Op-ed: The decay of Berkeley’s infrastructure

On May 12, the city of Berkeley’s budget manager, Teresa Berkeley-Simmons, will present to city council the proposed spending over the next five years for capital improvements. This includes money to be spent on sidewalks, streets, parks, storm drains, sewers, and transportation such as bike improvement projects.

Between 2016 and 2020, Berkeley plans to decrease its spending on infrastructure by 43% from approximately $36 million to $20 million, a reduction of $15 million.

This cut is despite an acknowledgment by Christine Daniel, the city manager, that “Berkeley is an aging city and thus its infrastructure faces challenges that other younger cities do not.”

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Source: Figures compiled from information in City of Berkeley proposed budget.

This is very worrisome for, as recently as 2011, spending on capital improvements was $47.9 million, and even that amount did not keep pace with the deterioration of the city’s infrastructure.

The question is how can a city maintain its aging facilities with spending on capital programs declining so dramatically?

Shouldn’t we be increasing — not decreasing — our spending on infrastructure?

Four years ago, in 2011, Berkeley allocated over $4 million per year to transportation — funding that supports biking and pedestrian improvements, and traffic calming measures. Proposed spending for transportation over the next five years will decrease by 27% from $874,000 per year in 2016 to $634,000 per year in 2020.

Why would the city attempt to craft a new “Berkeley Bicycle Plan” while cutting the very budget to implement such a plan? The mayor states that he is “looking forward to seeing results” for the new plan, but when and where will the financing be coming from given these draconian cuts?

In addition to transportation, cuts to sewer replacement (-45%), sidewalk repairs (-20%), street repairs (-54%), and parks (-6%) will be instituted.

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 7.25.43 PM
Source: Figures compiled from information in City of Berkeley proposed budget.

Given this trend of reduced spending for capital improvements (on average, $4 million per year), one can extrapolate that by 2025 there will be no money — at all — for them.

Is Berkeley broke? No. The recession is largely over and the city’s revenue is increasing. Property transfer tax revenue increased over 20% from 2013 to 2014 (more than $14 million), and the city is actively hiring new employees.

The reason for the reduction in capital improvement spending is due to the rapidly escalating personnel costs that city leaders have repeatedly chosen not to address despite the city manager’s assertions that “labor factors are a critical factor” in managing the city’s budget.

Over the next five years, the costs of employees’ benefits alone (pensions, healthcare, dental) will rise by more than $18 million (from $93.7 million in 2016 to $112 million in 2020), and over the same period the entire capital improvement budget will decrease by $15.4 million. Thus, it appears that the cuts to capital improvement were needed to offset the increased employee benefits’ costs and balance the budget. These costs must be reckoned with lest there be no money for capital improvements in less than 10 years’ time.

What can be done? The majority of our sitting city council members have presided over a precipitous decline in funding of city infrastructure over the last decade or more. They have warned us repeatedly that we must pass bond measures (if we want good roads) and we must increase taxes (if we want good parks).

But the proposed reductions in spending on capital improvements don’t lie — nor does the dilapidated state of our roads and our parks. The amount of money dedicated to roads and parks is dwindling despite the new bonds and taxes.

Starting in three years, residents will witness an actual decrease in improvements to our parks due to a reduction in capital spending of almost $200,000 (despite Measure F).

And our roads will continue to deteriorate given the plan to decrease funding of street repairs by 54% over the next five years. According to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Berkeley’s roads have, in fact, gotten measurably worse since Measure M’s passage in 2012 (our pavement street index decreased to 58 in 2014 from 59 in 2012). Thus, it is highly unlikely the city will meet its goal of “good” roads (defined as a pavement street index of 75) in five years.

In the final analysis, residents have been sold a false bill of goods by city officials that our public money is being wisely spent. And soon we will be asked again for more money, this time for sewer repairs, a general obligation bond, and likely an extension of Measure M; and it is dubious, given the history of spending by our city officials, whether this money will be wisely spent either.

Proposed FY 2016 and FY 2017 budget
2014 PCI scores for each Bay Area city and county
Projections of future liabilities
Bike festival: Here.

Berkeley Bicycle Plan workshop draws a crowd (04.28.15)
Op-ed: How come my street isn’t getting fixed? (12.05.14)
In pot-holed city, which Berkeley streets would be paved? (02.21.14)
Have your say on improving Berkeley’s streets, watershed (09.30.13)
Scorecard would help determine Measure M projects (07.18.13)
Second Measure M planning meeting comes Saturday (06.06.13)
City asks residents to brainstorm Measure M spending (04.23.13)

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Isabelle Gaston is a medical writing consultant specializing in oncology regulatory submissions to the FDA and president of NEBA, the North East Berkeley Association, a community organization for residents of electoral districts 5 and 6.