Public Comment

The Parks Tax and its Discontents

Jim McGrath and Toni Mester
Friday October 24, 2014 - 10:36:00 AM
At the Rose Garden
Caitlin Brostrom
At the Rose Garden
At James Kenney Park
Susan McKay
At James Kenney Park

It must be the worst of times in Berkeley when a modest and pragmatic measure that wins endorsements from the entire City Council, civic leaders, candidates, and the political mainstream from the Chamber of Commerce to the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club still doesn’t satisfy outspoken members of our community. 

The campaign for Measure F, the parks tax increase, led by Jim McGrath, the Chair of the Parks and Waterfront Commission, and a small group of current and former Parks Commissioners, has aroused some latent anxieties and outright hostilities in two distinct camps. Unfortunately, their concerns, albeit passionately held and professed, have little to do with the sad state of our park system, which Measure F will begin to correct. Let’s be clear about that: Measure F is only the first step in what will be a long process to salvage our recreational facilities and reclaim Berkeley’s parks heritage.  

The two camps are the fiscal conservatives and the disappointed advocates for the reconstruction of Willard Pool and the creation of a new park along the undeveloped southern section of the Santa Fe right-of-way. Each group has a different motive for opposing Measure F but both are marked by deep distrust of City government, both the Council and the management, aka “the staff.” And while both groups profess a love of our parks, they seem willing to sacrifice them to other purposes. 

The Budget Hawks 

The fiscal conservatives include Budget SOS, the Committee for FACTS, and neighborhood groups in the hills, including the Board of NEBA (Northeast Berkeley Association) and sometimes CENA (Claremont-Elmwood), who together or separately have opposed most taxes and bonds in the last elections, including the streets bond of 2012 (passed), the pools bonds of 2010 and 2012 (failed), the libraries bond of 2008 (passed), and the school bonds of 2010 and 2006 (passed). 

Their arguments are fairly consistent and manifest in Barbara Gilbert’s recent No on F opinion piece in Berkeleyside: the City is mismanaged, has allowed employee related costs to balloon at the expense of infrastructure and services, and lacks a comprehensive plan to deal with future unfunded liabilities. They contend that City employee salaries, benefits, and pensions – especially fire and police - are excessive compared to nearby cities and that expenditures lack transparency and accountability. They want the University, developers, and private foundations to contribute more and overburdened taxpayers less. 

These would be powerful arguments if they were combined with a pragmatic strategy to raise revenues, both public and private, reign in pension and health care costs, and correct infrastructure decay. Gilbert believes that “A NO vote will incentivize [the City] to start fixing big fiscal problems and start asking all stakeholders to contribute to the wellbeing of our City.” 

Unfortunately a NO vote does not provide such incentives. The “starve the beast” strategy is self-defeating: it’s the stick without a carrot. A NO vote on Measure F would instead force the City to close unsafe recreational facilities that are a liability risk and layoff more maintenance workers. Holding the parks hostage to fear, frustration, and political stalemate robs citizens of amenities that make life in Berkeley worth the price of admission. 

The Parks Department  

In fact, Parks, Recreation, and Waterfront is a well-managed and complex Department that delivers a panoply of programs with a budget $25 million, which is 7% of the gross City budget of $364 million. Within its purview lies the Marina, a self-supporting enterprise funded by berthing fees and business rents that pay for the Shorebird Park Nature Center and its ecology programs, led by naturalist Patty Donald, the entire waterfront infrastructure including docks and the pier, César Chavez Park, and the salaries of the 17 Marina staff. The Marina fund constitutes 22% ($5 million) of the PRW budget. 

Recreational activities in the parks and pools are supported by the General Fund ($5.5 million, 22% of the PRW budget) and directed by the famously hard-working Denise Brown. A complete description of the current program is contained in the Fall and Holiday activity guide which includes offerings such as the pre-K, after school, and disabled inclusion programs, day camps, sports lessons, and special events. There’s a kids oriented Halloween Carnival coming up on Sunday October 26, including a parade and costume contest at San Pablo Park. 

The camps fund, which used to run a profit, is struggling in the red after the tragic Rim Fire in August 2013 destroyed Berkeley Tuolumne Camp, which will be rebuilt mostly by insurance and donations from friends and supporters. Time will tell if there will be a shortfall in the reconstruction and how that money will be raised or whether the alternative site at Echo Lake will turn a profit in the interim. 

The Parks Tax 

The Parks tax itself supports maintenance of 52 parks, trails, and the 35,000 trees in our urban forest, which is managed by Dan Gallagher. The current staff of 44 is down three positions, which could be filled with passage of Measure F. These are physically demanding but good union jobs that can support a family and will help keep all of the endangered facilities safe and open for public use. 

In addition, Measure F would raise over $1 million a year to repair what needs to be fixed. With the existing repair funds, the extra steady income would allow staff to schedule repairs in a planned sequence that would halt the deterioration. The list of projects is contained in the staff report to the Council work session of February 11 and includes restoration of tennis court and ball fields City wide, the Rose Garden, Aquatic Park, James Kenney Center, and the locker rooms and plumbing in the West Campus and King pools. 

The parks tax income is augmented by grants, totaling more than $15 million since 2009, and accounting for the full cost of the new Bay Trail. Some notable recent grants include Federal transportation funds for the Bay Trail, East Bay Regional Park district Measure WW monies for resurfacing the San Pablo Park basketball courts and skate park, Cosco Busan oil spill grants for improvements at the South Sailing Basin, and State Boating and Waterways for other waterfront amenities. These targeted grants show good management and help to rebuild the parks, but cannot always be spent on pressing maintenance problems. 

