The City Council is throwing its early support behind the campaign for an infrastructure and affordable housing ballot measure this November that would be by far the largest in Berkeley’s history.
And council members aren’t shying away from a big price tag: At a meeting Thursday night, they told city staff to explore options for a new bond, parcel tax or combination of both that could raise upwards of half a billion dollars for those needs.
“I’m tired of nickel-and-diming Berkeley, and dribbling money in that doesn’t really feel like it made a big difference,” said Councilmember Sophie Hahn, who called the measure an opportunity to make transformative changes that improve residents’ quality of life.
The benefits of such a large measure, supporters said, would be seen in smoother streets throughout the city, hundreds of new affordable housing units in developments such as those at the Ashby and North Berkeley BART stations, improved public spaces such as the Marina and Civic Center, strengthened stormwater systems, and better protection from sea level rise, wildfires and other consequences of climate change.
But that would come at a cost of hundreds of dollars more each year on homeowners’ property tax bills. A $500 million bond, an amount the council broadly supported Thursday night, would raise property taxes by $54 for every $100,000 of a home’s assessed value — roughly $400 per year on average for Berkeley homeowners, according to staff estimates.
Even as some indicated they could support an even larger $600 million measure, council members also tempered their enthusiasm, warning that voters fed up with poorly rated streets may have little faith that raising taxes once again will fix the problem. Early surveys have found a hypothetical measure falling short of the two-thirds majority support it would need to pass.
“People are very unhappy right now – they feel like we are not providing services,” Councilmember Kate Harrison said.
City staff told the council they heard concerns that some voters mistrust how Berkeley spends their tax dollars; one commenter who called into Thursday’s meeting, former City Council candidate Todd Andrew, said he wants to see leaders “demonstrate better fiscal competence.” And while several advocates and members of the public who spoke said they would support the measure, others questioned whether the city’s aspirations were too broad.
“This bond might fail because it’s a bridge too far,” commenter Justin Lee said. “Everything is just thrown into this wish list.”
Mayor Jesse Arreguín, one of the ballot measure’s chief backers, responded that the city has managed its financial house well, pointing to its AA bond rating and reserve fund. The poor condition of Berkeley’s infrastructure, and the high cost of repairing it, are the result of “decades of lack of investment by city leadership,” Arreguín said.
“We are not shying away from that responsibility — we are facing that responsibility,” he said.
Still, council members said they would need to earn the public’s trust that this measure will provide the kind of improvement voters were looking for when they approved prior housing and infrastructure bonds. Several cited Measure M, a $30 million infrastructure bond voters approved in 2012, as a cautionary tale: While the measure was sold as a fix for crumbling streets, and did improve some roads, it didn’t raise enough money to meaningfully improve pavement throughout the city. Streets continued to deteriorate, and the tab for fixing them has soared.
“We sort of have mud on our face from Measure M because we didn’t deliver what we promised” Councilmember Susan Wengraf said. “We need to do better this time.”
Arreguín sketched out a vision Thursday night for a $550 million measure, which would raise $200 million for street paving alone — the amount public works officials estimate Berkeley needs to spend to bring the city’s average pavement quality rating from its current “at-risk” score of 58 to a “good” score of at least 70. Another $200 million would fund affordable housing efforts, $75 million would go toward measures to prepare for climate change and the remaining $75 million would be for public infrastructure such as parks and civic buildings. The measure could be funded with a single bond, Arreguín said, or by asking voters to approve both a bond and a parcel tax, which would provide an ongoing revenue stream for maintenance costs.
Precisely what the city might put before voters on Election Day remains to be seen.
The council’s direction to staff Thursday night was part of the early stages of the process, and final decisions about whether to pursue a measure this year, how much to ask voters for and where the money would go are all still months away. City officials plan to draft a plan for the potential measure by next month and take feedback on it through March, before asking the council in May to approve a final plan and place the measure on the ballot.
Even as the pandemic makes the immediate future uncertain, Arreguín contended this was the time to ask voters for the money to improve Berkeley’s infrastructure.
“The longer we delay,” he said, “the more it’s going to cost our city and degrade our quality of life.”