A Guide to Berkeley’s Library and Disaster Bonds

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday October 02, 2008 - 09:26:00 AM

Measure FF: Berkeley Library Bond 

Shall the City of Berkeley issue general obligation bonds not exceeding $26,000,000 to renovate, expand, and make seismic and access improvements at four neighborhood branch libraries, but not the Central Library, with annual reporting by the Library Board to the City Council? Two-thirds approval required. 

It’s a rare public issue that unites current Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, former Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean and Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington, the three city public officials who have been most at odds with each other during the past several years. The three have (temporarily) put aside their many differences in support of Measure FF, the Berkeley Library Bond. 

But the measure has drawn formidable opposition as well, including from the Berkeley Property Owners Association (BPOA), the Berkeley Alliance of Neighborhood Associations (BANA), and the Council of Neighborhood Associations (CNA). And common political wisdom has it that with any organized opposition, any ballot measure needing a two-thirds approval vote has a difficult hill to climb. 

Both sides agree on the importance of Berkeley libraries and the need for the improvements called for in the measure. The question is whether a bond measure backed by a property-tax increase is the best vehicle to do it. 

Measure FF would authorize capital improvements at four Berkeley branch libraries—North Branch, West Branch, South Branch (with its Tool Lending Library), and Claremont—through a $26 million, 30-year bond measure. The estimated annual property tax hike—and the measure stresses that this is only an estimate—would average $8.36 per year per $100,000 of assessed property valuation, and would rise as high as $18.22 per year per $100,000 of assessed property valuation from time to time. 

Measure FF supporters say the four branch libraries are “old and out of date,” are lacking in sufficient space for the numbers of visitors, have Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) deficiencies that must be addressed, and need technological upgrades. In addition, they say that the seismic upgrades called for in the measure are necessary and will have to be done, either with FF money if FF passes or with other city funds if it doesn’t. They also argue that at least one of the branches might have to be closed if the bond measure is not passed. 

Measure FF opponents say, while this may be true, financial relief may be available in the form of federal and state grant money, for which they say the city has failed to apply. They also say that there is other city money (“multimillion dollar developer subsidies” and the “$159,000 average [city] employee compensation”), which might be pared down and applied to the library needs. In addition, opponents say that the problem with the libraries is poor management of the money they have been allocated by Berkeley taxpayers, “not lack of money.” They refer to the possible library closing as a “threat.” 

Given the current state of the federal and state budgets, it seems doubtful that new money for Berkeley library needs can be gotten from those sources, at least in the short term. That leaves a couple of questions for Berkeley voters. Are the library needs called for in Measure FF so serious that they have to be met immediately? If so, is there enough money from the city budget that can be shifted over to meet those library needs without seriously compromising other Berkeley needs? And, finally, if the answer to question one is yes and the answer to question two is no, voters will still have to determine if they can take the hit in their property bills that is called for in Measure FF. 


Measure GG: Berkeley Emergency and Disaster Special Tax  

To enable the City to keep fire stations open and improve emergency medical response and disaster preparedness, shall a special tax be authorized of $.04083 per square foot of improvements in dwelling units and $.06179 per square foot on all other improvements? 

Two-thirds approval required. 

In some ways, the battle over Berkeley’s Measure GG seems like a replay or echo of Measure FF, with most of the same proponents and opponents. Like FF, GG has current and former Berkeley mayors Tom Bates and Shirley Dean signing the ballot argument for the measure. And also like FF, Measure GG is opposed by the Berkeley Property Owners Association (BPOA), the Berkeley Alliance of Neighborhood Associations (BANA), and the Council of Neighborhood Associations (CNA), among others. 

Measure GG is a special property tax used primarily to stop the city’s current system of rotating fire station closures, as well as to fund additional disaster and emergency preparedness measures. Included in the latter would be such things as providing life support paramedics and equipment for ambulances and fire trucks and acquiring radio communications equipment to enhance emergency and disaster communications within the city and with outside agencies. Proponents say that the paramedic inclusion is particularly important, arguing that while 70 percent of the 12,000 emergency calls to Berkeley firefighters last year were for medical emergencies, only three of the city’s seven fire stations have a designated paramedic. 

The initial yearly tax increase on a 1900-square-foot residential dwelling would be $78 per year; the increase on a 1900-square-foot non-residential building would be $118. But that tax rate would almost certainly change—that is, increase—over time, as Measure GG also authorizes the Berkeley City Council to make annual increases in the measure’s tax rate based upon growth in either the local cost-of-living index or in statewide personal income. For those reasons, no annual figure can be given for how much the tax authorized by Measure GG would yield. 

Both sides agree that the full fire station openings called for in the measure are important and necessary to the operation of the city. But as they do on Measure FF, the sides disagree on whether the only—and the proper—way to do it is through this measure. 

In addition, Measure GG opponents are arguing that money could be saved by using non-firefighter trained paramedics on the fire trucks rather than the higher-paid firefighters. 

Opponents also say that the money to support the improvements called for in Measure GG can be authorized by Berkeley City Council out of the city’s general fund. They also argue that the ballot measure gives no guarantee that it will end up with a fire department that is “adequately staffed,” or that the council will not use what opponents call a “bait-and-switch,” in which Measure GG property tax money is used only to replace fire department and disaster/ emergency money shifted over to the city’s general fund for other uses. 

Voter support for Measure GG, like that for FF, boils down to a number of questions. Are the city improvements called for in Measure GG—including keeping all the city’s fire stations open at all times and adding extra emergency and disaster personnel and equipment—necessary for the city? If the answer to that question is yes, is there enough money in the city’s general fund to pay for such improvements, rather than using a property tax increase? If the answer to the second question is no, are there enough safeguards in Measure GG to ensure that the money will be used to meet the fire department and emergency/disaster needs, and only those needs?