The public dismay was palpable last month when the Berkeley City Council decided, in a surprise move, to put a parks tax before voters this fall without a related bond measure that would have infused parks and pools around the city with much-needed cash, reversing an earlier vote on the items.
The $1.7 million parks tax, if approved by voters, would essentially maintain the status quo for maintenance and staffing needs, and cost the owner of an average-size home an additional $43 a year. (That same homeowner already pays about $240 a year for the existing parks tax.)
Had it gone to voters, the proposed $20 million parks bond could have helped re-open Willard Pool, improve the King and West Campus pools, put millions toward Aquatic Park, James Kenney Park and the much-loved rose garden, and repair tennis courts and ballfields around the city, in addition to addressing other significant needs. (See a financial breakdown of several possible iterations of the bond and tax proposal.)
The city estimated that the joint bond and tax measure would have added just $15 more than the tax alone to the bill for owners of an average Berkeley home, defined by the city as 1,900 square feet.
City staff said the $1.7 million tax increase will allocate $500,000 to the existing structural deficit in the parks department, $450,000 for major parks maintenance and $750,000 for major building maintenance. The city manager said those seeking more information about how the money will be spent — if approved by voters — should peruse a February report on parks needs. According to that report, the city needs more than $25 million to pay for existing parks projects in addition to the structural deficit in maintenance and staffing, as well as building repairs.
Parks advocates say there has been no published project list of funding priorities for the tax, which has been a cause for concern.
The 6-3 council vote June 24 was a particular slap in the face, parks advocates said, after a preliminary vote earlier in June in which eight Berkeley council members pledged to support the combined tax and bond measure, which is called a Mello-Roos.
The Mello-Roos approach had been recommended to council by the city Parks and Waterfront Commission after a lengthy public process with extensive community testimony in 2013. Parks advocates continued to champion the combined measure during a series of public and private meetings with officials through 2014.
And, though council support at times appeared uncertain, the near-unanimous vote by elected officials June 10 — along with encouraging comments from Berkeley City Manager Christine Daniel — indicated the likely success of the Mello-Roos of reaching voters in November.
Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates cast the lone dissenting vote June 10. He said it would be wiser to go for the parks tax now and come back to voters later with the bond. By the time council reconvened for its next meeting, June 24, five council members had come around to the Bates perspective. (Council members Jesse Arreguín, Max Anderson and Kriss Worthington were opposed.)
The turn-around left many parks supporters stunned and disillusioned, and questioning how a public process — which had gone on for nearly a year with so much engagement, and a unified position from key stakeholders and parks commissioners — could have resulted in a decision that seemed diametrically opposed to the public will. The seeming consensus of the June 10 vote, too, left many wondering what had gone wrong.
Letter decries “dismissal of so much community input”
This week, six of those stakeholders sent a letter to council to share their experience of the past year’s dialogue about parks funding, and offer some ideas they believe would fix what they described as the city’s “dysfunctional” public planning process.
They said the June 24 council vote “discarded” months of public hearings and commission deliberations attended by hundreds of people; the commission recommendation for a Mello-Roos package; and “a public groundswell in which hundreds more residents came to Council meetings and advocated for Willard Pool, the Santa Fe Right of Way gardens, and other parks projects around town.”
The letter was signed by John Steere, president of Berkeley Partners for Parks; George Beier, president of the Willard Neighborhood Association; Robert Collier, co-chair of the campaign for measures N and O in 2012; Beebo Turman of the Berkeley Community Gardening Collaborative; Shawna McCarroll of the Berkeley Climate Action Coalition; and Nancy Carleton, who has served on the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission and the Zoning Adjustments Board, and ran two successful parks measures in 2000.
They said they believe the vote left many wondering why they should even bother to participate in public planning processes at all. They asked council to stop wasting time on expensive master plans that ultimately have no effect, to be more transparent about the priorities of city staff, to encourage “more communication, less stonewalling,” and to design better voter surveys that would more accurately take the public temperature.
