Berkeley leaders are moving toward putting multiple measures on the November ballot that would promise to build new affordable housing, repave crumbling streets and repair other aging pieces of the city’s infrastructure.
On Tuesday night, the City Council directed staff to zero in on a plan to split its ambitions into two measures: a new parcel tax raising $28 million per year for work to repave and redesign streets, and a $300 million bond, which would dedicate half of its funding to affordable housing programs and the other half to a range of infrastructure projects, such as improving local parks and wildfire protection efforts.
“We have a chance of passing this package, and I think we have to seize the opportunity now,” Mayor Jesse Arreguín said during Tuesday’s discussion. “Our streets are failing, our infrastructure is in need of significant investment and in addition our housing crisis is not going away.”
Arreguín and other backers of the measures will have to convince two-thirds of voters to support their proposals, which would add hundreds of dollars per year to property tax bills. Surveys have found hypothetical housing and infrastructure measures had support from a majority of Berkeley voters, but fell just short of the two-thirds threshold.
While the measures are part of the same campaign, they would appear as separate questions on the ballot, meaning voters could approve both, one or none of the proposals.
The bond would raise taxes by $27 for each $100,000 of a property’s assessed value on average, while the parcel tax would add 30 cents for each square foot of the building. Someone with a 1,500-square-foot home assessed at $1 million, for example, could expect the measures to cost a combined $720 per year — $270 from the bond on average, and $450 from the parcel tax.
The council approved a framework for the two measures from Arreguín, which asked staff to explore several provisions that could make them more politically palatable, such as a requirement to end the parcel tax after 14 years unless residents vote to extend it and a “split roll” that could impose a higher parcel tax on commercial properties and a lower one on homes.
Councilmember Susan Wengraf said she was concerned that voters already stressed by inflation and high gas prices may be less willing to support significant tax increases, and encouraged staff to look into a smaller parcel tax.
“We have to be sensitive to the economic conditions that we’re dealing with right now,” Wengraf said.
City officials’ sales pitch to voters is that their heftier tax bills would pay for significant progress in addressing Berkeley’s most pressing needs — particularly its streets, which were rated “at-risk,” with a score of 57 out of 100, in the most recent Pavement Condition Index report from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Public Works Director Liam Garland told the City Council the proposed parcel tax would generate enough money to improve Berkeley’s roads to a city-wide average score of 70, which is considered “good,” over its first 10 years.
Two-thirds of the parcel tax would go toward repairing streets, Garland said, with the other third funding traffic safety initiatives meant to make roads safer for pedestrians and cyclists.
The $150 million the bond would raise for affordable housing could allow the city to build or preserve hundreds of homes for less-wealthy residents, though the exact amount will depend on additional funding from other sources like the state or federal government.
Councilmembers asked city staff to provide more detail about what could be accomplished with the bond’s other $150 million, which would be used to “improve resilience to climate change, wildfire prevention and protection, and to improve other public infrastructure,” according to a report prepared for Tuesday’s meeting. A wide range of infrastructure needs could fit that bill — such as a seismic retrofit for Old City Hall and other improvements at Berkeley’s Civic Center, upgraded stormwater systems and work to move utility wires underground to reduce wildfire risk — but officials have not spelled out commitments for specific projects.
Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani suggested staff develop plans for how much they would like to spend on each category, saying, “I imagine the voters will need more detail.”
The council is expected to make a final decision on whether to put the measures on the ballot, and what they would include, in July.