Council to study $20M parks bond, 10% parks tax boost

More than 30 Berkeley residents came out Wednesday to express support to for the city to re-open Willard Pool. Photo: Emilie Taguso

More than 30 Berkeley residents came out Wednesday night to ask the city to re-open Willard Pool. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The Berkeley City Council is set to consider a potential $20 million parks bond in conjunction with a 10% increase to the existing parks tax after a unanimous vote Wednesday night by the city’s parks commission.

Over the past six months, the commission has held a series of public meetings to find a way to raise money for Berkeley parks, spurred in part by alarm at a projected lack of money in the city budget for both existing maintenance demands and new projects.

The combined bond and tax measures could cost approximately $45 extra per year on average for each Berkeley property.

“It doesn’t fix everything,” said Commission chairman Jim McGrath. “It’s not a bad start though.”

According to a draft report prepared for Wednesday’s meeting, the city is in desperate need of more money for Berkeley parks.

“For the last six months, the new Parks and Waterfront Commission has reviewed the condition of Berkeley’s fifty-two parks and other recreational facilities, with an increasing sense of alarm,” according to the report. “Since 1982, the citizens of Berkeley have supported a number of different tax measures that provide additional funding for their parks including Measure HH in 2008 by a vote of over 77%. However, these measures have failed to keep up with the increased maintenance needs of the parks, and there is a long list of needed projects in almost every park and facility.”

The commission recommended a list of possible projects for the council to consider for inclusion in the bond measure, from the re-opening of Willard Pool, and significant maintenance for other city pools, to money for Tuolumne Camp; Aquatic Park improvements; marina and Bay Trail projects; a plan for the Santa Fe Right of Way; and the possible creation of a parks master plan. The council could also consider additional projects not included in the commission’s list.

About 40 members of the public attended Wednesday night’s meeting. Most in attendance voiced support to re-open Willard Pool, with another significant contingent advocating for the creation of a new park along the Santa Fe Avenue greenway.

Though the commission struggled over which projects to include, they were largely in agreement about the need to choose endeavors with extensive public support.

“We need projects people are going to get out and fight for,” said Commissioner Caitlin Brostrom. “Unless there’s something sexy and interesting, I don’t think it’s going to pass.”

The commission said it had been important to them to tackle the parks funding issue as a whole group, rather than split off into subcommittees. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The commission said it had been important to them to tackle the parks funding issue as a whole group, rather than split off into subcommittees. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The commission also recommended the possible revival of a popular mini-grants program that provides seed funding to community groups for volunteer parks projects, as well as the hiring of a parks coordinator to help oversee community-based projects.

And, though there was broad consensus about many of the projects listed for consideration, the idea of a new parks master plan — estimated to cost $800,000 or more — proved controversial among commissioners. The city has an “open space element” as part of its General Plan, but has no stand-alone master plan to guide its park-related efforts.

Commissioner Susan McKay was the most vociferous advocate for the master plan, saying that the city needs the document to approach parks planning in a thoughtful, comprehensive way. Other commissioners said they feared that including the master plan in a parks bond would spell defeat for the measure.

Said Commissioner Toni Mester: “I’m totally against any mention of a master plan…. It’s going to kill the bond. People in Berkeley hate all the processes we go through.”

Larger parks tax also a possibility

A bond alone would be insufficient to cover the city’s existing parks needs.

According to a draft report prepared for Wednesday’s meeting, the city’s current parks tax generates $9.3 million in annual revenue, “but that is not sufficient to cover existing personnel and major maintenance projects.” To fill the gap, the commission recommended a 10% parks tax increase to prevent layoffs and halt a further deterioration of city facilities.

According to the report: “While the parks tax has supported maintenance staff, the capacity of the tax to underwrite major maintenance efforts has deteriorated along with our aging and much used facilities. Currently the Parks Director Scott Ferris estimates that over $30 million in capital and major maintenance projects remains unfunded.”

The commission held three public meetings in recent months to gauge support for a new parks funding campaign.

“Each of these meetings was well attended, and the last one was standing-room only,” according to the report. “We also received significant testimony at our regular meetings in August and November. Dozens of people offered their observations at those meetings, and others sent letters and emails. It is clear that the people in Berkeley love their parks and want them maintained at a higher standard.”