The group also said the process had been stymied by “inflated” figures that artificially drove up the costs of the combined measure to a level beyond what was actually needed: “The Parks Department’s cost figures and priority lists for capital projects were divulged slowly…. our requests for clarification of parks project costs often were ignored.”
The signatories said they had been frustrated by a lack of information from the city. One said that, in February, the city’s public information officer told him he would no longer communicate with the group about the poll or potential bond measures. After an email from the city spokesman discouraging further communication, “Our follow-up queries to him were met with silence,” according to the letter.
Council members who withdrew their support for the Mello-Roos cited two opinion polls earlier this year, which they said ultimately led them to believe the joint measure would fail. (See a council presentation of the second survey’s results and a report about them.)
Those who wrote the letter to the city, however, said the polls did not reflect public sentiment: “Despite our frequent requests, those surveys attempted no apples-to-apples comparison of realistically priced versions of a Mello-Roos and Parks Tax.… The voter surveys wound up being of little use for parks decision-making.”
In the end, they said, coming up with a better process will be critical in the future, given the huge decisions the city will need to make down the road, as pension costs rise and infrastructure needs become more pressing.
Council members: “We have to get our current house in order”
Two of the council members who changed their votes in June to support the tax only, rather than the Mello-Roos, said they ultimately decided now was not the time to be investing in new projects, and that they did not believe there would be community support for the bigger ask.
Council members Linda Maio and Laurie Capitelli had been working with parks advocates to come up with a compromise Mello-Roos that was slimmed down from a $25 million bond and $2 million tax proposal from staff. It was that compromise measure — for a $19 million bond and $1.1 million tax — that received eight council votes June 10.
Strangely, it was the more expensive $25 million bond and $2 million tax proposed by staff that appeared on the June 24 council agenda, rather than the compromise that had received near unanimous support earlier that month.
Maio said after the June 24 vote that she had “really struggled” over which path to take. She said she had wanted to support Willard Pool and the Santa Fe Right of Way project, as well as the other projects on the priority list for bond money, but that it came down to “keeping our house in order” with the tax.
She acknowledged that the community survey “didn’t test everything,” but said she did not feel there was strong enough voter support to put the bond to voters. She said she thought including Willard Pool in any proposal would make it vulnerable, and “decided to come down on the more prudent approach.” She said she supports both the Willard community and Berkeley Partners for Parks — which has pushed for the creation of park space along the Santa Fe Right of Way — but ultimately had to “make that hard decision on behalf of the city.”
Capitelli echoed those concerns: “I just feel we have to get our current house in order before we move forward with new projects.”
He said he hopes the community does support the tax increase — which he said would cost an extra $3 a month to the owner of an average-sized home — and that the city plans to look at the longer-term projects in coming years.
“I think it’s going to be a tough row no matter what,” he said, of the November election. “We’re doing the prudent thing: We’re moving slowly. We’re doing it incrementally.”
Capitelli said it wasn’t just the polls that indicated a lack of support for the Mello-Roos, but also his conversations around town.
“I know some people were disappointed with me, and disappointed with Linda, but you gotta do what you think is right sometimes,” he said, of their position change on the Mello-Roos issue.
“I’m happy that the council took it seriously and made a hard decision,” he said. “We dropped kind of a hot potato in their lap.”
He said the tax would make a difference, even if doesn’t achieve everything the Mello-Roos might have done.
“It won’t fix the parks overnight,” McGrath said. “Five years from now, there will still be a lot of things that need to be improved. But it will start to reduce the backlog.”
He also said the city should put together a comprehensive business plan to look at its municipal facilities needs, which are extensive.
Arreguín: “The process was bad”
Councilman Jesse Arreguín — one of the three officials who voted against putting only the tax on the ballot — said the Mello-Roos would have allowed for a more equitable distribution of parks resources and improvements around the city.
