Mayor Tom Bates: “What seems to me the overriding problem of this city is the streets and the state of our water systems.” Photo: Tracey Taylor

The bulk of this week’s Berkeley City Council meeting was consumed by public comment and council member debate on potential city measures for the November general election ballot.

The three areas considered by the council — streets and watershed, affordable housing, and pools — are facing considerable headwinds to reach the necessary two-thirds vote by the public, according to a community survey commissioned by the city. The survey of 400 likely voters by Lake Research Partners concluded that only the streets and watershed measures has a chance to pass in November (details on the survey at the bottom of this article).

That conclusion, however, was passionately challenged by both pools and affordable housing advocates on Tuesday night. Pools supporters are seeking $6.4 million to renovate and reopen Willard Pool, and $13 million to build a new warm pool (both would also need parcel taxes to fund ongoing operations). The housing measure would impose a 2% gross receipts tax on landlords with five units or more, with the revenues used to support affordable housing.

Willard swimming pool, here seen in March, was filled with dirt in January. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

“We were caught sleeping last time,” said Andrea Prichett, a teacher at Willard Middle School, referring to the defeat of a pools bond measure in 2010. “We will mobilize.”

Another pools supporter echoed Prichett: “There is a chance of passage with more information.” A third grade girl also pointed out what she saw as a flaw in the 2010 vote: “If kids were allowed to vote, there would have been a difference in the result.”

“All the sources we’ve traditionally been able to cobble together to house people are dwindling,” said Susan Friedland from Affordable Housing Associates. “If the word homelessness were used [in the ballot measure], I think we would have a higher response rate in favor.”

Mayor Tom Bates said the political realities were far different.

“This is a really terrible thing. We’d love to fund everything,” Bates said. “On pools, the numbers just aren’t there. There’s nothing you can do about that. What seems to me the overriding problem of this city is the streets and the state of our water systems. I’d love to see higher numbers for them, too. The streets and water bond is difficult, but maybe not impossible. It’s the one that has the best opportunity to happen. I personally only want to see the streets and water bond on the ballot.”

Both Bates and Council woman Linda Maio said that the pile-up of tax measures on the ballot — particularly Governor Jerry Brown’s education measure and Alameda County’s Measure B for transportation — will make it difficult to persuade voters to support any city measures.

“As you go down [the ballot], think of yourself as the voter,” Maio said. “What will happen when the voter gets down to Berkeley and you’re asking for more money. The danger is you get down there and they say, ‘I just can’t do any more’, and then nothing passes in Berkeley.”

But other council members pushed back against Bates and Maio.

The “pothole city council”

“The mayor has proposed we abandon the affordable housing proposal and we abandon the pools, so that we solely support this one proposal for streets,” said Kriss Worthington. “Certainly the majority of voters of Berkeley have indicated they support affordable housing and the majority support the pools… To be the pothole city council and give you two pothole measures is really sending the wrong message… I don’t think that reflects the values of the people in Berkeley. I think we’re going to be digging ourselves a pothole bigger than any pothole in Berkeley.”

“Sometimes we have to challenge ourselves,” said Max Anderson. “Just going for street repairs and potholes is taking the easy way out.”

Jesse Arreguín, who was the main proponent of an affordable housing measure, proposed a substitute measure to satisfy both streets and pools needs. With the support of Gordon Wozniak, Arreguín suggested scaling back the streets and watershed measure from $50 million to $32 million, and including a $18 million pools measure. The two together would be for the $50 million of the initially proposed streets and watershed measure (although the pools would require a parcel tax for operations).

Laurie Capitelli proposed that the figures be revised to $30 million and $20 million, so the necessary $2 million could be included to renovate the locker rooms at the King pool.

Council members voted to ask city staff to draw up wording for two measures — streets and watershed for $30 million and pools for $20 million — for debate at a June council meeting. A resolution to produce wording on the affordable housing tax failed. Final action for measures on the ballot needs to be taken at the July 10 council meeting.

Mayor Bates, however, abstained on the vote, again expressing his skepticism on what voters will bear in November.

“I’d like to say we’re killing the goose that lays the golden egg,” he said. “We’re not going to get support on this. I think it’s a loser unfortunately.”

Community survey: the details

Telephone interviews were conducted with 400 likely November voters in Berkeley between May 10-14. The data were weighted by race, gender, age, party registration and region. According to Lake Research Partners, which designed and administered the survey, the margin of error is +/- 4.9%.

The major findings of the survey are that only the streets and watershed measures have the potential to reach the 67% threshold, but even with these, voters need additional information to support them. A majority of Berkeley voters, 58%, believe the city is going in the right direction. Only 19% responded that the city is on the “wrong track”.

The detail of the survey suggests how difficult it may well be for any potential measure to pass with Berkeley voters. Only Governor Brown’s education measure easily clears two-thirds when asked initially (and Brown’s measure will only require a simple majority in November). Here are some of the charts presented to the council on Tuesday night.

Of the potential city measures, only a street and watershed sales tax cleared 50% for an initial yes. When voters were given more information by the telephone interviewers, however, results improved, but the necessary two-thirds still proved elusive:

For the potential pool bonds, the size of the “solid no” is daunting:

The potential streets and watershed bond fares better but still has 21% solidly against it:

David Mermin from Lake Research Partners pointed out at the council meeting that “we did not simulate an active campaign on the no side, and obviously that would have an impact if someone did that and campaigned directly to voters. ”

Comment: Save our pools, invest in people, close the opportunity gap [05.29.12]
Community rallies to get pool measure on November ballot [04.30.12]
More than $100m needed for parks, rec and waterfront [09.29.11]
Willard swimming pool now filled with mud [01.05.11]
Comment: Voting on Measure C shows a city split [07.01.10]
Swimmers lament today’s closing of Willard Pool [06.30.10]
Pools majority falls short: closures expected [06.09.10]

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...