Opinion: Measure FF is not the right solution to fund the revenue needs of the Berkeley Fire Department

Berkeley needs to get its house in order first by properly assessing thousands of under-assessed properties, which can bring thousands of dollars into city coffers.

Measure FF is not the right solution to fund the revenue needs of the Berkeley Fire Department!  Berkeley firefighters and paramedics should have the funding and resources they require, but they have been denied these by city management, not the voters. This year, brush clearance has been postponed needlessly, fire marshall inspection work has been put on hold and firefighters are working overtime.  Addressing these deficiencies can be achieved by properly calculating and funding the current three fire and paramedic taxes already charged to homeowners every year on our tax bill.

Berkeley’s proposed new fire tax would join three others that Berkeley taxpayers are billed for fire and paramedic.  The effect would be to double each owner’s contribution to fire and paramedic. The proposed fire tax has nothing to do with Proposition 13 values, only dwelling square footage.  There are 10 total square footage-based assessments imposed on dwelling units which include support for libraries, schools, parks, streetlights, etc.  These parcel taxes are presented to voters as equitable because a large home pays a higher tax and a small home pays a more manageable one.  Similarly, a multi-unit property would have a higher tax burden, while a small duplex has a lesser one.

However, hundreds of thousands of dollars are going uncollected because so many tax bills are improperly calculated.  See the Alameda County’s public data vs. the city’s non-public data represented in a tableau.

Sadly, several families have their homes charged double or more through such improper calculations.  Some lucky, multi-unit landlords pay less tax than small, single-family homes. Some large homes in the hills pay less in city taxes than small homes in South and Westside neighborhoods and naturally, every overcharged homeowner has a personal story of what they could have done with the thousands of dollars they could have saved if their home had been charged correctly for dwelling square footage.


Tucked in along the crumbly asphalt of the 1600 block of Stuart in South Berkeley is a family with a 1,061 ft2 dwelling.  Yet, this unlucky homeowner is billed almost $2,000 in taxes for city services.  (It should be half that!)  They have never added on, just made repairs, and maintained respectably. They wanted to develop their dirt understory to house a disabled relative, but the city required a house lift to do so.  They could not afford it.

Across town, a lucky landlord with a 3,367 ft, two to four-unit building, built decades ago and renovated with solar panels in 2015, pays only $724 for city services.  They should be billed $3,400 for the city services that their tenants pay them to enjoy!

This is not an isolated example.  Many landlords are only charged city services on a fraction of their building size, collecting rent on untaxed but permitted dwelling space. One landlord with a 26,700 ft2 building is only charged assessments on 2,670 feet of it.  This saves them $24,000 a year!

Meanwhile, local elderly, minorities and lower-income residents are charged double for the size of their homes. Even more difficult to comprehend is that some of the most well-respected and favored developers and directors of non-profits are forgiven tax when they add on to their own homes or do major renovations.  These well-paid members of the community do not need tax discounts.  These artificially fortunate folks, through the discounts they are given, require the average citizen to give more.  There is no reason to gouge the Berkeley community in this way, and despite the discrepancies, city management is asking you to approve more taxes under the same system.

Thousands of Berkeley taxpayers are getting unlawful discounts each year. Berkeley for Assessment Tax Equity has a list of 820 under-assessed properties in an ongoing research study which have caused $5 million in losses for city services over the past decade.

Berkeleyans don’t like landlords to pay too little tax, like the 4,000-square-foot triplex in Northside paying only $1,000 in city taxes. It is irresponsible and regressive to indulge that landlord while a new Hispanic family on Sacramento St. with a 920-square-foot home is charged $2,100 in city taxes plus high ad valorem since they purchased in 2017. Surely the city’s well-staffed, well-paid Finance Department can handle correcting these tax bills.  The Finance Department must do what city and outside auditors have urged for decades…align the tax database with that of the county assessor or city planning.

Reconcile the database first, capture escaped assessments, and then if Berkeley firefighters still lack funding, bring a fair tax before the voters to approve.

Measure FF is the wrong tax for the right cause.  Vote NO on FF!

Laura Menard, south Berkeley resident since 1978, is a former chair of various committees addressing student support systems, school safety, gang violence and public safety.