The city has been working to come up with a plan to addressed needed repairs at many of its facilities. Photo: City of Berkeley
The city has been working on a plan to address repairs at many facilities. Photo: City of Berkeley
The city has been working on a plan to address repairs at many facilities. Photo: City of Berkeley

Later this year, the Berkeley City Council will consider whether to more than double the public works department budget to help address a maintenance backlog of nearly $16.4 million.

The department is responsible for more than 50 buildings, many of which need significant improvements, according to information presented in late March at a council worksession.

The department currently has an annual capital budget of $900,000, and has been putting off maintenance needs because there hasn’t been a plan in place about how to proceed, or money to do the repairs.

Of the current budget, $500,000 goes toward urgent building needs, $100,000 to ADA upgrades and $300,000 to deferred maintenance projects. And chipping away at the $16.4 million maintenance backlog $300,000 at a time has not been working, staff said.

On March 24, council received a proposed five-year plan from the department about how to get going on the work. Under the proposal, the department’s annual budget would increase to $2 million. That money would come, if approved by council in the next few months, from projected increases in real estate transfer taxes the city expects to collect this year, officials said.

“During the past 25 years, the City has deferred maintenance on many City facilities, decreasing the value of these assets, and diminishing the utility of the buildings for City programs,” according to the staff report

1947 Center St. Photo: City of Berkeley
1947 Center St. Photo: City of Berkeley

“To partially address the problem, bonds have been approved to rebuild a number of City buildings …. However, many outdated structures remain (e.g. recreation, community and senior centers) that require major improvements.”

What exactly does that look like? Deputy Public Works Director Phil Harrington gave council a couple examples, from elevators that stay out of service for extended periods, because staff has to hunt for hard-to-find, outdated replacements parts, to even more extreme efforts.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, he said, a heating pump went out at the South Berkeley Senior Center.

“They don’t make these parts anymore,” said Harrington. “We had to actually pull the part over the holiday, find a person who can manufacture that, build it, bring it back and put it into play.”

He said it’s getting tougher and tougher for staff to address problems that crop up, and that many of the facilities have never been renovated.

“A lot of these components are original,” Harrington told council. “We’re working with everything we have just to keep the buildings open and operational right now.”

Last July, council asked public works staff to come up with the five-year plan, to figure out the most efficient way to tackle the needed work, and identify the structures most in need of repairs. (As per the March 24 staff report, the identified backlog does not include another $118 million of seismic retrofit needs, which were presented to council last year. The city is also in the process of trying to find money for those projects.)

In March, staff told council that, if the city does nothing, the result will be higher maintenance and capital costs, and decreased building sustainability.

Staff told council March 24 that it is working to assign each building a letter grade on a 5-point scale, with “A” meaning good, and “F” meaning unusable. Most Berkeley public works facilities currently fall in the “lower C” rating, meaning they are looking worn, with apparent or increasing deterioration.

For the upcoming year, staff proposed improvements to 1947 Center St. to address the electrical and switchboard systems at its customer service center. The projects are estimated to cost about $760,000. Other work is also proposed at the North Berkeley Senior Center and the Transfer Station.

City staff have proposed improvements to 1947 Center St. in fiscal year 2015-16. Image: City of Berkeley
City staff has proposed improvements to 1947 Center St. in fiscal year 2015-16. Image: City of Berkeley
City staff has proposed improvements to 1947 Center St. in fiscal year 2015-16. Image: City of Berkeley

Even if the city is able to give the department $2 million a year for the next five years — which has yet to be determined — that would provide just $10 million of the projected $16.4 million needed to make all the repairs on the current list. And the more time that passes, the more facilities deteriorate, and the more repairs cost, staff and officials both observed.

If the city wanted to attempt to address the whole backlog over the next five years, the department would actually need $3-4 million annually, but that isn’t the current ask.

Councilman Laurie Capitelli said he was somewhat unsettled by that proposition.

“Five years from now, we’d be another $6-7 million behind … even with the $1.1 million,” he said, of the proposed budget increase, in the March 24 worksession. “That’s what I find a little troubling.”

Capitelli said the city can’t afford to ignore its facility needs any longer, and thanked staff for the report: “It’s grim but real.”

Said Mayor Tom Bates: “This is a decision that council has to make.” He added that, if the transfer tax comes in higher than expected, perhaps more money could be allocated to address public works needs.

Diz Swift, who serves on the city’s Public Works Commission, was one of just two public speakers to address council on the subject of infrastructure needs. She said it may be time for a reality check for many local residents and city leaders alike.

“Everyone wants everything, but we really can’t afford it,” she said. Swift said it might be wise for the city to figure out which facilities might be better off closed, rather than continuing to drain limited resources. “Why don’t we abandon them at this point and have a beautiful city for what we have, instead of a decaying city for everyone.”

Watch a recording of the worksession on the city website. See the March 24 staff report and worksession overview.

City budget in good short-term shape, but problems loom with pension costs (03.11.14)
City Manager Christine Daniel details Berkeley’s finances (11.01.13)
Berkeley council looks to IT to transform city operations (05.22.13)
Dog license fees to rise, other Berkeley Council decisions (05.22.13)
Pensions, infrastructure key Berkeley budget liabilities (02.20.13)
Budget: Spending cuts needed to avoid shortfall (01.28.13)

Do you rely on Berkeleyside for local news? Support independent journalism by becoming a Berkeleyside member for $5 a month or even less, or with a one-time donation.

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 of the Year...