“We need to make sure that all of Berkeley is served,” he said. “That we didn’t go for an option that could have served the entire community is unfortunate. It’s disheartening.”
He said he had been troubled by sudden changes in the order of the June 24 meeting agenda, which pushed the adoption of the parks tax ahead of any discussion of the Mello-Roos. Arreguín said that essentially shut down consideration of the combined measure, and was also confusing to the public: “The process was bad,” he said. “I don’t think the council acted in good faith, to be honest with you.”
He said he had also been surprised when Maio, Capitelli and the others changed course after the earlier vote in June when Mayor Bates alone had voted against the Mello-Roos.
“The only explanation I can have for it is that the mayor had lobbied the council and gotten them to change their vote,” Arreguín said.
Councilman Kriss Worthington said he, too, had been disappointed by the outcome and by the way the meeting was organized. He said the tax increase will not begin to address everything that’s needed.
“There’s so much that needs to be fixed, and then what they voted for doesn’t really fix it,” he said. “The rich, the poor and the middle class all use the parks and love the parks. It was very strange and shocking to see such a basic bread-and-butter proposal get defeated after just about the whole council had said they wanted to do it.”
Worthington noted that, in all the community meetings about how to fund the parks, he could recall just one person who spoke against the Mello-Roos approach.
“I don’t know why they bailed on something that we’ve spent more than a year talking about,” he said. “It was a very strange result and process.”
Advocates: Grassroots support likely to be limited for parks tax
Robert Collier, one of the leaders of the Mello-Roos campaign, said one problem with the tax that will come before voters is that it’s unclear exactly how the money will be spent.
“Berkeley’s parks definitely need help, but what the City Council voted to put on the ballot isn’t a parks tax. It’s a city manager tax. There’s no transparency about how much of its $1.7 million annual revenues would be spent actually fixing the parks, how much on saving crucial staff jobs such as maintenance and gardeners, or how much would get swallowed by the city’s administrative overhead and budgetary reserves,” he said. “Exactly what voters would get for their money is totally unclear. And that lack of clarity will be a field day for opponents.”
Collier said he doesn’t see volunteers getting out to fight for the tax measure, though he said they won’t oppose it either: “Berkeley’s parks and pools advocacy groups will regretfully sit this one out.”
Community members testified that they would have turned out in droves to push for the Mello-Roos, activating their neighborhood networks and organizing a vigorous campaign to spread the word about why that approach deserved support throughout the city. Collier said that won’t happen now.
“We would have had a really active community campaign with lots of people power. The parks tax will have nobody. It will be a ghost campaign,” he said.
“I think that the bond, which had the pool and the rose garden and Aquatic Park and other beloved city institutions, I think that is a much easier sell to the voters than just an increase in the parks tax,” he said. “There’s a lot of resistance out there to creating special measures to pay salaries.”
He said parks advocates had worked hard within the public process, turning out for many hours of commission and council meetings to help identify parks funding priorities: just what the city had requested.
“We didn’t go rogue or anything. We followed the process to the letter, and then they just tossed it all out the window,” Beier said. “Why go through that whole process if we’re not going to use the data that we collect, and we’re not going to use the priorities that the citizens have provided? It could have been a whole new vision for Berkeley, and I’m just sad it didn’t happen.”
Jacquelyn McCormick, who heads the Claremont-Elmwood Neighborhood Association, and is also running to represent District 8, said her neighborhood group had been in support of the Mello-Roos but is not in favor of the tax.
She said there is too much uncertainty about how the tax money would be used, and was concerned about how the vote had ultimately come down in late June.
“I think it was predetermined by the mayor,” McCormick said. “Clearly he got what he wanted.”
She said coming back to the public later with the bond proposal — which the mayor and others have suggested — “is almost double dipping.”
“This is a world-class city that deserves world-class parks and world-class infrastructure, and we don’t have it,” McCormick said. Of the Mello-Roos she added: “It’s incredibly disappointing to the people who would have worked to get this passed.”
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