Public Comment

Berkeley, There Will Be No Santa Claus.

From Jacquelyn McCormick, Coordinator, Berkeley Budget SOS
Saturday November 26, 2011 - 04:55:00 PM

While citizens of Berkeley are nestled snug in their beds, City Councilmembers are dreaming, not of sugar plums, but of ways to fund the City’s failing infrastructure.

At several recent Council workshops, the demise and needs of our parks, marina, pools, storm drains, sewers and streets were discussed in detail. To date there has been no mention of City buildings (except that Old City Hall is a death trap if there is a significant earthquake, so Council is pondering a new location) – although rebuilding the solid waste transfer station and recycling center was briefly mentioned last spring.

Mid-December should reveal the “total” capital project dollars that are needed for all the necessary improvements but it is looking as though that number is close to $600million. That works out to approximately $5,300 per resident, including students. Couple that with the $253 million debt for employee benefits related liabilities – most owed to CALPERS and you end up with close to $850million in unfunded liabilities, or a whopping $7,500 per resident. And we call it unfunded because, sadly, it is. Unless significant budgetary changes are made, there is no money to fund any of this and Berkeley taxpayers and the City treasury are tapped out. 

So in practicality what does this mean? Capital improvement investment has decreased from 10% of our budget to 4% over the past 20 years while salaries and benefits have increased from 64% of the budget to 80%. Where is the money going to come from to fix the stuff that is broken or, more accurately, what are we going to do without?  

Streets: Our streets are given a rating of 58 in the Metropolitan Transportation Commission report. This places Berkeley in the lowest quartile – out of 98 Bay Area cities, 80 ranked higher. The city is making an effort of prioritizing repairs of the city arterials and their feeders, but it would cost $43million to get all our streets to a rating of 80. Have you driven down the newly repaved four block section of Milvia, by the high school and city hall? What a pleasure! However, if you happen to live and drive through our residential streets, especially the smaller outliers, get accustomed to dodging those potholes or rumbling over the patchwork – if you happen to travel by bike, should you lose your focus, you’re doomed. 

Parks and Waterfront: We love our parks, so much so that in 1986 Measure L was passed which requires that these amenities be funded to maintain their condition and services. Then in 1991, we voted to approve a dedicated park tax but, it did not have an escalator, so the money that it provided is now inadequate. Simply, our parks have been neglected to the point where there are safety issues and some areas may be closed. The $78million of capital required bring them “up to snuff” is due, primarily, to the fact that they have not been maintained and there were pictures provided in the meetings that prove it. Some say it is demolition by neglect. 

Pools: The pool issue has been ongoing for years and it will take $22.5 million to improve and/or rebuild what is currently open for use. Willard Pool was closed and buried in dirt because the city would not spend $78,000 to keep it open for the summer, and many residents considered this in retaliation for the defeat of the pools Bond Measure C. All those kids who relied and looked forward to a long-standing summer tradition are now hosed. Literally. The only water they will get in their neighborhood is that which comes from their own personal garden hose – if they are lucky enough to have one. 

Storm drains aka “Watershed Management”: South Berkeley consistently floods, culverts are collapsing, creeks are overflowing and the city has earmarked only $700,000 during this fiscal year for “emergency repairs”. The Watershed Plan that was put forth in October is one, quite frankly, that most Berkelyans would embrace – it truly reflects Berkeley values. It is based on new scientific methods of capturing and slowly releasing overflow, creating permeable surfaces to capture and slow runoff and goes far to ensure that what Berkeley releases does not end up in the Bay. A good thing! The problem – it will cost $250million to get it done and this will compete with all the other infrastructure needs. 

Berkeley’s Social Safety Net Services. Last, but certainly not least. We are talking about services for seniors, the blind, youth, jobs, employment training, housings, homeless, addiction, and health – services for Berkeleyans who are in need, services that reflect our Berkeley values. From a high of almost $10million three years ago, social service contribution has decreased to approximately $7.5million – a level below 2006. In the current budget cycle, senior services were decreased by 57%, housing development and rehab by 27% and employment training decreased by 21%. 

So what do we do?  

The easiest, but unacceptable, course for Council would be: package the infrastructure needs in a nice box covered with flowery speak, (something like: Do you as Berkeleyans want to save the Bay?) tie it all up with a big bow, stick it on the ballot and hope that it passes. Or if recent tax measure failure in San Francisco is any indication of the mood of the voter – good luck getting any new revenue! 

The hardest but most responsible way, is to look at the underlying reasons for Berkeley’s neglect of its infrastructure and its failure to plan wisely. We need to figure out why and make the necessary changes or, quite soon, all we can expect from our city in services and infrastructure is a lump of coal. And it isn’t because Berkeley’s citizens have misbehaved.