Scott Ferris, director of the city's parks department, (right) and Roger Miller, parks commission secretary. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Scott Ferris, director of the city’s parks department, (right) and Roger Miller, parks commission secretary. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Ferris said Wednesday night that the matter is set to come before the council Feb. 11. To quality for a November 2014 ballot, decisions related to the measure or measures would need to be complete six months prior. Ferris said the council would likely have several public meetings about the proposals, and undertake polling to see which items are most likely to win support.

Ferris said, if both items are approved in some form, they could either appear in combination or separately on the ballot. He cautioned that many changes are still possible as a result of council consideration.

As part of its discussion Wednesday, the commission estimated — in a draft document that was edited fairly extensively during the meeting — possible spending on each proposed project, but decided to remove all financial projections related to the bond from its report to let council and the community decide how to proceed. But McGrath estimated that the list of projects to go before council could cost about $15.5 million, meaning that a $20 million bond could be sufficient. (The updated report, which is set to go to council, is here.)

Some commissioners and members of the public said that, though $45 annually seemed like it could be palatable to voters, the council might want to consider a larger increase, particularly to avoid having to come back to the public in the short term to ask for more money.

“If it were all up to me, I would probably go for the grand slam,” said Commissioner Phil Catalfo, indicating that the ultimate ask should probably be higher. “I think we probably have one chance at this in the next 10 or 20 years.”

Read more on Berkeleyside about Berkeley parks.

Berkeley groups want old railroad bed to be a public park (11.20.13)
Willard Pool supporters turn out for parks meeting (10.17.13)
Berkeley Tuolumne Camp supporters push to rebuild (10.16.13)
Commission, public discuss priorities for Berkeley’s parks (10.04.13)
4 public meetings planned on future of Berkeley parks (09.25.13)
Pensions, infrastructure key Berkeley budget liabilities (02.20.13)
More than $100m needed for parks, rec and waterfront (09.29.11)

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  • David D.

    “However, these measures have failed to keep up with the increased maintenance needs of the parks, and there is a long list of needed projects in almost every park and facility.”

    So what the city is saying is that it failed to account for long-term capital costs in its budgets, and now it has to come begging to regular working stiffs for more money. The city has demonstrated its inability to make sound judgment in spending our money so far, and somehow this time will be different? The city has an addiction, and it needs help. We shouldn’t be enablers.

  • Woolsey

    Just vote no! Like Doc, I love parks and think Willard pool should be re-opened. However, I greatly resent these projects being held hostage and requiring the citizenry to vote yet more taxes on themselves. This City has an very large tax base due to the extremely high valuations on property in Berkeley. There is no excuse for having to ask repeatedly for additional taxes for projects and activities that should be funded from the general fund. It seems the Council funds the things it wants from the general fund but then requests additional taxes for things we want.

  • park

    I think that maintenance of existing parks should be prioritized over expanding the park system. Isn’t is unwise to build a new park when there are insufficient funds to maintain the existing parks? When the maintenance budget is sufficient to upkeep the existing parks, then let’s consider a bond for new construction.

  • EBGuy

    the commission recommended a 10% parks tax increase to prevent layoffs
    Instead of layoffs and reduced city services, how about city workers pay the 8% CalPERS Employee Contribution instead of the City picking it up.

  • berkopinionator

    Yes to Willard Pool!

  • Robert_Collier

    This is a great step forward for Berkeley. Parks, pools, playing fields and waterfront are jewels of our city and make a huge difference to our quality of life. The public hearings showed there’s already a lot of community energy for this – I’ve never seen so many official City meetings jam-packed with kids excited about an election.

  • Bishop George Berkeley

    I don’t think its the capital costs the city failed to account for. I think its the labor costs they’ve failed to account for. They’ve known for years that unfunded liabilities would squeeze our budgets in just this way, but they just could not/would not deal with it. This is the predictable result.
    The good news for voters? There are TWO parts to this plan. We MIGHT decide that the bond measure is acceptable. Certainly public pool construction is the type of long-term infrastructure investment that can justify long-term borrowing at today’s cheap rates. And we MIGHT still reject the tax increase for “operations” costs, because it simply relieves the City of all incentive to manage its resources responsibly.

