Inflation and unforeseen expenses could force the Berkeley City Council to delay or cut several projects that are set to receive funding from the infrastructure bond Measure T1.
Plans for a new playground at Cedar Rose Park, bathrooms at Cesar Chavez Park, improved lighting on the Ohlone Greenway and the controversial project to repave and add a new protected bike lane on Hopkins Street are among the projects that could lose funding because of the shortfall.
The council may have to cut $5.4 million to $9.1 million worth of expenses from the bond, according to public works staff, depending on how members decide to address the gap; the council is expected to adopt a plan for the shortfall in May.
The $100 million bond approved by voters in 2016 has funded dozens of projects repairing streets, adding amenities at parks and improving other local infrastructure.
But public works officials say rapidly rising construction costs are making every project more expensive, contributing about $1 million to the funding gap.
Several projects funded by the bond have had other cost increases as well, such as the problem-plagued renovation of the North Berkeley Senior Center and a plan for a new fountain with artwork in Civic Center Park.
The largest cost increases have come from the effort to build a new facility in South Berkeley that would serve as a hub for health, community, education and other services for Black residents, known as the African American Holistic Resource Center.
Berkeley officials initially earmarked $7 million in Measure T1 funding for the center, which community groups say would fill a need for comprehensive services to support the city’s shrinking population of Black residents. The project received another $1 million from the federal government.
Officials thought that was going to be enough to renovate the planned home of the center, a 4,000-square-foot city-owned building at 1890 Alcatraz Ave. But inspections revealed “significant structural problems” with the building, according to city staff, who recommended demolishing it and building a new facility in its place. While cost estimates show new construction would be more expensive than attempting a renovation based on what the city knows now about the building, staff said, doing so would eliminate the risk of uncovering more problems.
“We had a lot of bad news about the actual building itself,” Berkeley Parks Director Scott Ferris told the City Council’s Budget and Finance Committee at a meeting to discuss the bond shortfall last week. “It is essentially a tear-down.”
The council has pledged to preserve funding for the center, and agreed during a discussion of the shortfall in January with the recommendation to build a new facility.
The next question for the council is how big the center should be — and that decision will have ramifications for the Measure T1 funding gap.
According to a presentation prepared for the budget committee, if Berkeley commits to building a 4,000-square-foot resource center, the project would add $3.15 million to the bond’s shortfall. If the council plans for a 6,000-square-foot center, the project’s contribution to the gap would rise to $6.85 million.
Backers of the project want the larger facility, and public works officials say opting for the smaller building would mean getting rid of a planned community room, as well as some of the center’s youth and therapy spaces. Starla Gay, a member of the steering committee working on plans for the center, wrote in an email: “In order to meet the community needs for space to provide comprehensive services and programs, as well as host various community and city department office space, the steering committee supports funding a 6,000 square-foot center.”
How will Berkeley bridge the gap?
Berkeley has responded to the shortfall by downsizing some Measure T1 projects — a planned new clubhouse at Willard Park, for instance, was reduced by about 800 square feet to cut costs.
But the size of the funding gap means that kind of belt-tightening won’t be enough, Ferris told the budget committee, and some projects could be postponed or eliminated outright.
“This has been a really difficult process,” he said.
The budget committee is set to develop recommendations for addressing the shortfall at a meeting on May 4, and send the plan to the full council for a final vote later in the month.
Councilmembers have given some indications in their discussions so far of what kinds of projects are more likely to be on the chopping block — and which they’ll look to protect.
At its January meeting, the council directed staff to develop plans to address the shortfall that would prioritize funding for projects that “directly serve the public,” Mayor Jesse Arreguín said at the time, over those at city government facilities. While he and several councilmembers said projects such as planned improvements at the city’s Corporation Yard are important, they wanted residents who voted for the bond to see more of its benefits.
City staff have also proposed deferring or reducing funding for a plan to install security cameras at several intersections as a crime-fighting tool, because Public Works Director Liam Garland said Berkeley might be able to acquire the cameras at a lower cost than previously estimated.
And Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani suggested at the budget committee meeting last week that the city could consider deferring funding for projects already on hold because of a staffing shortage in Berkeley’s public works department.
“If we really can’t deliver something, I think we need to think about that in terms of criteria” for what is cut, Kesarwani said.
Vacancies in the department are affecting several T1 projects, including a plan to build a cul-de-sac at the west end of 62nd Street in South Berkeley and install a solar battery storage system to the roof of the North Berkeley Senior Center.
City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley cited the staffing shortage when she put the Hopkins Street project on an indefinite hold earlier this month. According to material prepared for the budget committee, that project is slated to receive $6.75 million from the bond to repave Hopkins and add pedestrian and bicycle safety features — nearly double the $3.6 million cost estimate city officials cited last year for repaving the street.
Councilmember Kate Harrison said funding that would have gone toward the Hopkins project should not be redirected out of Berkeley’s budget for street repairs.
“If we do take the paving money from Hopkins, it should go into paving elsewhere,” Harrison said.
Kesarwani also said she will push to keep funding for projects that would add restrooms at two popular parks in her West Berkeley district, Cesar Chavez Park and the Tom Bates Regional Sports Complex soccer fields next to Interstate 80.
“We have to have restrooms in these public facilities and parks,” Kesarwani said. “This is really about equity, because when you go to those nice parks on the eastern side of the city, you find a proper restroom — and so we need to have that on the western side of our city as well.”