Berkeley property owners to vote on raising fees to improve stormwater and lighting systems

In 2014, after a heavy storm, flooding closed Ashby Avenue in both directions. Berkeley is asking property owners to vote on an increased fee to improve the city’s stormwater system to help prevent floods like this. Photo: Jennifer Lazo

The city of Berkeley is asking property owners to vote to increase fees and assessments so it can better maintain and upgrade its streetlights and the pipes that funnel stormwater into the bay.

Berkeley mailed out ballots to property owners on Feb. 15, and they must be returned by May 29. The City Council will hold a public hearing on the street lighting assessment that night. (A public hearing for the stormwater fee was held April 3.)  Then the ballots will be tabulated. If all the ballots can’t be counted by the end of the May 29 meeting, the results will be announced at the next City Council meeting.

If the Clean Stormwater Fee Measure passes, homeowners would pay an additional $34.31 to $51.87 a year for stormwater improvements, depending on the size of their lots, essentially doubling the current fee. That would raise approximately $2.3 million annually, according to city estimates. The funds will go toward updating and maintaining the city’s 93 miles of pipes that capture rain and send it into creeks and the bay, as well as for some green infrastructure initiatives.

If the Street Lighting Assessment measure passes, assessment rates for street lights would go up $11.17 for a house, $8.94 per unit for an apartment complex smaller than five units and $6.70 a unit for larger structures. Homeowners currently pay an average of $27.66 a year now. The higher fees would raise approximately $500,000 a year. Berkeley recently replaced most of its 3,200 lights with LED bulbs, resulting in a $370,000 reduction in the city’s utility bills, according to Matthai Chakko, a city spokesman. The higher assessment fees will go toward paying off the loan taken out to replace the bulbs, as well as replacing damaged poles and paying utility bills.


“Berkeley property owners voted in 1982 to tax themselves for better streetlights and in 1991 to tax themselves to maintain storm drains, but there has not been a fee hike or raised assessment since then,” according to a Q&A posted on the city’s website. “As a consequence, both the Clean Stormwater Fund and the Streetlight Assessment are running at a deficit… In addition, there are millions of dollars in deferred maintenance to the pipes.”

“If the proposed Fee and Assessment do not pass, the City will not be able to be proactive in addressing the deteriorating condition of its streetlights and storm drainage infrastructure, and will need to reduce its services in these areas,” city documents read.

Stormwater is the number one source of water pollution in the bay

Most of Berkeley’s stormwater system was built about 80 years ago and needs rehabilitation, said Chakko. The fee adopted in 1991 to improve and maintain the system has not generated enough money to keep the city sufficiently abreast of new ways of reducing pollution, nor has it been raised since its inception, he said. Stormwater is the number one source of water pollution in the bay as rain washes trash, oil, pesticides, pet waste, cigarette butts and other detritus into creeks. When there is a large amount of rain, the system can get overwhelmed and that can lead to flooding, he said.

 

Berkeley has determined that the system needs about $208 million in capital improvements. In the last few years, the city has spent $6.2 million on improving the system, with $5 million of that coming from Measure M funds and $1.2 million of that coming from T1 funds, said Chakko. The city used to fund about $700,000 in capital improvements a year from the General Fund, but that stopped after FY 2013, according to city documents.

Some of the capital projects that need to be done include replacing deteriorated drain inlets and piping; major cleaning of the primary storm collectors in the lower Berkeley drainage watersheds; and replacing street drains, according to Berkeley documents.

If the stormwater fee increase passes, Berkeley will use about $1 million to $1.5 million of the $2.5 million generated each year for maintenance, said Chakko. The other funds will go for capital projects, he said.

Most importantly, Berkeley will be able to use the funds to raise more money, he said.

“We are hoping to leverage this money to get federal, state and local grants and to get low-cost loans,” said Chakko.

Some of the projects Berkeley might pursue include installing more permeable pavers in the streets and creating more bioswales, which are landscape projects that remove pollutants from stormwater.

In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 218, the “Right to Vote on Taxes Act,” which requires public agencies to ask for permission before increasing or creating fees or assessments.

Most of the 482 cities in California, including Berkeley, levy special assessments and taxes to help pay for services, including for lighting, water, schools, libraries, mosquito abatement, paramedic services and other things. Some of these funds are raised through parcel taxes, special revenue funds, enterprise funds, and some are raised through benefit assessment districts, among other mechanisms.

Berkeley property owners currently pay for nine city-sponsored taxes and assessments and two school ones. Voters have approved all of them. The city levies fees and assessments for street lighting, landscaping and parks, refuse collection, library services, emergency medical services, emergency services for the severely disabled, fire protection and emergency and preparedness response, for disaster fire equipment, and clean stormwater.

The Berkeley Unified School District levies two taxes on property owners: one to reduce class sizes, increase teacher training, and provide school enrichment programs and one for facility maintenance.

Property owners also pay fees and taxes to other agencies, including East Bay Municipality District, AC Transit, the Peralta Community College District and the East Bay Regional Parks District.

Mary Canavan, a broker with Thornhill Properties, said she is well aware of Berkeley’s antiquated infrastructure as it is an issue she confronts each time a property is listed on the market. She said she plans to vote in favor of the increased assessments.

“I’m going to vote for it because the alternative, if we don’t address and continue to improve our infrastructure, there will be a new treatment center somewhere inconvenient along the bay,” said Canavan.

That does not mean Canavan does not have concerns. When she got her ballot in the mail, she retrieved a copy of her property tax bill and was surprised to find she already pays a “wet weather” fee to EBMUD and another fee for wastewater treatment. The fees are adding up.

“While the charge you are proposing is not unreasonable, it does double our current assessment, and that is in addition to a separate EBMUD Wet Weather charge — taking our total for this one assessment from $40.58 to $83.56 plus the EBMUD assessment of $98.80,” Canavan wrote in an April 27 email to the City Council. “And, just by happenstance, we received our EBMUD bill today, and we are paying them $349.32 per year for wastewater treatment. So, that makes our contribution to water treatment $531.68 per year going forward. “

Canavan told Berkeleyside she now realizes the charges are for different things for different agencies but “the city, in my opinion, has a history of not being transparent with how these costs are passed on to the consumers or the taxpayers.”

The accumulation of numerous fees and taxes on property tax bills is a concern for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the group that sponsored both Prop. 13, which set a cap on property taxes, and Prop. 218, which requires cities to get voter approval for assessments and taxes.

“What we’ve seen in some jurisdictions is an attitude that all the revenue that is currently coming in is for other things and anything that is really important, fixing the roads, homeless services, flood control, they have to have a new tax for that because all the money that is already coming in has already been spent on pensions, for instance,” said Susan Shelley, vice-president of communications for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers’ Association.