More than 30 Berkeley residents came out Wednesday to express support to for the city to re-open Willard Pool. Photo: Emilie Taguso
More than 30 Berkeley residents came out Wednesday night to ask the city to re-open Willard Pool. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The Berkeley City Council is set to consider a potential $20 million parks bond in conjunction with a 10% increase to the existing parks tax after a unanimous vote Wednesday night by the city’s parks commission.

Over the past six months, the commission has held a series of public meetings to find a way to raise money for Berkeley parks, spurred in part by alarm at a projected lack of money in the city budget for both existing maintenance demands and new projects.

The combined bond and tax measures could cost approximately $45 extra per year on average for each Berkeley property.

“It doesn’t fix everything,” said Commission chairman Jim McGrath. “It’s not a bad start though.”

According to a draft report prepared for Wednesday’s meeting, the city is in desperate need of more money for Berkeley parks.

“For the last six months, the new Parks and Waterfront Commission has reviewed the condition of Berkeley’s fifty-two parks and other recreational facilities, with an increasing sense of alarm,” according to the report. “Since 1982, the citizens of Berkeley have supported a number of different tax measures that provide additional funding for their parks including Measure HH in 2008 by a vote of over 77%. However, these measures have failed to keep up with the increased maintenance needs of the parks, and there is a long list of needed projects in almost every park and facility.”

The commission recommended a list of possible projects for the council to consider for inclusion in the bond measure, from the re-opening of Willard Pool, and significant maintenance for other city pools, to money for Tuolumne Camp; Aquatic Park improvements; marina and Bay Trail projects; a plan for the Santa Fe Right of Way; and the possible creation of a parks master plan. The council could also consider additional projects not included in the commission’s list.

About 40 members of the public attended Wednesday night’s meeting. Most in attendance voiced support to re-open Willard Pool, with another significant contingent advocating for the creation of a new park along the Santa Fe Avenue greenway.

Though the commission struggled over which projects to include, they were largely in agreement about the need to choose endeavors with extensive public support.

“We need projects people are going to get out and fight for,” said Commissioner Caitlin Brostrom. “Unless there’s something sexy and interesting, I don’t think it’s going to pass.”

The commission said it had been important to them to tackle the parks funding issue as a whole group, rather than split off into subcommittees. Photo: Emilie Raguso
The commission said it had been important to them to tackle the parks funding issue as a whole group, rather than split off into subcommittees. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The commission also recommended the possible revival of a popular mini-grants program that provides seed funding to community groups for volunteer parks projects, as well as the hiring of a parks coordinator to help oversee community-based projects.

And, though there was broad consensus about many of the projects listed for consideration, the idea of a new parks master plan — estimated to cost $800,000 or more — proved controversial among commissioners. The city has an “open space element” as part of its General Plan, but has no stand-alone master plan to guide its park-related efforts.

Commissioner Susan McKay was the most vociferous advocate for the master plan, saying that the city needs the document to approach parks planning in a thoughtful, comprehensive way. Other commissioners said they feared that including the master plan in a parks bond would spell defeat for the measure.

Said Commissioner Toni Mester: “I’m totally against any mention of a master plan…. It’s going to kill the bond. People in Berkeley hate all the processes we go through.”

Larger parks tax also a possibility

A bond alone would be insufficient to cover the city’s existing parks needs.

According to a draft report prepared for Wednesday’s meeting, the city’s current parks tax generates $9.3 million in annual revenue, “but that is not sufficient to cover existing personnel and major maintenance projects.” To fill the gap, the commission recommended a 10% parks tax increase to prevent layoffs and halt a further deterioration of city facilities.

According to the report: “While the parks tax has supported maintenance staff, the capacity of the tax to underwrite major maintenance efforts has deteriorated along with our aging and much used facilities. Currently the Parks Director Scott Ferris estimates that over $30 million in capital and major maintenance projects remains unfunded.”

The commission held three public meetings in recent months to gauge support for a new parks funding campaign.

“Each of these meetings was well attended, and the last one was standing-room only,” according to the report. “We also received significant testimony at our regular meetings in August and November. Dozens of people offered their observations at those meetings, and others sent letters and emails. It is clear that the people in Berkeley love their parks and want them maintained at a higher standard.”

Scott Ferris, director of the city's parks department, (right) and Roger Miller, parks commission secretary. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Scott Ferris, director of the city’s parks department, (right) and Roger Miller, parks commission secretary. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Ferris said Wednesday night that the matter is set to come before the council Feb. 11. To quality for a November 2014 ballot, decisions related to the measure or measures would need to be complete six months prior. Ferris said the council would likely have several public meetings about the proposals, and undertake polling to see which items are most likely to win support.

Ferris said, if both items are approved in some form, they could either appear in combination or separately on the ballot. He cautioned that many changes are still possible as a result of council consideration.

As part of its discussion Wednesday, the commission estimated — in a draft document that was edited fairly extensively during the meeting — possible spending on each proposed project, but decided to remove all financial projections related to the bond from its report to let council and the community decide how to proceed. But McGrath estimated that the list of projects to go before council could cost about $15.5 million, meaning that a $20 million bond could be sufficient. (The updated report, which is set to go to council, is here.)

Some commissioners and members of the public said that, though $45 annually seemed like it could be palatable to voters, the council might want to consider a larger increase, particularly to avoid having to come back to the public in the short term to ask for more money.

“If it were all up to me, I would probably go for the grand slam,” said Commissioner Phil Catalfo, indicating that the ultimate ask should probably be higher. “I think we probably have one chance at this in the next 10 or 20 years.”

Read more on Berkeleyside about Berkeley parks.

Berkeley groups want old railroad bed to be a public park (11.20.13)
Willard Pool supporters turn out for parks meeting (10.17.13)
Berkeley Tuolumne Camp supporters push to rebuild (10.16.13)
Commission, public discuss priorities for Berkeley’s parks (10.04.13)
4 public meetings planned on future of Berkeley parks (09.25.13)
Pensions, infrastructure key Berkeley budget liabilities (02.20.13)
More than $100m needed for parks, rec and waterfront (09.29.11)

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...