Opinionator

Op-ed: Big vision and strict accountability required to save Berkeley parks

By Marc Beyeler

Marc Beyeler is a long-time Berkeley resident, a parent of a junior at Berkeley High School, and a member of the Berkeley Unified School District’s Parent Advisory Committee (PAC).

A sneaky kite. Photo: Nancy Rubin

Flying a kite in Berkeley’s Cesar Chavez Park. Photo: Nancy Rubin

On Tuesday, June 24, the Berkeley City Council may choose to place a combined Mello-Roos financing measure for Berkeley parks on the November ballot. It is vital for the Berkeley community — elected officials, city staff, residents and voters — to embrace this big vision for the future of Berkeley parks, playgrounds, and pools and support this “gamble” by the Council. The arguments in favor of investing in saving our parks for the future are compelling. Winning the November election will be difficult however, as a two-thirds vote is required. The City Council should be supported in embracing the larger ballot measure addressing both capital and operations, and rejecting calls for a smaller parcel tax measure providing only staff funding and very limited capital repair funds.

Strict accountability needed to ensure electoral success

A successful two-thirds approval for the parks measure will require the voters believe the funds will be well spent with a plan for strict accountability. To ensure a successful ballot measure the Council must do all in its power to assure residents and voters that they will get their money’s worth if they support this Big Vision initiative. Taking a page from the Berkeley schools local funding, when the Council finalizes the Mello-Roos ballot specifics on June 24, it should strongly consider establishing a citizen’s oversight committee to offer the best protection that the money for the parks will result in the most cost-effective repair and restoration projects. This could go a long way to assuring voters to say yes in November.

Vital community assets

Our parks “commons,” which encompass our outdoor, open space and recreational infrastructure, is a vital component in building a resilient and sustainable “Healthy Berkeley.” Climate change adaptation, healthy kids, community and social life, citywide and neighborhood inequities in facilities, and educational outcomes will all be positively affected by approving the Mello-Roos capital financing and operations funding for sustaining and improving our parks system.

A big vision is needed to address neighborhood needs and citywide equity

Now is the time for the community to speak up for a “big vision” for our parks. Deferred maintenance and needed modernization and improvements combine to create a large need for adequate financing for operations and capital investments. The proposed parks measure goes very far in addressing needs across all city neighborhoods, including those traditionally underserved, such as south Berkeley, without short-changing anyone’s neighborhoods.

Strong community support to save parks

The proposed ballot measure must achieve a two-thirds majority for passage and this very steep threshold could be a major barrier to providing the required funding. The two most recent ballot measures addressing our city pools both failed to garner the necessary two-thirds support, even while they enjoyed strong electoral strength. Measure N received 62% approval in 2012, just short of the required 66.6%. Recent polling conducted for the city by a private polling firm demonstrates community support. When informed of the current status of parks and parks funding, more than two-thirds of voters support additional funding for our parks system, as drawn from a scientifically representative sample of city residents.

Embracing big vision now required

We must now all join together to support the City Council in the proposed Mello-Roos parks measure, which addresses a great deal of the current parks needs, and is a down payment to ensure the future of Berkeley’s public outdoors and green infrastructure. Let’s all rally to SAVE OUR PARKS.  Let the Mayor and Council know that you support the combined Mello-Roos funding measure, so the Council affirms its June 10 decision in a final vote on June 24.

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  • guest

    I treasure Berkeley’s many and varied parks. I’m not sure what Mr. Beyeler means by “big vision,” but it seems to me that what the parks need is a one-time capital infusion to perform lots (lots!) of deferred maintenance, and enough operating budget to maintain them so they don’t slide back into disrepair. That doesn’t seem like a big vision to me, but it seems like what we need.

    Unfortunately, I am suspicious of the City’s ability to manage the money and to pull of a project with “big vision.” The Animal Shelter ended up costing, what, $12 Million? That is jaw-dropping. The baseball field at MLK & Derby ended up costing something like $8 Million. That is beyond jaw-dropping and just seems downright unconscionable (please,someone, enlighten me if there is something I am missing about the cost of that field… it would be a huge relief for me to understand how some grading, sod installation and chainlink fence could ever approach that kind of cost). Given the City’s recent track record with building projects, I’d feel more comfortable if we just focused on bringing what we have back to fully functioning, rather than shooting for the stars. Especially since what we have is pretty extraordinary, and could be magnificent with some basic repairs.

  • NO ON ALL NEW TAXES & BONDS

    I love parks too but the city needs to be accountable and transparent with ALL FUNDS before we should give them any more sources of income.

    Berkeley has some of the highest property taxes in the State, yet our infrastructure is decrepit and our city officials keep crying poor. Berkeley has extremely high property values and high parcel taxes so how is it that so many other communities are able to get business done with far lower funding levels when our officials are constantly neglecting needed repairs and begging for more money?

    From what little I have seen of the way the City of Berkeley does business I believe that our city government is horribly inefficient and wasteful, and until we can see some reasonable accounting showing otherwise I believe that they should be able to find the funds they need by reorganizing their priorities and by cutting waste and redundancies within the budget they already have.