  • Just Sayin

    No new taxes until the city gets some compromises from employees on pension funding!

  • Just Sayin

    Why should the city council deal with a substantive issue holding the entire city back (pension costs) when they can just kick the can down the road with fee increases?

  • Doc

    Yes to fund raisers for pools. But no new taxes until responable government, thats city council and school board.

  • guest

    With all the real estate developments going on all over town, what’s the upside for residents in terms of services and taxes? I see none.

  • guest

    “Parks, pools, playing fields and waterfront are jewels of our city…”

    Hi Rob:

    I cannot enjoy these ‘jewels’ because in order to use them, I would have to drive the car I already cannot afford to keep up over vehicle-munching roads that will be fine to drive on only after their surfaces are repaired. In short, I can’t afford jewels when I don’t have enough food to eat.


  • l

    How about parents and those who USE the parks/facilities PAY
    instead of increasing taxpayers’ taxes?

  • guest

    It is very strange to see people who think of cars and food as the two necessities of life.

    Only in America in the last half century of so have people considered cars an absolute necessity, like food – which explains why they feel so economically pressed and why the earth is becoming warmer.

  • Truth Sayer

    But wait… They are still studying pension reform.

  • Truth Sayer

    I did not construe anything he said which would result in a sarcastic reply. In essence he stated that he would have to drive to these locations in a vehicle he can hardly afford; over roads in need of repair. And, ” I can’t afford jewels when I don’t have enough food to eat” means that these proposed luxuries can hardly be afforded when it adversely affects the basic needs of life. Food being one of them. How can you criticizes another’s use of a vehicle without knowing their financial circumstances, proximity to these locations, or their physical ability?

  • guest

    I am not criticizing him. I am criticizing America as it changed in the twentieth century – the cause of his misery. You might try thinking about why so many commenters here feel financially hard pressed – though they are so much wealthier than Americans were a century ago. If people had some historical perspective, they might be able to change things for the better.

  • Truth Sayer

    You wer not criticizing him, but your comment was directed towards his statement. You ask “why so many commenters here feel financially hard pressed,” etc. Then you invoke “historical perspective.” Guest and others have answered your question many times over. A “historical perspective” is not needed when when they and many others are “financially hard pressed” due to excessive taxes imposed by a city government which continuously fail to control cost. I truly hope you understand now.

  • Truth Sayer

    How about city employees pay the same amount into their retirement, health benefits and deductibles as Federal employees? Many may object, but look whats happening to those city pensioners in Detroit.

  • Chris J

    Find some other way other than taxing overburdened homeowners. I’m not aware that the city has mismanaged their finances or agreed to retirement benefits that are better than average for the city employees or what– but I can tell you that I won’t vote more taxes in this city. Nope. No, nyet. Raise the sales tax, organize even volunteerism (if even practical) to keep up parks, etc, but raise MY taxes again.

    Sorry. I’ll just go to the damn seashore. It’s still free.

  • Berkeleysnide

    Not aware?

    Why on earth not? This has been a subject of intense focus for some time. Please get aware Before you vote again.

  • Berkeleysnide

    Canada just ended home delivery by the postal service because of unfunded pension liabilities.

  • southberkeleyres

    No upside that I see, but more traffic congestion, pollution,frustration. The Berkeley City Council can continue disregarding and disrespecting tax burdened homeowners. The increase in rentals could mean that future bond and tax measures have a better chance of passing. If you don’t struggle to pay a property tax bill it may be easier to approve measures and taxes because the reality of paying for them may be obscured. So I expect council to continue being irresponsible with their fiscal duties and to continue ignoring our unfunded pension liabilities without asking city employees to contribute towards their cadillac retirement plans.
    It’s going to take more than comments on Berkeleyside, a forum I much appreciate. We have to get in the council’s face. It’s amazing that many cities are taking up the issue of pension liabilities, yet Berkeley continues to be in denial. I’m voting “NO” on all tax and bond increases until city employees contribute towards their own pensions. To do otherwise let’s Berkeley leadership keep kickin’ the can down the road.

