Council Delays Choosing Ballot Measures

By Judith Scherr
Thursday May 22, 2008 - 09:45:00 AM

The Berkeley City Council paid some $16,000 for advice it considered Tuesday night, but—at least for now—ignored. 

A David Binder Research consultant who oversaw two voter surveys advised the council to place only the most popular bond measure on the ballot, the one that is supposed to enhance disaster preparedness. 

Faced with the public lobbying for library branch improvements and the therapeutic and neighborhood swimming pools, councilmembers refused to choose among the three proposed tax measures to place any of them before the voters in November. 

In a 8-1 vote, with Councilmember Gordon Wozniak in opposition, the council asked staff to format all three proposals as ballot measures. Councilmembers will decide in June which to put on the ballot—or they could decide to let the voters choose among all three. 

Shanon Alper of David Binder Research presented results to the council of a survey the company had done of 600 likely Berkeley voters, honing in on three of the most popular measures, as determined by an earlier survey. (The first survey cost $24,000.) 

The measure most likely to gain voter approval, according to the latest survey, was related to emergency services: it would ensure that there would be no rotating fire station closures and that there would be one paramedic at every fire station. Disaster preparedness would be enhanced and the city would purchase new police radios compatible with those of outside agencies. 

This would cost $90 per year to the average homeowner (whose home is 1,900 square feet and has an assessed value of $350,000). 

The survey found that at first 62 percent of the voters favored the measure, but when given supplementary information on the need for the services, such as the number of non-fire related calls received by the Berkeley Fire Department, 66 percent of those surveyed said they would vote for the measure. Bond measures must pass by two-thirds of those voting. 

“Given the climate and our second survey here, the recommendation would be to go with the fire and disaster preparedness tax that is at the threshold,” Alper told the council. “I don’t see the other measures as currently passing. I would stick with that measure and put the energy behind passing that measure.” 

While warm-pool users lined up to ask the council to support the therapeutic pool and library trustees and staff spoke passionately in favor of a library bond, no one spoke in favor of the emergency services measure. Some disabled people needed to leave the meeting so that their attendants could help them go to bed before the late-evening agenda items came up. 

One public speaker, 2006 mayoral candidate Zelda Bronstein, asked how the city could propose taxing citizens for emergency services when it pays large salaries for public safety workers. The measure shouldn’t be called a Fire and Disaster Preparedness Tax, she said, “It ought to be called ‘a further capitulation to greed tax.’” 

Bronstein said the council wrongly acted as if the bond measures were necessary because the city had insufficient revenues due to Proposition 13 and because of the downturn in the real estate market. She said the city could enhance revenue by making the university pay more for its use of city police, fire and sewer services, and by not agreeing to the hefty 13-14 percent raises over four years recently given to firefighters and police.  

“The police were already averaging $98,000 in salaries and $55,000 in annual benefits,” she said, “The firefighters were already averaging over $101,000 in salaries and over $47,000 in benefits.” 

Gloria Trahan, 82, was among those asking the council to put the therapeutic warm pool on the ballot. The pool is slated to be demolished by the school district on whose property it sits. 

“I’m unable to exercise on solid ground,” said Trahan, leaning on a walker as she addressed the council.  

The pools measure, which includes rehabilitation of the three outdoor city pools, was less popular than the disaster preparedness tax among those surveyed, with 46 percent saying they would vote for the measure when first asked. Approval grew to 50 percent after the survey participants heard an explanation about who uses the pool and how the funds would be spent.  

And some 18 percent of those opposing the measure changed to approving it when they were asked if they would vote for a bond measure to include only the therapeutic pool—the therapeutic pool alone would cost the average homeowner about $20 per year. Adding the rehabilitation of the outdoor pools to the mix would cost the average homeowner $28 per year. 

Library trustees and staff spoke in favor of the library bond that would pay for expanded space at the Claremont and North branch libraries, seismic upgrades to the south branch and repairs to structural damage at the West branch library. The bond would cost the average homeowner $33 per year. 

“I am happy and honored to pay these taxes,” Alan Bern, Berkeley resident and communications manager for the library, told the council, arguing that the North branch library needs more space, including space to be fully accessible to disabled people.  

“We feel that we can run this campaign that needs to bring the numbers up—I think we can do it,” Bern said. 

Alper said the survey found that while 57 percent of the voters would approve the library bond, the percentage did not grow with a greater explanation of where the funds would be spent, as was the case in the fire and pool bond questions. The increase in approval rate after an explanation indicates the possible success of campaigns to support the ballot measures. 

Councilmembers were generally sympathetic toward all three measures, but cautious at the same time. “The more things on the ballot, the worse they may do,” said Councilmember Laurie Capitelli. 

And Councilmember Gordon Wozniak said: “If you put three [tax measures] on the ballot, they’ll all fail.”