    For these reasons I will be voting NO ON ALL NEW TAXES & BONDS in our next election.

  • guesto

    Couldn’t agree more.

    And I will vote for the next City Council candidate whose campaign slogan is “I Have a Small, But Fully Functional…Vision for Berkeley.”

  • northberkeleyhills

    I love parks as well but I have a 1500 square foot house and already pay 179 dollars per year for parks by a parcel tax. THIS ATTEMPT TO MAKE US PAY MORE AS IF WE DON”T ALREADY PAY A LOT IS TOTALLY MISLEADING. We pay a parcel tax. And we pay taxes into the general fund. This will be a THIRD way the City will try to extract money out of us. In fact, it could be a FOURTH way if both the bond and parcel tax are approved. The operations tax goes towards pensions for employees. Wake up Berkeley.

  • South Berkeley resident

    The big problem with city capital projects is that the staff load them up with ‘soft’ costs, which is basically a way to pay for the city’s huge unfunded pension liabilities. Unfortunately these liabilities are crowding out spending on things that voters want, so the strategy is to try to segment the spending by finding new funding sources that can be raided for pension liabilities. Unless we demand strict accountability in this bond issue, with no expenses used for ‘soft costs’ this measure will probably go down to defeat like the last measure, which was also loaded up with ‘soft costs.’

  • Whoa Mule

    I agree with the Mr. Beyeler that accountability is the difference between passage and defeat. After the defeat of the Pools Measure, the supporters had an interesting confrontation with the council in which it was revealed that the budget, which had a 10% contingency, was further loaded up with a 45% contingency. For more background on the sandbagging see;

    http://www.dailycal.org/2011/09/28/city-council-and-community-members-talk-costs-of-pools-planning-process/

  • guest

    I’m trying (and failing) to think what the present council and mayor would have to do or say to motivate me to spend even more to fund basic services that ought to be funded from existing resources. I so want deficits in our streets and parks and other infrastructure and service delivery to be cured but know from experience that the sitting council will not deliver even if we (foolishly) were to provide the requested funds.

  • councilmaven

    I will not vote for any new tax measures until our Council fixes the City budget. Over the next five years the City will owe about $15M more annually just for PERS plus a few or several million more annually for City employee health insurance. Since we seem to have cut services to the bone (including parks maintenance) to support fewer employees at a very high level, the only solution is to require that City employees finally pay the employee share for their retirement and health benefits (now paid for by the City and amounting to about 8% of salary; or in the case of police and fire, paid by the employee but compensated for by a corresponding salary bump!)). We also need to re-vamp the health insurance down from Rolls-Royce to perhaps a Cadillac (currently, no co-pays for office visits and $5 co-pay for prescriptions). Most Berkeley taxpayers (including UC employees) and most Americans have or are contributing to their retirement and health care, with nowhere near the benefits enjoyed by City employees. Once the City budget is fixed by the City and its employees I will gladly support tax increases for vital infrastructure, with priorities determined by the voters in voter surveys and not by the ever-present vocal interest groups for some nice but not necessarily vital need.

  • West Berkeley resident

    If only it were possible that the city could appoint a fair and balanced citizen group to oversee the expenditures of this proposed park and maintenance bond, I would consider supporting it. But where is the evidence that this can happen? It is difficult for citizens to get answers from any of
    the park’s staff (if they are even allowed to speak with them), much less from their council members or their commissioners. Twenty years ago I was part of a park’s stakeholder group, back then we canvassed park users about who their council members were, over 95% did not know, recently a similar outreach effort found the same dismal results. Could it be that the channel of communications and accountability from city hall to its constituency needs improving? As for how the money is spent, I doubt that people know that the 4th of July festivities at the budget-strapped marina cost that “fund” over $109,000. Money that simply goes up in smoke! Is this a wise allocation of money? The marina fund is separate from the park fund, but shouldn’t all money in the city be held to a strict accountability? Plus there is much talk that the marina “needs” a master plan, cost of that? In the range of $800,000!! Some members of the parks citizen “oversight” committee (aka Parks & Waterfront commission) think so.

  • guest

    Update: Yesterday evening, the city council did not go for this “big vision” for Berkeley parks. Instead, they put a smaller tax measure on the ballot that would be used just for deferred maintenance.

  • guest

    How odd. This “small ball” approach seems to fails to address any of the presumably widely-held concerns and reservations express here.

  • David

    Remember the Mel Brooks movie, ‘Blazing Saddles’? To paraphrase the famous line,

    “Vote Yes or the Rose Garden gets it!”

  • guest

    Since you live in the north Berkeley hills, your 1500 square foot house must be worth well over a million dollars. It is not surprising that you PAY A LOT in taxes, considering that your house is WORTH A LOT.

  • guest

    Berkeley’s 4th of July is financed by the Marina fund: fees from the boats and businesses at the Marina not from the general fund or from taxes. The fair, the music, and the fireworks are a major attraction, spread good will, generate business. Anybody can attend meetings and peruse budgets, not rocket science or top secret.