Op-ed: Vote No on Measure F (parks tax increase)

I write this on behalf of directors of Berkeley Budget SOS, Committee for FACTS, Northeast Berkeley Association, Council of Neighborhood Associations, LeConte Neighborhood Association,  and many other residents and groups opposing Measure F.

We too love our parks and other Berkeley amenities, but… as parks tax revenues rose, our parks decayed.

The original 1997 parks measure promised to fund parks, trees and landscaping maintenance. The original tax rate and the revenue generated have since almost doubled, although the cost of living has risen just 53 percent per official figures.

The average homeowner already pays $240 annually for parks. Yet today we have far fewer maintenance staff (down 26 percent from 2002), each of whom is being compensated substantially more, and we have deteriorated facilities. Our parks have not been underfunded, they have been grossly mismanaged. Where was the oversight by City staff, Council, and the Parks Commission?

Now the City and parks lobbyists want 17 percent more annually and a bigger inflator! Despite a cornucopia of promises, this measure doesn’t specify exactly how the new money will be spent. It will likely go into a dark hole of ever-increasing employee costs- – underwriting huge city pension liabilities (to $58.4m annually in 2020 from $43m today) and growing healthcare costs. 

Unlike most other cities, our parks employees pay exactly zero for fabulous and untaxed health and retirement benefits.

The city has $1 billion in unfunded liabilities and no plan

Similar mismanagement pervades all city operations. Despite substantially increasing revenues, the city has substantially less money for actual services. Employee compensation absorbs most new moneys. As with parks, we will end up with fewer and fewer city employees, each compensated at ever-higher levels. We have a $1 billion unfunded liability for employee benefit costs and infrastructure. 

We urge a NO vote on Berkeley tax measures until we have a comprehensive Fiscal Action Plan and a Blue Ribbon panel to address this looming insolvency.

This tax increase would worsen the problem and delay fairer allocation of costs

Nickel-and-diming hard-pressed homeowners (most lacking lush benefits) and threatening loss of facilities (witness Willard Pool!) is wrong and won’t even solve the big budget problem. We need a sound and transparent long-term fiscal plan that includes fairer contributions from all stakeholders— city employees, UC, developers, philanthropists — and not just taxpayers who already pay too much and get too little.

Voting for this tax increase would delay and worsen the day of reckoning. A NO vote will incentivize city managers, employees, Council and other stakeholders to start fixing the big fiscal problem and start asking all stakeholders to contribute to the wellbeing of our City.

We urge you to vote NO.

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Barbara Gilbert is a 45-year resident of Berkeley, close observer of City Council, former mayoral aide and Labor Commissioner, and board member of Northeast Berkeley Association, Berkeley Budget SOS, and Committee for FACTS.