  • Truth Sayer

    The elephant in the room for many cities such as Berkeley, is that they have retirement eligibility based a life expectancy that existed during the 1940’s. Additionally, it can not be reasonably expected that a city can continue to financially support working employees health, dental, vision, retirement, and numerous other benefits without increased contributions from employees or taxes. Correlatively, retired employees receive large pensions with cost of living increases, medical, dental and vision benefits for more years they actually work will be impossible for this city to pay in the very near future. The only resolution is increased taxes and/or employees contributions more towards their future in the same manner as Federal employees and other cities where the leaders were intuitive enough to recognize that the present employee benefits is unsustainable without change.

  • guest

    “A “historical perspective” is not needed”

    “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

    I hope you understand now.

  • southberkeleyres

    I’m already volunteering, I’ve taken care of a traffic circle for years. I used to take care of three in my neighborhood. I have to drag my hose down the street to hook it up at a neighbors to water or carry water via wheelbarrow and containers. I spend my own money on pruners etc. “Adopt a traffic circle!” (Should read, another way to get residents to do shoulder responsibility.)



    The last time the City wanted a bond measure on the ballot (for road repair which should have been paid for out of the general fund) they were so incredibly incompetent that they didn’t bother to actually do a study to see how much money they would need to do the job and picked a dollar number out of thin air. Then, after actually doing the study to see how much they would need, they discovered that their decades of negligence meant that the amount required to do the work would be more than twice the amount of the bond.

    I love parks, but giving the City of Berkeley more money is pointless since they’ll just squander it and spend it irresponsibly and then we’ll end up right back where we are with them begging poor the next election cycle and saying they need more money for something else they’ve negligently ignored for years.

  • Tired Taxpayer

    Really, any fiscal reform would be nice at this point.

  • guest

    they were so incredibly incompetent that they didn’t bother to actually
    do a study to see how much money they would need to do the job and
    picked a dollar number out of thin air.

    That’s completely false.

  • curiousjorge

    have you ever looked at Oakland’s budget? or their tax rates? give me a break.

  • Chris J

    Perhaps I miswrote this. I am generally aware that there are massive financial issues facing the city and that many claim that the primary problem is the city’s agreements to provide such healthy benefits to their city staff. I’m aware that some disagree that this is the problem.

    There are other issues as well that I’m ‘aware’ of and have heard different sides arguing pro and con. Whom do I believe? I have no experience in city finance or its management. All I know is that I’m not voting more taxes on myself.

    I’ll still g to the seashore.

  • Chris J

    Good for you, doing that. Civic responsibility. (No, I’m not being facetious)

  • Chris J

    Agh. Two statements, one is right and the other isn’t. And if I had a better sense of the facts I could argue one over the other. But I don’t. My SENSE is that Berkeley financial managers have made huge mistakes, oversights…whatever you want to call them.

    I am not going to vote the city of berkeley more money than I am currently paying. Simple enough.

  • Chris J

    Maybe. But I don’t trust folks who don’t put their name on their public statements, ‘Guest’…pony up.

  • guest

    Who is incompetent? People attend the Parks and Waterfront Commission when they want something but they don’t appear when the commissioners mull over budget reports. Dry stuff, not sexy. The commission is asking the voters to approve an increase in the parks tax and a bond that will cost the price of a dinner out. Get a grip. PERS contributions alone cannot fix the street, save the parks, and repair sewers and storm drains. Pension reform is coming; the City Manager has gotten the message. But that is not a magic fix.

  • guest

    Why? why can’t you walk to your nearest park?

  • No, Not False

    And yet, they asked for $30 million for a job that they later determined would cost $64.


    If it was fundamentally incorrect, why would the city ask for $30 million to do a job they knew would cost them $64 million?

    You can either believe the official story that the city knew it would cost $64 million but decided to hide that fact until after the vote and ask for less than half of the money they actually needed, or you can look at the city’s history of incompetence and decide that the official story is bunk and that they asked for $30 million because it was a nice round number and they didn’t bother to do their homework first.

  • Berkeley Booster!


  • guest

    And yet, they asked for $30 million for a job that they later determined would cost $64.