Scott Ferris is overseeing this entire operation, and from our perspective, he’s doing a great job. He listens and responds to the concerns of the community and the Commission. For example, in our separate report to the Council on February 11, the Commission recommended that the staff encourage and supervise more community volunteers in the parks. His response was to revitalize the monthly community crew days when the entire maintenance crew and neighbors work and lunch together at a park site to make improvements. Recent CCDs have been held at the Marin Circle and San Pablo Park. 

Ferris rose to the challenge of responding to the devastation of the Rim Fire in meetings with the Forest Service. It was he and Assistant City Manager William Rogers who presciently insured the camps against fire, saving the City perhaps as much as $30 million. 

The point of all this unabashed boosterism is that the Department is delivering value for the taxpayers’ money. Parks is not only putting it to good use by delivering vital community services but also by leveraging taxes with enterprise and grants that currently comprise 28% of the PRW budget and have largely gone unnoticed. 

The Disappointed 

What has not gone unnoticed, especially in South Berkeley, is the fate of Willard Pool, which was closed in June 2010 after the failure of Measure C, a Mello-Roos pools bond that got 62% approval, short of the 2/3 required. The pools supporters tried again in November 2012 in dual tax and bond measures N and O that also failed at similar rates of approval, 60 and 62%, respectively. 

The pool was closed after the general fund allowance for recreational programs was cut in 2010, including three full-time positions and the adult sports program. The PRW was already running a deficit with little money available for repairs and upgrades. A month after closure, Willard pool was filled with dirt in order to provide weight to counteract the hydraulic lift of groundwater, an attempt to preserve the vessel against cracking. 

This year, the Willard community had high hopes for a revival of their cherished pool located within the grounds of Willard Junior High School on Telegraph and Derby. For them and for the Commission, reopening was a matter of equity for south Berkeley since west and north Berkeley are served by West Campus and King pools, respectively. Although swimming is the most expensive recreation because of the high cost of installing and operating pools, the exercise provides excellent health benefits, lifesaving skills, and qualification for the Navy and the Coast Guard. 

The career of parks commissioner Dru Howard is a case in point. Because she had learned how to swim in a Cincinnati public pool as a child, Howard qualified to join the Navy, where she met chaplains who helped her discover her true vocation. A graduate of Starr King School for the Ministry, she now serves as clergy at the McGee Avenue Baptist Church. 

A Difficult Decision 

In their months-long deliberation on how to raise revenues to fund the parks, the City Council wavered between a parks tax, favored by the City Manager, staff and the Mayor, and a Mello-Roos bond, promoted by those involved in previous campaigns for the pools and by supporters of the Santa Fe right-of-way. 

Instituted as a response to Prop 13, The Mello-Roos is a combined tax and bond measure that allows a municipality to form a community facilities district (CFD) and raise funds for a particular purpose by imposing an adjustable tax for operating costs as well as selling bonds for capital improvements. A general obligation bond, in contrast, cannot be used for operational expenses. 

Like other special parcel taxes, the Mello-Roos levy is calculated by square footage, not assessed valuation, which many view as more equitable than the current situation in which neighbors owning houses of similar sizes pay hugely different ad valorem taxes depending on the purchase price. However, setting up the CFD involves specialized legal work that costs over $20,000. Berkeley only has one CFD, established in 2000 by Measure Q, which covered construction of the fire warehouse between Murray Street and Folger Streets in West Berkeley and funds emergency fire services. 

The Council and the Mello-Roos supporters disagreed on the interpretation of the two community surveys conducted in March, in which Willard Pool and the Santa Fe right-of-way fared poorly, only getting about 50% in the two asks; and in April, when concern about the deterioration of the parks in general scored 70%. These two results influenced the Council’s final decision. 

In May, the Council gave city staff direction to prepare a proposal for a Mello Roos district that would include several options. The initial package included reconstruction of Willard Pool and other projects such as the Rose Garden, courts and ball fields City-wide, Aquatic Park, James Kenney Community Center, other parks and pools, and the Santa Fe right-of-way.  

A local architecture firm (ELS) estimated the construction cost of a new Willard Pool at $4 million, to which the City adds “soft” costs of 45% that include design and engineering, construction management, inspection and testing of utilities and metering, and project contingencies (unexpected costs) that bring the estimated cost to more than $5.7 million plus annual operating expenses of at least $300,000. 

The estimated cost of the package for an owner of a 1900 square foot house, ranged from about $56/year to over $85/year. To their credit, Councilmembers Linda Maio and Laurie Capitelli tried to come up with a Mello-Roos measure that included Willard Pool and other projects, but at a lower cost. After several debates and votes, the Council ran out of time to adjust the content and cost of the measure. On June 24th the council decided to put a parks tax increase on the ballot, now Measure F, reasoning that a more expensive measure was unlikely to succeed in a non-Presidential election year. 

Many of us share disappointment that Willard Pool will not be revived, not yet. But that feeling is not a valid reason to vote against Measure F. In fact, passage of the parks tax is probably a precondition for the eventual reconstruction of Willard Pool because maintenance and repair of existing facilities must come first, to satisfy not only the needs of the PRW Department, but also the desires of the many citizens who want improvements to their neighborhood parks. 

In our unanimous February 11 recommendation to the City Council, the Commission put a raise in the parks tax first. The current income is simply inadequate to take care of Berkeley’s parks. If Measure F passes, citizens can consider issuing bonds to fund major projects. If it fails, the condition of our common property will continue to deteriorate and facilities will be closed. 

That’s the choice. 

Jim McGrath and Toni Mester are the Chair and Treasurer of the Yes on Measure F campaign.