Op-ed: Berkeley fumbles future: lacks long-term vision and financing strategy for our public commons

Once again, as in an seemingly endless ‘ground-hog day’ loop, the Berkeley City Council is busy with its every-other-year ballot exercise, considering various bond financing measures for the 2016 November. Much is desperately needed in Berkeley, and many competing needs are being pressed by a large number of community groups.

The city’s neglect of adequate capital and capital repair financing of vital and central public spaces, facilities and services has left these essential elements in disrepair and in unsafe or inoperable conditions. Sadly, a full suite of parks, recreation, and green public spaces, including the Berkeley Pier and “Willard” Pool are closed, neglected, and even forgotten.

Perhaps what is needed most is a new vision, a new strategy, and new decision-making, to fulfill the City’s promise of a quality public commons to all its citizens.

Following from a very old script, the City Council lurches from poll to poll, and election to election cycle, seeking ‘winning’ ballot items. The Council rushes up to each election cycle, patching and piecing together capital and maintenance and operations funding measures. City Leadership on long-term stewardship of public facilities has been inadequate, weak and or contradictory.

The City is undertaking a large number of projects, but has no vision for a fully functioning, resilient public commons. City executive staff has not been able to present a sustainable short-, or long-term, financing strategy and/or compelling vision. It doesn’t seem to fully understand the public partnerships necessary to support our public commons, and it fails to give adequate attention, or ascribe enough value to our parks, playgrounds, fields, courts, or pools for Berkeley residents, visitors, students, employees, or employers.

‘Just’ taking the example of parks and recreation, City policy and long- term programs are lacking and completely inadequate, given that capital needs exceed current and future committed funding by orders of magnitude, and the limited measures taken to date or planned for, leave out many essential community facilities. Bond and parcel tax financing are inadequate to meet current, let alone, projected city needs and resident populations.

Current major capital projects needs for essential park and recreation facilities, including the recently closed Berkeley Pier, have been estimated to cost up to $100 million. Even completing a parks master plan seems beyond the city’s capability to conceive and fund. The City requires a new vision, new leadership, new strategies, and new community public-private partnerships to re-establish quality public facilities in Berkeley.

As others have noted, essential city services suffer from capacity constraints, and are sure to become worse in the face of newly approved, and planned and proposed development. Compounding long-standing needs, new development is not carrying its share of costs of essential city facilities and services for new residents and other uses, if a community’s parks and recreation are included in this definition. In the most immediate past, the city has passed up available development impact fee financing mechanisms used by other local bay area governments for parks and recreation.

Public parks, playgrounds, pools, schoolyards, and high-quality public spaces are essential to the health of Berkeley’s young residents, as well as residents of all ages. Safe, modern, facilities are important to its neighborhoods, many of which have been shortchanged by recent local efforts, such as the mothballing of the South Berkeley Community Pool at Willard Middle School, filled with dirt seven years ago.

The City council, working with city staff, has been unable to craft a long- term financing strategy or implementation plan for our public infrastructure. After several years of uncoordinated actions, a new vision is needed and a binding commitment to implementation is required. The bill just keeps climbing, both in financial and community terms. Even with new funds, the long-term sustainability of city works will require time and money from local residents and businesses.

The establishment of a new set of parks and recreational capital facilities fees is absolutely called for at this time. Park and recreation fees from new development could be combined with a long-term strategy for using general obligation bond funding, and parcel tax funding, such as the Enhanced Infrastructure Financing District (EIFD) financing, to secure a more sustainable long-term program for our public commons in Berkeley. No matter what the source of financing, any additional tax and fee revenues will require strict accounting and community oversight in order to gain community and voter support.

A successful long-term program can be structured, and will be supported by a voting public, but not unless we continue to build the necessary community partnerships and collaborations. A winning strategy will need expanded partnerships between city elected officials and staff, and between the City and the public.

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Marc Beyeler is a long-time Berkeley resident, a parent of a Berkeley High School alumnus, and former co-chair of the Berkeley Unified School District’s Parent Advisory Committee (PAC).