would be able to obtain on their own. Repayment would be over 20 years, rather than the 10 years a bank might otherwise require, City Manager Phil Kamlarz said. The loan would be paid back through an assessment added to property taxes, and the city would hold a lien on the property until the loan was paid off. When a property is sold, the assessment would continue to be paid by the new owner. 

DeVries estimates that the cost of the upgrades over 20 years would be about equal to the savings from the solar and other upgrades over the same period of time. 

Making the plan a reality will be costly, but the mayor said he hopes to use a $160,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. The agency has yet to award the grant. 

“We’re in discussions with the EPA,” DeVries said.  

City Manager Phil Kamlarz said the city’s not likely to know about the EPA grant until February or March. Councilmember Gordon Wozniak said the city shouldn’t wait for the EPA, but should move forward with funds initially from the general fund. 

“Don’t let others scoop us,” Wozniak said. The council did not incorporate Wozniak’s recommendation into its vote, but City Manager Phil Kamlarz said he will continue working on the plan with city staff. No budget for staff work on the project has been made public. 

“There’s lots of details I won’t ask about right now,” Councilmember Laurie Capitelli said.  

Some outstanding questions include the degree to which homeowners would be required to provide energy efficiencies before installing solar panels and the degree to which the city would screen or recommend contractors to do the work. 

At the meeting, Bates underscored the uncertainty of the project timeline. “People shouldn’t wait for us. There might be some bumps along the road,” he said. 


Warm pool 

An initial controversy over the council discussion of the warm pool—a swimming pool to serve the disabled and frail elderly—arose when Councilmember Dona Spring asked if the question could be addressed early in the evening, given that some disabled people attending the meeting had fixed times for transportation home. 

The mayor, however, refused, instead allowing discussion of antennas (see separate story) and his solar project early in the evening. 

The warm pool—kept at about 92 degrees Fahrenheit—is housed in a historic but seismically unsafe building at Berkeley High now slated for demolition. Voters approved a $3.2 million bond before the demolition was planned. The bond has not been issued.  

Plans for a new warm pool on Berkeley school property at Bancroft Way and Milvia Street are under discussion. Consultants estimate costs at $15 million. 

While some of the warm-pool users had already left the meeting by 9:45 p.m., when it was discussed, Ben Rivers was among those who remained. He made his way to the microphone, with difficulty, using the physical support of others to walk. He spoke clearly, though haltingly, telling the council about the effects of lupus on him. “Because of my neurological condition, cold water causes my body to tense up,” he said “It’s essential that the water is very warm.”  

The question of the pool was among other initiatives that might be placed on the November 2008 ballot. The mayor clearly did not want to see the city footing the bill for the pool. “Forty percent of the people who use the pool come from outside Berkeley,” he said, suggesting that the funding might come, in part, from other cities or from the East Bay Regional Parks. 

“Don’t shaft the 60 percent of the people who need the Warm Water Pool,” Spring said, calling on the city and school district not to demolish the current pool until a new one is in place. 

“Everyone is looking for someone else to come up with a solution—we lost an advocate when we lost [former mayor] Shirley Dean,” Spring said. 

Ed Noland, an architect from ELS Architects and Urban Design, was prepared to give a 10-minute presentation on possible pool design. Bates did not want to take the time to hear it, asking if Noland could make the presentation in a minute and a half.  

In his remarks, which took about five minutes, Noland said the pool would have various means for the entry and exit of disabled people, as well as decks wide enough for the storage of wheelchairs. The roof would be able to accept solar panels, but installing them at this time would be cost prohibitive. 

At $15 million, the cost for taxpayers would be about $5 to $8 per $100,000 assessed value of the property over 30 years. 


Also on the ballot 

Staff advised the council on possible ballot measures, most likely up for a November vote, but some could be on the ballot as early as June. A Landmarks Preservation Ordinance referendum will be on the ballot, as well as the resubmission of Measure R, Patients Access to Medical Cannabis Act of 2004. The latter was ordered back to the ballot by a superior court judge due to problems with retrieving data from the electronic voting machines for a recount in the 2004 election.  

Also possibly on the ballot are separate measures to fund storm water infrastructure, police officers, fire fighters and youth services, as well as an advisory measure on community choice aggregation, which would create a way for Berkeley, Oakland and Emeryville to provide its own energy, rather than depending on PG&E. 


Condo conversion 

A workshop on condominium conversion was held, but members of the Berkeley Property Owners Association criticized the format, saying their concerns, including the 100 limit on conversions allowed each year and the 12.5 percent fee, were not addressed.  

In response, Bates called for a special council meeting Dec. 11 dedicated to the discussion of possible revisions to the ordinance.