    When the city voted the bond measure they had in hand an estimate that the watershed work would take over $200M. They had in hand a city auditor’s report putting the road repair bill at a variable amount, depending on which streets were given priority, but at any rate more than even the full $30M and possibly as much as $78M (as I recall the figure off the top of my head).

    The oclaim that “they didn’t bother to actually do a study to see how much money they would need to do the job and picked a dollar number out of thin air,” is pure hogwash. $64M is squarely within the range of price tags they were considering at the time.

    Not only did the council have the data but the same data was available to the public at the time.

    Council settled on the amount it did for a variety of reasons including concerns over what amount would be low enough to pass and make progress on these issues.

  • guest

    Chris J. you can find the auditor’s reports on the street repair price tag on the city web site. You can find the report on the watershed projects’ costs also there, someplace. Not only council but the public had the information then and now.

  • Our report on that audit, Failing Streets, is here (with a link to the report):

  • guest

    that audit, Failing Streets

    There was also a relevant follow-up to that, from the auditor, a few weeks before the streets and watershed bond went before council (see the “audit reports” page). There’s also the staff analysis presented at July 10, 2012.

  • Truth Sayer

    I believe that “whatever” is an applicable to you reply, and to your failure to understand what others are saying.

  • Ummm…

    Oh, akin to the same kind of hogwash as saying that increasing urban density in a first-world Nation like America doesn’t decrease pollution? That kind of hogwash?

  • Chris J

    Following the city council and its deliberations is not an activity that I will choose to put a lot of my time into–reading the minutiae of dry website reports, going to city council meetings on Tuesdays, etc. public access whatever, it’s not something I’m going to scour through a website to look for.

    I appreciate that people DO have the interest to follow through and keep folks on their toes in city government, but it’s enough for me to get to work, watch my own finances, and deal with my own issues than to worry about others…too much.

    Lauds to berkeleyside for covering this, even if the following commentary and public discussion often leaves me more uncertain than ever. Bottom line? Impression that city government isn’t that competent and I won’t pay more $$ out of my pocket to fix their oversights. I might be incorrect in my opinion, but for the cost of a dinner out times the myriad additional line items of bond costs that have accrued on my Alameda county tax bill, I feel justified in my decision.

    It’s all symptomatic, in any case, of the problems for Americans living nowadays as they approach retirement and choose to do all they can to extend their savings and maximize a possibly compromised social security system in the next generation– everything costs more, everyone wants more money from city to federal and state, so when the time comes, our retirement home will be in the Philippines where sure, our problems will be different (typhoons, etc) but our money will go a lot farther

  • guest

    According to your own comment they picked the number out of thin air (settled on amount… low enough to pass)

    Ha ha! Here:

    Council had the city pay for a survey polling likely voters on various potential revenue measures. A report on that polling was delivered to council at the May 29, 2012 meeting. It was a big deal at the time. Didn’t you hear about it? That is Berkeleyside’s coverage linked up above. There’s more information in the source material, of course.

    The voter poll included two alternatives for $50M worth of streets and watershed work. Even then, the council and anyone in the public who was paying attention knew that that was enough for progress but still far short of the eventual total needed.

    All of the potential revenue measures in the poll did poorly. Looking at the potential yes vote if voters were given more information, the two alternatives for streets and watershed did the least poorly. The warm water pool measures came in next. Willard next.

    In response to the poll, council unanimously decided to ask staff to prepare a $30M rather than a $50M streets and watershed bond measure. (Caution: an ambiguity in the Berkeleyside story makes it sound like Bates abstained on that vote but he did not. He abstained on a vote about pools measures.)

    You are also confused when you write:

    they did not bother to do a conclusive enough study to get hard numbers either and instead ended up with an utterly worthless report that gave such a huge cost range as to be meaningless.

    The uncertainties in the projections on streets and watershed work amounted to some tens of millions of dollars on a total bill in the range of $250 million.

    Surprised to see you suddenly putting so much faith in our city leaders.

    I’m not but your criticisms of them are very poorly informed and so they completely miss their mark. In my opinion you are making council look smart and on top of things by contrast.

  • guest

    I think you have shown that the council did the best job possible on this bond – despite all the criticism.