November ballot could see new taxes on fire safety, vacant units, ride-sharing

It’s that time of year again: when hundreds of Berkeley voters get to tell the city how they feel about new local tax measures that could appear on the ballot in November.

A Cal Fire helicopter dropping water in Berkeley during the 2017 Grizzly Fire. Photo: Berkeley Fire Department

It’s that time of year again: when hundreds of Berkeley voters get to tell the city how they feel about new local tax measures that could appear on the ballot in November.

Last week, Berkeley officials discussed what to ask during the city’s upcoming community survey to gauge voter support on the idea of several new taxes and other potential ballot measures. About 500 people identified as “likely voters” in Berkeley will get a phone call in late March about the questions. Their responses — along with results collected in a follow-up survey in April — will help local leaders decide what to place on the Berkeley portion of the Nov. 3 ballot.

Officials agreed Feb. 11 to have Lake Research Partners ask voters what they think about a Wildfire Assessment District, a new Fire and Emergency Services Tax and a residential vacancy tax on multi-unit buildings. The city is also considering a 50-cent tax that ride-share passengers who are picked up in Berkeley would pay on every trip. The creation of a new Climate Action Fund, supported by an increase in the utility users tax and perhaps a carbon tax on large businesses, is also on the table.

The owner of an “average” Berkeley home of 1,900 square feet, with an assessed value of $485,000, currently pays about $8,200 a year in taxes, according to the city. That’s a bit more than Oakland ($7,800) and a bit less than Albany ($9,000).


One of the biggest issues facing the city right now, officials and staff said, is the millions of dollars in unmet need identified by the Berkeley Fire Department to increase its emergency medical and dispatch services, strengthen the city’s wildfire prevention program, add a fourth firefighter to ladder trucks and more.

“While the City and department call volume has grown dramatically since 1995, the staffing and response model has remained stagnant,” according to a recent staff report from BFD. That report outlined “a number of challenges that threaten the Department’s ability to maintain existing service levels,” including increases in call volume, about $2.4 to $3 million annually in costs related to taking patients in a mental health crisis to the hospital, the impending closure of Alta Bates and more.

“The thing that’s most critical to me is the emergency services and the fire safety,” Wengraf told her colleagues during the Feb. 11 meeting. Officials say they are still considering whether a wildfire tax measure would be citywide or limited to a specific area.

Officials said they would like to look at whether a vacancy tax could incentivize owners of multi-unit residential buildings to find more ways to keep them occupied. It would not apply to single-family homes or commercial properties, they said. There was some discussion, too, about whether all units on a property must be vacant for the tax to kick in. The details are still under consideration.


“I think, frankly, it’s criminal to have units vacant in the city of Berkeley when we are in such a dire crisis,” Mayor Jesse Arreguín told his colleagues. “I think it’s worth exploring.”

During the meeting, city staff described several ways the city might raise money to improve the condition of city streets, which currently get a score of 59 on the Pavement Condition Index, placing them in the “at risk” category. That PCI score is set to drop to 52 by 2024 under the current maintenance schedule, staff said.

Councilwoman Sophie Hahn said she doesn’t think now is the time to move ahead on a ballot measure for street repairs because the city is working to complete its Vision 2050 plan to tackle climate change and address infrastructure needs. Hahn said that document, which will lay out a 30-year strategic plan, would provide the best guidance to move ahead.

Councilwoman Rashi Kesarwani said she had a different view, however, and is worried about any further delay.

“We are competing against other public agencies who are going to the voters for revenue,” she said during her remarks on the dais. “I would encourage us to sort of get in this queue.”

Council members seemed open to the idea of a new 50-cent tax that Lyft and Uber passengers would pay for any trips that begin in Berkeley. That tax could be used for street repairs, among other municipal needs. They said they didn’t know how much this might raise because the ride-sharing companies had not been willing to share much data about how many trips there are. Oakland and Emeryville are considering similar taxes, officials said.


Berkeley voters will have several other tax or bond measures to consider in March before making up their minds about the November ballot. Alameda County has asked residents to increase the sales tax by 0.5% — to 10.25% — to raise more money for early childhood education. The state has put Proposition 13 forward to fund public school construction and repairs.

And Berkeley Unified has put three ballot measures forward to fund everything from infrastructure needs to teacher salaries. According to BUSD, those measures will cost about $625 for a 1,900-square-foot Berkeley home.

Other ballot measures Berkeley voters might see in November include changes to the Police Review Commission and a charter amendment that would “ensure that gender neutral terminology is used throughout” city ordinances and the charter. Those items were not discussed during last week’s council meeting.

And don’t forget about Assembly Bill 1487, which could lead to the creation of a new “housing agency for the San Francisco Bay Area, with the ability to impose regional taxes to fund development, local planning and tenant assistance,” according to KQED. The bill would give the state the authority to put forward ballot measures in all nine Bay Area counties to fund the new agency.

Council has approved up to $75,000 for Lake to do two community surveys and analyze the results.

For the November election, the City Council doesn’t need to adopt final ballot language until the end of July, according to last week’s staff report.

Note: Berkeleyside added comments from BUSD about costs related to the school ballot measures set for March.

Correction: This story originally grossly misstated the cost to the Berkeley Fire Department for mental health transports each year. The cost is $2.4 million to $3 million annually. The story has been corrected. BFD’s total annual budget is nearly $46 million. Berkeleyside also updated the information about the BUSD ballot measure costs after publication.

Emilie Raguso is Berkeleyside’s senior editor of news. Email: emilie@berkeleyside.com. Twitter: emraguso.